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Singing the praises of an unsung hero named Chalmers Elliott

by | Nov 4, 2011 | Uncategorized | 4 comments

Dear Loyal Readers,

On Sunday, “Three and Out” will debut in the New York Times Bestseller list at #6!  I thought we had a shot, but I was surprised to learn it would be that high.  Obviously, this did not happen in a vacuum, and the book itself — good, bad or ugly, you tell me! — did not achieve that.  No, it took a lot of people spreading the word, and attending and even hosting events to make this happen.  So, to all of you: THANK YOU!

Thanks also for your donations!  You are keeping this weekly column alive.  THANK YOU AGAIN!

Now, all the way from Seattle, where we had our sixth straight sell-out on the book tour (okay, THANKS YET AGAIN!) let’s return to our show.


Michigan football has produced a lot of big name coaches and players, but one of the finest men who played and coached for Michigan deserves to be a little bigger.

At last week’s Homecoming Game, Michigan had planned to honor one of its great alums, a man named Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why he goes by “Bump.”  He was an All-American football player and a Big Ten champion coach, but earned greater fame as the athletic director at Iowa, Michigan’s opponent this weekend.  Pneumonia kept the 86-year old legend from making it, however, so I’m going to honor him today.

He was born in Detroit in 1925, and served in the Marines during World War II.  He returned to star for Michigan as a halfback alongside his younger brother Pete, who played quarterback.  Their offense was so dazzling, seven players could touch the ball on a single play.  That earned them the nickname, the Mad Magicians, plus the national title in 1947 – the same year the conference named Bump Elliott the MVP.

Elliott came back to Michigan in 1959 as the head coach.  To his players, he came off as an erudite, modest Midwesterner, who rarely swore or even yelled, and if you said you were hurt, that was enough for him.  You could take the day off.  Whenever I talk with his former players about him, they invariably say the same thing: “Bump Elliott was the consummate gentleman.”

But after ten years produced only one Big Ten title, Elliott happily left coaching in 1968 to become the associate athletic director. There, in that unassuming role, he might have performed his most noble task.

He helped hire his replacement, Bo Schembechler – which, believe it or not, first looked like it might have been a mistake.  When Schembechler’s crew arrived with their wives sporting bee-hive hair-dos and stiletto heels, some Michigan insiders took to calling them “The Ohio Mafia.”  The players quickly learned the new guy yelled, swore, grabbed your facemask and literally kicked you in the ass.  If you were merely hurt, not injured, but didn’t want to practice, you got left behind when the team plane took off.

Instead of turning his back on the new regime, however, Elliott embraced them, hosting parties for their families and introducing them to important people around town.

Elliott also left Schembechler eleven All-Americans, four of whom have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.  No Michigan team has produced more.  As Bo told me, “Ol’ Bump had not left the cupboard bare!”

Those players had come to Michigan to play for the courtly Elliott, not this raving lunatic from Ohio.  Not surprising, some tried to complain to their old coach.  But the formerly friendly, inviting coach would have none of it.  “I didn’t want to talk to them,” Elliott told me earlier this year. “That was Bo’s team now.  There was no reason for me to be involved in that.”

Years later, Schembechler told me, “That was a great gift.”

Of course, Bo’s first team finished his first year in Ann Arbor by upsetting the top-ranked, defending national champion Ohio State Buckeyes – arguably the most important victory in Michigan’s long history.

The next year, Elliott became Iowa’s athletic director – by far the best they’ve ever had. He turned a sleeping giant into a juggernaut in football, basketball and even wrestling, where the Hawkeyes won 12 NCAA titles under his watch and starting packing the basketball arena for every match.

Bump Elliott earned just about every accolade a player and athletic director can, but the greatest might have been a simple, private tribute he received after Michigan’s upset over Ohio State in 1969.  After the room quieted down, Bo asked Bump to come to the front.  Bo said a few words of deep gratitude, then he handed Elliott the game ball.  Everybody got choked up, including Bo and Bump, and more than a few of Elliott’s former players shed some tears.

Just a few months before Bo died, he told me, “I don’t remember when I felt better about anything I’ve done in my entire life.”

Like these stories?  Please feed the writer, and keep ’em coming!  IT’S WORKING

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(Just passed the 3,000 mark – thank you!)

“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” is out TODAY! It can be ordered now.

Thanks to all of you who have packed every book tour stop, including, this week, Reds on the River in Grand Rapids and Pacific Place last night in Seattle.  The rest of the book tour is on this website, and will be updated today with five more dates in November and December.   Next up: PORTLAND SATURDAY AND SUNDAY, AND SAN DIEGO NEXT WEEKEND!  Hope to see you soon!


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  1. Vance Shutes

    Another great article, John. The final line hit me like a ton of bricks – “I don’t remember when I felt better about anything I’ve done in my entire life.” That says a LOT about both Bo and Bump, and it says a lot about YOU for having had access to learn that from Bo. Thank you!

  2. Rich Kennedy

    Hey Bacon, love your book. It is embarrassing me to call myself a Michigan fan to some extent (a fan since ’70 when we moved here while I was finishing high school down south). I was one of the Rich Rod enthusiasts, not knowing that September after “Happy Appie” that Miles was a Michigan Man. While you seem to leave the lack of production of the offense off the hook somewhat as someone else has said, what seems to me to be the first step towards oblivion was that dinner with former players in Feb. ’08. Why did so many slink back to Rod to apologize later, rather than call out Edwards and others at the time? Dierdorf, for example has no problem saying what he thinks. Or Mandich, for example. This continues to distress me while I am finishing the book. OTOH, that was some BAD defense. Just. Bad.

    Anyway, you tell a good story. This is my first of your books. And I knew that App State wouldn’t be a pushover. I’m from around there. Which reminds me. I HATED Carr’s teams’ tendency to poorly defend a small lead rather than kill the opponent. Even when they were bad, which was often, I liked how Rod’s teams fought hard to the bitter end. Hope always sprang eternal from that. The most important change of all in that program then.

  3. Judy chaffee

    Congratulations John, I am very proud of you! Keep writing! J

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