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The game ball goes to "Bump" Elliott

Bump Elliott in 1961. He was the head coach of the University of Michigan Football team before Bo Schembechler.
Bump Elliott in 1961. He was the head coach of the University of Michigan Football team before Bo Schembechler.

At last week’s Homecoming Game, Michigan had planned to honor one of its great alums, a man named Chalmers Elliott – better known as 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 we're honoring him today. 

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.

His name is Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why he goes by “Bump.”

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.

As a coach, 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 always say the same thing: “Bump Elliott was the consummate gentleman.”

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

He helped hire his replacement, Bo Schembechler – then helped him acclimate to Ann Arbor’s unique culture.

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!”

But Elliott did more than that.

Unlike Elliott, Schembechler yelled, screamed, and swore like a sailor.

He grabbed your face mask, literally kicked you in the ass, and cracked your backside with a yardstick.  And if you were merely hurt, not injured, Bo expected you to play.

The players had come to Michigan to play for the courtly Elliott, not this tyrant 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. “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 the year 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 and pack the basketball arena for every match.

Bump Elliott earned just about every honor a player and athletic director can, but the greatest might have been a simple, private tribute after Michigan’s upset over Ohio State.

After the room quieted down, Bo asked Bump to come to the front of the room.

Bo said a few words of deep gratitude, then handed Bump Elliott the game ball.

Everybody got choked up, including Elliott, and more than a few of his players shed some tears.

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

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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