Pete Elliott was more successful as an athlete and a leader than as a coach.
By Randy York
The longest-tenured executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, died Friday at the age of 86, according to the Associated Press. Pete Elliott, the youngest head coach in modern Nebraska football history, will be remembered as a highly successful collegiate athlete, a moderately acknowledged college coach and an effective and popular business leader.
Elliott was a blip on Nebraska football’s radar, leading the 1956 Cornhuskers to a 4-6 record. He was only 29 at the time and left Lincoln to coach Cal for the next three years. Elliott then left Berkeley to coach Illinois for the next seven years before leaving Champaign to coach his last two years at Miami. After 13 years as a head coach, Elliott became the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s executive director.
Despite posting only six winning seasons, Elliott coached Cal to its last Rose Bowl appearance in 1959 and coached Illinois – led by the legendary Dick Butkus – to a Big Ten championship and 1964 Rose Bowl victory over Washington. In an unusual twist, Carl Selmer, the offensive line coach under Nebraska’s legendary Bob Devaney, succeeded Elliott as head coach at Miami, which, five decades later, sent its most recent athletic director, Shawn Eichorst, to Nebraska.
Elliott Was the Big Ten’s Youngest Head Coach, Too
In addition to being Nebraska’s youngest modern day head coach, Elliott also became the youngest head coach in Big Ten history when Illinois hired him at age 33 in 1960. Elliott-coached teams were 56-72-1 overall. The four schools he led represented four conferences – the Big Eight/Big 12 (Nebraska), the Pac-10/Pac-12 (Cal), the Big Ten (Illinois, Nebraska) and the ACC (Miami).
At Michigan, Elliott was an All-America single-wing quarterback who led the Wolverines to a 49-0 win over USC in the Rose Bowl and the 1948 national championship. He also set a Wolverine all-time record in earning 12 varsity letters as an undergrad – four in football, four in basketball and four in golf.
Elliott served as the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s executive director from 1979-1996 and continued as a member of the Hall’s Board of Trustees in his retirement. In 1994, Elliott was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Even though that honor was not bestowed for his coaching prowess, he joins six other former Husker head coaches in that esteemed group – Fielding Yost (1898, inducted in 1951), Dana X. Bible (1929-36, inducted 1951), Lawrence “Biff” Jones (1937-41, inducted 1954), Edward “Robbie” Robinson (1896-97, inducted 1955), Bob Devaney (1962-72, inducted 1981) and Tom Osborne (1973-97, inducted 1999).
Elliott Brought Bill Jennings with Him from Oklahoma
Elliott followed Bill Glassford (1949-55) and preceded Bill Jennings (1957-61) as Nebraska’s head coach. A member of Bud Wilkinson’s staff at Oklahoma before coming to Nebraska, Elliott brought fellow Sooner aide Jennings with him. If you’re looking for more Nebraska-related legacy, feast on that fact. Jennings, you might remember, left a fully loaded vault of talented recruits that enabled Devaney to lead the Huskers to a 9-2 record and first-ever bowl win (over Miami in New York City’s Gotham Bowl) in his first year as Nebraska’s head coach in 1962.
Research reveals Elliott never bringing attention to his coaching accomplishments or his athletic achievements, strong proof of why he was smart, organized and such an effective business leader. In leading the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Elliott left his mark because of his unique way of overseeing and honoring the game’s biggest names. He counted legendary players, writers and broadcasters, NFL fans and U. S. presidents among his friends and associates.
"Pete was beloved by the entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family, including the staff, board of trustees and the Hall of Fame members," President and Executive Director Steve Perry said in a news release. “He was a kind and thoughtful person and an inspiration to us all.”
Top Four Facts Gleaned from David Max’s Interview
Nebraska football historian David Max interviewed Elliott on May 22, 2007, finding him still sharp at age 81. Four facts struck me while reading that interview:
1) Elliott had his mind set on attending Michigan’s law school until Dee Andros asked him to become an assistant coach at Oregon State.
2) Even though his coaching journey continued, Elliott still kept up with Nebraska football because “they’ve had great, great teams and have done a wonderful job.”
3) Elliott called Nebraska fans “outstanding … enthusiastic … something else … proud and true … they represent everything good about the Midwest.”
4) Elliott provided an interesting observation about Memorial Stadium that seems especially poignant now that Nebraska is a member of the Big Ten Conference.
Elliott Compared Nebraska’s Stadium to Ohio State’s
“I’ll tell you, that stadium at Nebraska has always been impressive,” Elliott told Max. “It’s built like a stadium should be. I enjoyed seeing it and playing in it. It’s like Ohio State with its big sides. Michigan’s stadium is built kind of down to the ground. They don’t have that much on top. The big stadium is what you think of as a big school.”
Even with East Stadium expansion pushing NU capacity to 92,000, the Huskers will rank behind the 100,000-plus stadiums at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. But Nebraska is definitely a “big school” with a “big stadium” (and a capacity nearly three times larger than it was in 1956 when Elliott coached at Nebraska).
Elliott’s vision once again proved accurate, and while he was only “at” Nebraska for one year, I’m fairly certain Husker fans everywhere will join me in saluting Pete Elliott, a successful man whose influence went well beyond the gridiron. Anyone who sees what he’s accomplished and the impact he’s had on the sport he loves most knows that he leaves this physical world – and the college football world – in a much better place than he found it.
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