Elaine Elliott: 501 wins and counting

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

You probably heard during Winter Break that Bobby Knight–the coach notoriously known for throwing a chair across the court during a game–became the winningest coach in college basketball history. After the game, when it became clear that Knight had eclipsed the long-held record, Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” blasted over the arena sound system.

Elaine Elliott, coach of the U women’s basketball team, hit an impressive milestone of her own last week when she defeated her 500th opponent in a career that has spanned nearly two-and-a-half decades and has yielded 22 winning seasons.

If forced to sum up her career with a recorded musical number, Elliott would probably choose something more along the lines of “Wind Beneath My Wings” rather than “My Way,” because to Elliott, coaching isn’t a one-woman show. When pressed to articulate how she has been able to be so successful during her 24-year run, she answered: “Great players.”

Coming out of another coach’s mouth, it might have sounded like a safe, mandatory response, but Elliott said it with such earnestness that you can’t help but believe her.

“(Coaching) is a relationship,” Elliott said. “It’s up to (the players). We have a responsibility to provide them the environment and the knowledge to reach those goals.”

Elliott, the daughter of vocal musicians, grew up in Washington state. Her father is in the University of Washington Hall of Fame, having played on the Huskies’ 1953 Final Four team, Elliott said.

The middle child sandwiched between two athletic boys, Elliott found an affinity for sports at a time when sporty girls were sparse.

Women didn’t specialize in a particular sport too often back then, Elliott explained. When it came to sports, she wasn’t picky. If her school offered it, Elliott played it. Twelve months a year, Elliott hopped from one sport to the next, stowing her tennis racket in the back of her closet for safe-keeping until next season while digging out her mitt and bat in the same fluid motion.

It was never the offseason. Whether it was time to play volleyball, tennis, basketball, field hockey or softball, Elliott was out on the court, field or diamond–already forming the building blocks of her uncanny grasp of team dynamics.

“That was the day when if you were an athletic woman, you did all sports,” Elliott said. In elementary school, she was already playing a bizarre form of organized basketball. Each team had six players on the court at a time–two on offense, two on defense and two rovers. It wasn’t until eighth grade that Elliott began playing the standard five-on-five format.

Elliott’s first love, however, was tennis, a sport in which she thrived, winning state championships in singles in her junior and senior years and doubles as a sophomore.

“Tennis was the (sport) that sort of jumped out in terms of individual success,” Elliott said. “But I always liked team sports better. I was a track person until junior high, and then I just didn’t like standing on the starting line by myself.”

Elliott’s career path, if not etched in stone, was at least on the radar screen even when she was a small child.

“I had sport in me,” Elliott said. “That’s just what I did best, and I knew I wanted to be involved in it.”

In college at Boise State, it’s a wonder that Elliott managed to come out with a degree and not just defined muscles and a healthy cardiovascular system, since she played four varsity sports: basketball, volleyball, field hockey and softball.

After graduation, Elliott got her big break from former Ute coach Fern Gardner who knew Elliot from playing against Boise State.

“(Gardner) sensed I had an understanding of the game,” said Elliott, who landed the position of graduate assistant under Gardner in 1979.

For Elliott, “the people” are her favorite part of the job. After all, inherent to success in team sports is the ability to connect with fellow humans.

The Ute women’s basketball team itself is made up of three units, Elliott explained. There’s the coaching staff, which spends every waking hour pouring over film, preparing for games as if their lives depended on it, a whistle forever draped around their necks. Then there are the players with their unique issues of schoolwork and homesickness.

Finally, there is the unit of both prongs combined. When all three blend smoothly together, the result can equal unity and success. “That’s the most rewarding part of it,” Elliott said.

Her job is demanding to say the least. “Every hour, we’re at work,” she said matter-of-factly. “When we’re not, there’s work to be done at home. The guys are watching film all the time and I watch it at home?It’s all we do.”

The hard work has led to some of Elliott’s most memorable games. “Winning in the Pit has always been a huge high” because of its ‘electric atmosphere,'” Elliott said. And, of course, her two NCAA tournament runs–to the Sweet 16 in 2001 and to the Elite Eight in 2006–are achievements that Elliott won’t soon forget.

“The Maryland game, even though it was a loss, will always be quite memorable,” Elliott said, speaking of the game in which the Utes fell one free- throw short of an invitation to the Final Four.

But it’s not only the people that keep Elliott showing up to work every day.

Elliott confessed that there is another reason. But for anyone that has glimpsed her standing at the Utah bench during an intense game, reprimanding the occasional ref and screaming plays to her troops, the following isn’t much of a revelation.

“I’m very competitive, I have to admit,” she said. As a kid, even card games with her brothers got her heart pumping with the love of competition. “You can’t get rid of it,” she said.

But with nine conference championships and 14 NCAA tournament appearances, what Ute fan would want her any other way?