On March 1st, 1981, an Irish-Republican prisoner by the name of Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in Maze Prison, Northern Ireland. His demands, and those of his followers, were that the inmates be treated as political prisoners, rather than common criminals. Four days later, Frank Maguire, the sitting MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died relatively suddenly, prompting a by-election for his seat in the British House of Commons. The imprisoned Sands ran for the seat from his cell, winning election in mid-April. Despite this electoral victory, Sands had still not won the concessions demanded before his hunger strike. His health continued to decline, until he passed away in the first week of May. More than 100,000 people mourned at his funeral, Sands having become a martyr to Irish Nationalism. Many credit his electoral victory as proving populist support for the Republican cause, and paving the way for the Republicans’ “Armalite and Ballot Box” strategy, in which they simultaneously fought for power using paramilitary groups (Armalite refers to the AR-18 assault rifle they largely used) and elections — a strategy which became increasingly focused on elections during the 1990’s, when the cease fires and Good Friday agreement led to the large-scale disarmament of paramilitary groups. While the direct influence of Sands’ hunger strike remains ambiguous (the demands were never fully acceded to, and the strike was abandoned after nine further deaths), he remains a powerful symbol of pride in Irish National circles, the subject of murals throughout Ireland.
All of which is to say, it’s unlikely that many in Ireland noticed that, on March 22, 1981, only 3 weeks after one of his Irish Proteges (Eamonn Coghlan) set the world indoor mile record, Jumbo Elliott, head coach of Villanova Track & Field and de facto leader of an Irish athletics revolution in college track, passed away. During the previous 30 years, Elliott’s “Irish Pipeline” had become a mainstay of collegiate track and field, helping the school to four cross-country titles and one track and field championship. It’s no surprise that in John Parker’s novel “Once a Runner”, one of the protagonists primary rivals is “Eamonn O’Rork” a “genuine imported Irishman”.*
(*Interestingly, in the book there’s a throwaway line that mentions O’Rork attends East Tennessee State, which, according to an article by PJ Browne apparently had an Irish Pipeline of its own, including ‘the Leddy brothers, Frank Greally, and most notably [1974 Boston Marathon Champion] Neil Cusack’. So there you go.)
The Villanova pipeline began just following the 1948 London Olympics, when Jim “Jumbo” Elliott, Villanova class of 1935 and the newly instated part-time Athletics coach, convinced Jim Reardon, a 47.8 400M runner and Cummin Clancy (Discus), both from Ireland, to attend the school. When, a few years later, the Irish half-miler Ron Delany was considering attending school in the US, Reardon’s father recommended he make the trip to Villanova. After a slightly off-putting first interaction with Elliott (in which Elliott critiqued his form and declared Delany to be a miler, despite Delany’s not having run that race), Delany bought into the coach’s plan. The plan worked, with Delany upsetting the local favorite John Landy at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics 1500M — the premier event in a world that had just witnessed the competition to break four minutes for the mile. Upon this foundation, Elliott’s reputation was built — which in turn kept the talented Irishmen showing up at his door to be turned into champions.
And how did Elliott train his athletes? He raced them. A lot. The winter, in particular, consisted of week after week of races on the indoor tracks of the Eastern Sea-board. The Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden, wherever. Coghlan’s success on the indoor planks earned him the nickname “Chairman of the Boards”. Delany, Coghlan, and Marcus O’Sullivan, all Irish runners who went to Villanova, combined for 16 wins of the Wannamaker Mile (the premier event of Madison Square Garden’s Millrose Games), and 7 world records at either 1500 or 1 mile indoors.
It may have helped that some of Elliott’s Irish imports were older, and therefore more physically mature, than their American competitors — Reardon was 22 when he started, Coghlan turned 20 a month into his time at Villanova — which may have helped them survive Elliott’s punishing regimen.
During dual and championship meets, Elliott often asked his team to sacrifice their favored events in order to win points for the team. In particular, he focused on relays — often runners found out only days or hours before the event what they would be running. There are countless stories of Elliott hashing out the potential scoring opportunities and shuffling line-ups mid-meet in order to secure victory.*
(*There’s a great anecdote in Sports Illustrated’s obituary of Elliott, about a time he asked longer-distance runner Browning Ross to run the anchor leg of a 4×800 race. Despite starting with a 15-yard lead, Ross was tracked down by a speedier rival. Exhausted, Ross stumbled up to Elliott and panted, “Jesus Christ, Jumbo”. Elliott, equally taken aback by the loss and the invocation of the Lord’s name, replied “That’s who I’m gonna have run anchor for us next year!”)
Elliott’s favorite event — his favorite race — was the Distance Medley Relay at Philadelphia’s own Penn Relays. From 1966 through 1980, his team won 15 consecutive college DMR titles, often with an Irishman or two carrying the baton. In 1981, six weeks after Elliott’s death, Irishman Marcus O’Sullivan ran the 800 leg in Villanova’s 16th straight college DMR victory at the Penn Relays. They wouldn’t win it again for 20 years.
It’s worth mentioning that during his extended part-time coaching career (he was a millionaire through the heavy-equipment business he owned) Elliott coached great non-Irish athletes as well, including American Marty Liquori (premier mile and 5000M runner in the early 70’s — won the Wannamaker mile in 1970, ’71, and ’72) and Sydnee Maree — who came to Villanova because of Elliott’s strong international reputation. Maree was a world-record holding middle-distance runner who didn’t get to race in major international meets during his prime because he was South African, and there was an international ban on South Africa’s competing due to the country’s Apartheid policies. While Zola Budd, a white South African, was able to use her English ancestry to allow her to compete for Great Britain, Maree, who was black, was unable to compete. He gained US citizenship and came 5th in the 5000M at the 1988 games, when he was 31.)