Forward Progress

Fresh off a national championship with the University of Alabama, Colorado State University’s new head football coach, Jim McElwain, thinks he can remake the hapless Rams. He’d better, because his bosses are counting on a newly energized football program to do a lot more for CSU than simply win games.

August 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Read more about the team's new coach here.


The McGraw Athletic Center on the Colorado State University campus isn’t exactly the awe-inspiring homage to collegiate athletics one might expect. There’s a bronze bust in the compact lobby area that honors Thurman “Fum” McGraw, CSU’s first consensus All-American defensive tackle, who played in the late 1940s. There’s a small glass case with a smattering of trophies and banners. And…that’s about it. Unlike the grand foyers and museum-quality displays in athletic centers at universities such as Louisiana State, Auburn, Clemson, West Virginia, Penn State, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Texas, and my alma mater, the University of Georgia, McGraw is what a lifelong devotee of big-time college sports might politely call understated.

With their prefab desks and green waiting room–style chairs sitting beneath a drop ceiling and poor lighting, the CSU football offices are even more modest. Crowded into one side of the second floor of McGraw, the team’s operational home has all the ambience and mystique of your average high school principal’s office. It’s late March, and I’m here to see CSU’s new head football coach, Jim McElwain. I’ve settled in for a long wait—head coaches are notoriously overscheduled—when his administrative assistant tells me I can go on in to his office. He’s three minutes early.

“Hey, Linz, c’mon in here,” coach McElwain says. I’m not sure how he knows my nickname, or why it seems so natural for him to use it. But it does. It’s almost as if he’s already decided I’m one of the proverbial good ones. I can’t imagine I’ve done anything to win his favor, especially considering that during our initial exchanges I half-jokingly let him know that as a Georgia Bulldog, I’m no fan of his previous employer, the University of Alabama. Even so, Coach Mac, as everyone calls him, is all smiles as I take a seat. He slouches into his chair, runs a hand through his fine brown hair, and throws his feet up on the desk. His white ankles peek out between brown loafers and beige slacks, and it’s obvious he’s not as comfortable in an office, dressed in a navy blue plaid sport coat, as he would be in a sweatshirt and shorts out on the practice field with his players.

Although the athletic department has ordered updated furnishings and a flat-screen TV for his Spartan office, most of it hasn’t arrived yet. McElwain is leaving the decorating decisions to his assistant because he has other concerns—namely, a roster of players that will compete for the distinction of being literally the most physically diminutive team in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. He’s also dealing with the fact that he lacks a kicker with enough leg to consistently put the ball in the end zone, he’s short on tight ends and wide receivers, and he’s without an obvious starting quarterback.

All this plainly weighs on McElwain’s mind a short time later as he sits—once again with his feet up, his interlocked hands resting on his head, a pinch of Copenhagen wedged inside his lip—at the head of a conference room table at a Tuesday morning staff meeting. About 18 other coaches crowd into the room, almost all of whom are new to CSU. As a group they run through the team’s personnel position by position with friendly banter and blunt assessments:

That one needs to get his pad level down…. This one can’t catch a cold…. If he can’t advance the ball there’s no sense in having him on the field…. The kid’s good, but he’s lacking focus…. It’s not his fault, it’s his parents’ fault—he can’t help what’s in his genes…. He’s a disappointment to me…. That young man there just isn’t a ballplayer.

These probably aren’t conversations McElwain had very often at Alabama, whose backups could start for many other schools. While the Crimson Tide was running up a 48-6 record during McElwain’s four years as offensive coordinator—a stretch that included a Heisman Trophy–winning running back and two national championships—the CSU Rams were limping their way to 16 wins and 33 losses.

After two hours of conversation, the windowless room begins to feel stale. McElwain is usually a man who smiles easily. He also has an endearing habit of laughing to himself for no apparent reason—as if only he sees the humor in a given situation. Right now, however, he’s not amused. His gold wire–rimmed glasses have slid down his nose, and he can’t stop yawning. He’s been going from coach to coach, explaining what he wants them to do and what he wants to see from their players. He ends almost every directive with the question, “You know what I’m gettin’ at?” Although he asks it rhetorically, it’s not immediately clear that they do.

McElwain would probably say that in his 26 years of coaching, he’s seen worse. But it’s obvious he knows this team likely will suffer through at least one more sub-.500 season—something he hasn’t had to deal with in a long time. He also likely would say that this doesn’t feel like pressure, that real pressure is coaching in front of more than 100,000 crimson-clad fanatics in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The truth is, though, coach McElwain has simply traded one brand of stress for another. After all, he’s never been a head coach; he’s never had the full responsibility for wins and losses landing solely on him. And he’s definitely never been in a position where creating a winning football program virtually from scratch is being heralded as a way to reinvent an entire university.