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

Even casual sports fans realized CSU outkicked its coverage when it hired Jim McElwain. Local sportswriters didn’t even think to place him on CSU’s short list when the school fired head coach Steve Fairchild after last season, because no one thought a coach with McElwain’s resumé would consider CSU. That sparsely furnished office at the McGraw Athletic Center doesn’t exactly scream “dream job” to a top-tier football coach. CSU’s athletic budget is a paltry $26 million—$33 million less than CU’s and more than $70 million less than that of Alabama, which turned a $40.7 million profit on its football program in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Given McElwain’s and Alabama’s track record—the Crimson Tide is projected to be a national title contender again this year—he probably could have been a prime candidate for any number of sought-after jobs in 2013.

It’s not as if a winning program attracted McElwain, either. Ram football has cracked the Top 25 just a handful of times in its history. For a few fleeting years in the 1990s, CSU rather inexplicably broke into the national rankings. Then in the early 2000s, head coach Sonny Lubick put the pigskin in a golden-haired boy’s hands and let him loose. Behind quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, the scramble-first Rams were regulars on ESPN highlight reels, found themselves ranked nationally, and compelled giddy fans to fill the 32,500 seats at Hughes Stadium.

It couldn’t last. Maintaining a winning team on a tiny budget, in the middle of the country, in an old stadium, in the non-Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Mountain West Conference simply wasn’t going to happen without serious support and reinvestment from the university. Lubick, who is too gracious to ever say so candidly, received neither. “We sometimes didn’t have up-to-date video equipment,” he says with a laugh, “which is kinda like an English teacher not having a good textbook. And before [former Ram and NFL linebacker] Joey Porter gave us $250,000 to upgrade the locker room, ours was so outdated that I didn’t even like to bring recruits by there.”

Lubick was making more than $500,000 when he was let go in 2007 and says he and his assistants were among the lower-paid staffs in Division I football. Fairchild was making about $700,000 when he was fired. McElwain earned $510,000 last year as a coordinator at Alabama and likely would command the NCAA Division I average of $1.47 million to become a head football coach. This meant CSU would have to make an unprecedented investment in its football program to even begin to compete.

Frank was willing to do just that. “I became convinced that for us to accomplish what I wanted us to accomplish in athletics, we really needed someone who had a very big vision of what CSU athletics could be,” he says. And so, last December, Frank replaced athletic director Paul Kowalczyk (CSU bought out the $910,000 left on his contract) with Jack Graham, a feisty, retired businessman who played quarterback for the Rams in the early 1970s and had been a donor to CSU athletics. The decision to hire Graham came about organically: CSU’s athletic department needed cash to fund renovations to the university’s Moby Arena, and Frank asked Graham if he was interested in contributing. Graham said no, but instead detailed for Frank his grander plan for CSU athletics, which included higher buyouts for coaches, creative marketing to attract spectators, and, most important, an on-campus football stadium.

Frank thought about how Graham’s business acumen might translate to intercollegiate athletics, and how the former quarterback might energize a department that had lost its verve. He soon went back to Graham: “I think the stadium is an interesting idea,” Frank said, “but I think it’s only a piece of the puzzle. If we want to change the game, I think we need to bring a different culture and a different level of expectations into our athletics programs.” That’s when Frank offered Graham the athletic director job.

Graham started by firing Steve Fairchild, and paying the remaining $350,000 on the coach’s contract. Then for $250,000, Graham hired a New York–based consulting firm to help him find a new head football coach. (It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in mathematics to figure out that CSU spent more than $1.5 million—all from private funds—just to pave a path toward possible football success.) The consultant began with a list of 100 potential coaches and, with Graham’s input, whittled it to 10. At the top was McElwain.

When Graham introduced McElwain as the Rams’ new head coach less than two weeks after assuming the AD job, it was obvious why CSU wanted him. McElwain was a big-name coach from an even bigger-name university that plays in the best college football conference on the planet. (Southeastern Conference teams have won the past six national championships.) What wasn’t as obvious: Besides his $1.35 million contract, why would McElwain want to coach at CSU?