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

There are three big windows in Jim McElwain’s corner office. From his desk chair, he can take in a panoramic view of the majestic peaks to the west. It’s a sight the Montana-born coach has longed for since leaving home to be the wideouts coach at the University of Louisville in 2000. After his stint in Kentucky, McElwain coached in East Lansing at Michigan State University, in Oakland with the Raiders, and at Fresno State before the big boys in the South came calling.

For many college coaches, the offensive coordinator job at the University of Alabama—maybe the most storied program in college football—would’ve been the offer of a career, a chance to don the houndstooth and continue a legacy of greatness that flourished under Paul “Bear” Bryant. Yet, when Alabama head coach Nick Saban called him with that job offer in 2008, McElwain turned him down—at first. He’d been offensive coordinator at Fresno State for less than a year, and “I figured I liked where I was and there was no reason to leave,” McElwain says. But when he told his boss, former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill, about the offer, “He told me I was crazy to turn that job down. So I called Nick back.”

McElwain spent four years learning from Saban, whose three national titles have earned him genius-level status among college coaches. But every coach wants to be his own man; no one wants to stay an assistant forever. McElwain began entertaining offers for head coaching positions. He even interviewed for the spot at CU, which the school filled with alumnus Jon Embree on a five-year, $725,000-a-year contract.

“Jim and I talked many times about the type of program he wanted to lead,” says Tim Bradbury, McElwain’s friend since college. “When the CSU job opened up I looked at my wife and said, ‘That’s the exact type of job that Jim has talked about for years.’ ” Bradbury says that beyond a desire to return to the West, McElwain wanted to live in a college town, where his wife and three kids could feel at home. He wanted to work at a program where he could build a legacy. He didn’t need the school to be in a major conference; he didn’t need the team to have an illustrious history. What he did need was a boss whom he trusted and who was committed to building a strong football program.

When asked “Why CSU?” McElwain answers the question with a question: “Why not CSU?” He’s not worried that others don’t appreciate CSU as he does. He sees opportunity. Potential. He thinks CSU should be viewed as a destination job—“I mean, look at this town, look at those mountains!” he says—a place where success can be earned. In Fort Collins, McElwain sees a mini-Tuscaloosa; a place that, if McElwain and Frank and Graham have their way, may soon have plenty to cheer about on crisp, fall Saturdays.

Others have a different—and perhaps more practical—view on why McElwain chose CSU. Coach John L. Smith, the current head coach at the University of Arkansas, has known McElwain since Smith coached at the University of Montana, where he worked with McElwain’s mother. The two also coached together at Louisville and Michigan State University in the early- to mid-2000s. The two men still talk every few weeks—about family and friends and football. Smith says he sees the advantages of coaching in Fort Collins. With support from the university, a good coach, and some luck, Smith says Ram football can eventually contend for its conference title every year. He says what Frank and Graham are offering is an opportunity any coach would want: They’re creating fertile soil, and giving McElwain a shovel and seeds. It’s a situation you don’t find at every university. “If you’re Vanderbilt and you play in the SEC, it wouldn’t matter how much money or coaching or time you put in—you’re still going to get beat by Alabama every year,” Smith says. “CSU is not saddled with anything it can’t overcome. That’s a huge incentive.”

In ones and twos, the kids begin to trickle out of the locker room and onto the practice fields. McElwain, clad in shorts and a green Rams football pullover, waits for them at the entrance. He’s watching them intently and tries to elicit some reaction as they make their way toward his position. “Hey there, now, let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s hustle,” he barks. “Put that hat on, son. We’re gonna have a good day, a real good day. You’re gonna work for me today, right?!” He pops shoulder pads and smiles as his players trot by and give him a well-rehearsed “Yessir.”

McElwain’s OK with the canned response. In the confines of conference rooms and in the company of assistant coaches, he might be critical of these football players. But out here on the field, these players are his other children. So he encourages them, practices patience with them, wants nothing but good things for them. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s against a little tough-love coaching when necessary.

As if on cue, the thud of bodies colliding reverberates across the practice field. Shouts ring out. The football has hit the turf. A mad scuffle to recover the fumble generates moans and groans as legs and arms tangle at the 45-yard line. McElwain strides up to the scrum, points to the fumbler, and yells loud enough for the girls on the adjacent softball field to hear: “Get me a new running back!”

McElwain doesn’t like mental errors or accept incompetence—from anyone. He says it’s just how he was raised, that he probably gets it from his dad, a man who had high standards for his five children. His former players agree, saying McElwain demands excellence, if not perfection. “But here’s the thing,” says Greg McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback who now plays for the New York Jets. “Mac’s not unrealistic in what he expects from his players.”

The coach expects, for example, that his players know that assaulting other people is not tolerated. Which is why he immediately and indefinitely suspended three CSU starters in April after they allegedly jumped out of an SUV and attacked four students after a verbal confrontation. The team rule they broke? “The rule is ‘Do what’s right,’ ” McElwain says. “And it applies to everything.” The players have since been expelled.

Although today is just the fourth spring practice of the 15 the NCAA allows, McElwain’s influence on the Rams is already apparent. Unlike in years past, practice sessions are intense, fast, and efficient. There is no music blaring, and every member of the depth chart gets on the field, not just the first and second strings. McElwain doesn’t stand on the sidelines—he prowls behind the line of scrimmage, watching, slapping helmets, and seizing teachable moments.

The former college quarterback—McElwain played at Eastern Washington University—knows how important it is for the team to buy in to what he’s preaching, which is a you-reap-what-you-sow mantra. He understands these kids haven’t experienced success and that they’re still wary of him, his new approach, and what’s being sold—by the local media, by CSU’s marketing machine, by sports pundits—as a bold new era for CSU football. He’s aware his players are not deaf to the chatter about coaches’ salaries, a fancy new stadium, conference realignment, and what each of those things means for CSU. He knows they feel the weight of the university on their pads. But he wants them to follow his lead and push those distractions aside. After all, he says, it’s not his job—or theirs—to worry about anything except football.

Still winded from drills, the team gathers around McElwain as the sun sets over the foothills. The coach is smiling. He’s pleased with the effort and tells them today’s practice was the best one yet. “We have to put in the work now,” he says, “to get that success we want later.” When he asks, “You know what I’m gettin’ at?” the young men nod.

As the kids jog toward the showers, McElwain takes a circuitous route to the main gate. He kicks at a ball on the ground. He chats with an assistant coach and a referee. He jokingly tells a few reporters that the only thing he knows the team is good at right now is stretching, and he laughs to himself as he walks away. For a moment, the coach is alone with his thoughts, and he looks content. Maybe it’s because of the upbeat practice. Or maybe it’s because he believes he’s found the job—the one where he can, with time and effort, build a football legacy and where it now appears the higher-ups have a similar philosophy. McElwain must sense me watching him from across the field because he looks up, breaks into a grin, and hollers, “Hey Linz, whaddya think of that? We looked a bit like a football team, didn’t we?”