John Blanchette: Colorado State boss Jim McElwain holds area roots close
He has two national championship rings, his alma mater in Cheney is in the hunt again for another rock of its own and his current team – on an ahead-of-schedule rebuild – is prepping for a date at the Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Washington State.
How much more distinction Jim McElwain will squeeze out of his football life remains to be seen. But he could win a Super Bowl and this might endure as everyone’s favorite part:
He hung up on Nick Saban.
That wasn’t just opportunity knocking, it was college football’s resident overlord. And McElwain dismissed it as a gag.
Not only did his career not fall apart like feta, but McElwain has emerged as one of those flavor-of-the-month types overrunning the bowl landscape. No fewer than a dozen of the coaches who steered their schools into the postseason are first- or second-year head coaches. McElwain’s 7-6 report card in his second season at Colorado State is noteworthy among the newbies, given that the Rams had lost 35 games the previous four years.
The Dec. 21 game in Albuquerque, then, is a veritable resurrection special – the Cougars having ended their own decade-long bowl drought.
But if the 51-year-old McElwain’s resume as a head coach is short, his history as a dues payer is long. And dues payers don’t forget. In taking bows for the Rams’ revival, McElwain pays dutiful homage to a couple of godfathers – Sonny Lubick, who made CSU a bowl regular in his 15 years as head coach and still serves as a sort of consigliere, and Dick Zornes, who started McElwain on his way at Eastern Washington.
And, yes, Nick Saban.
So about that phone call.
It was in January 2008, not long after McElwain – then the offensive coordinator at Fresno State – turned down EWU’s overtures to return as head coach. If that seemed like a setback at the time, it turns out the Eags have done OK with their Plan B, right?
When the phone rang next, it was Saban, already once a national champion at Louisiana State University and looking for the right OC to help him restore Alabama to Rushmore status.
“I thought it was one of my buddies messing with me,” McElwain explained. “I didn’t even know they had a job open. So I hung up on him. I’m just happy that he called back.”
McElwain wasn’t alone in thinking Alabama might be beyond his wildest dreams. When he rang up his now-deceased father with the news that he had a chance to draw a paycheck from Bear Bryant’s old school, even Frank McElwain was dubious.
“I didn’t realize they had a janitor’s job open,” he cracked.
Staying humble obviously was never a challenge for Jim McElwain.
He might have been an all-state quarterback in Montana at Missoula Sentinel, but he wasn’t even all-school a few years earlier at Lewis and Clark Elementary. Not with John Elway a grade ahead of him.
A coaching change at Montana more or less derailed his recruitment in his hometown, but when one of the free-agent assistants, Pokey Allen, landed with Eastern, McElwain came along “probably because they only had two quarterbacks on the roster,” he said with a laugh.
He almost never left. After his playing days, McElwain put in a decade as an assistant “learning the value of doing whatever it takes.”
“Like popping popcorn for the concession stand at basketball games,” he recalled, laughing again. “We used to drive to Seattle to recruit in one car, and then a car dealer over there would loan us another one for a week. We’d all stay at the La Quinta in Kirkland in one room, and sometimes the guy you’d be stepping on in the middle of the night was coach Zornes.”
As a reference point, consider that just this week McElwain started one morning recruiting in Missouri, flew to Albuquerque for a bowl kickoff luncheon and ended the night with a home visit in Oklahoma. No sleeping bag on the hotel room floor.
“But those were the greatest times,” he insisted of his carpool days, “and of all the leagues I’ve been in, there’s never been anybody more prepared or with a better handle on his program than Dick Zornes.”
Those included stops at Montana State, six years with John L. Smith at Louisville and Michigan State, an ill-fated year with the Oakland Raiders and Fresno before Saban’s come-hither, and the national titles in 2009 and 2011 that made McElwain CSU’s $1.35-million-a-year man. He inherited a dispirited program, and one in which Lubick’s success years before had masked how far the Rams had fallen behind in the facility and resource war. Now a new stadium is in the works, and McElwain is making inroads on the attitude.
But as with the Washington State team he’ll face, the reversal doesn’t happen without the seniors who managed to hang tough through the hard times.
“Our kids’ reaction at the bowl announcement was priceless,” he said, “and maybe it wasn’t until then that it hit me about how much they’ve invested and have done to change things.”
Sometimes McElwain is reminded of his investment, too.
“I was sitting at that luncheon in Albuquerque with the Cougs there,” he said, “and I thought about sitting in my basement in Missoula. We’d get channel 6 out of Spokane on cable and I’d stay up on Sunday nights watching ‘Cougar Football with Jim Sweeney.’ ”
That may have been when Jim McElwain first got the coaching call. Good thing he didn’t hang up.