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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: From 10-hour bus rides to private jets, Jim McElwain perfect man to help salvage Sun Bowl

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 30, 2021

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

EL PASO, Texas – To pull off the salvage operation that is the 2021 Sun Bowl – and fingers will remain crossed until a football is teed up and kicked – required cannibalizing another fatally wounded bowl and poaching its surviving team headquartered two states away.

And, finally, a 5½-hour bus ride from Tucson, Arizona, less than 24 hours before kickoff for Jim McElwain and the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Five and change?

Ain’t no hill for a stepper, as they used to say in these parts.

During McElwain’s time as a player and assistant coach at Eastern Washington – 15 seasons’ worth – it might be a good year if the average bus trip was 5½. Seven hours to Bozeman, eight to Pocatello, 10-plus to Ogden, Utah – the Eagles made their way into the Big Sky Conference with ground-level persistence, and the occasional case of dead butt syndrome.

“Getting on a bus,” he said with a shrug this week, “is getting on a bus.”

Still, it’s not the typical reward in bowl season, which is supposed to be about sponsor goody bags and linemen destroying all-you-can-eats and having the run of an amusement park.

But in 2021, merely playing is its own reward. Reasoning that Jim McElwain, at age 59 and 11 jobs into his college coaching career, has come to embrace, whatever the circumstance – and he’s lived the extremes.

He’s slept five-coaches-to-a-hotel-room recruiting for Eastern – where he also doubled as PA announcer at basketball games – and been whisked solo on private jets at Alabama. He was a hero at Colorado State for resurrecting a moribund program, and vilified at Florida for … going to the SEC title game two years in a row?

Hey, they say it just means more down there, not that it makes sense.

In 2013, McElwain was staring at a loss in his first bowl game as a head coach at CSU – and pulled out an impossible 48-45 victory, in regulation, despite being down eight points without the ball or any more timeouts and just a shade over 2 minutes to go.

Oh, right. Maybe you remember that one, even against your will.

That was the New Mexico Bowl – still known as the Mile High Meltdown – and the opponent, as it is Friday, was Washington State, with former coach Mike Leach practicing his willfully misbegotten brand of clock management, with a side of juggling hand grenades.

The moment launched McElwain’s career into a dizzying loop, both an instructive and cautionary tale.

He went 10-2 with Rams the next year, which got him the Florida job, where he managed to immediately get sideways with his boss for having the temerity to push for better facilities to keep up with the Alabama Joneses. Having program godfather Steve Spurrier snipe at his offense out loud didn’t help his security, and within three years McElwain was out – with an $8 million settlement, and some perspective.

“I probably wasn’t a very good fit, and in this business, there is a lot to be said about that,” he told ESPN in 2019. “I wish we could have won the SEC championship those times we played in it. We weren’t quite there yet, but I think they’ll get there.”

They haven’t. And the guy who got them into the title game just last year was fired this fall.

Now, after a year as Michigan’s receivers coach, McElwain has the Chippewas in their second bowl game in three years despite inheriting a 1-11 team.

Throw in the two national championships he won as Alabama’s offensive coordinator a decade ago and it’s been a dizzying ride for a guy who spent 20 years in the Big Sky. His old boss at Eastern, Dick Zornes, won’t profess to having seen it coming.

“You have to remember, staffs were smaller than you see today,” Zornes said, “and all of our assistants except J.D. Sollars became head coaches – Mike Kramer, Jerry Graybeal, John Zamberlin, Pokey Allen. Jim was and is a great coach, but so were the others. Sometimes coaching is catching the right break and Jim made some very good moves and had success in them.

“But he kind of reminds me of the guy Washington State just hired (Jake Dickert). He’s seen what it’s like at the lower levels and he’s brought the same energy you have to bring to those jobs.”

Zornes also saw in McElwain “a real understanding of the offensive side of the football and the importance of balance. He’s not an Air Raid guy or a run-and-shoot guy. He plays with a tight end and pounds it a little and spreads things when he needs to.”

To hear McElwain talk, he might need to pound it, spread it and even hide it against the Cougs.

“With their overall team speed and quickness and their ability in the pass game – let’s call it what it is,” McElwain said. “That’s our Achilles’ heel. I’m sure they’re licking their chops looking at us right now, saying, ‘We might be able to set an NCAA record against these guys.’

“There’s a huge difference – you’re talking a Power Five program out of the Pac-12 against a bunch of guys from Central Michigan that only has one set of uniforms. I’ve been at both ends and there is (a huge difference). But we get a chance for three hours to put Central Michigan on national TV, and you can’t put a price tag on that.”

And one upside he knows even a Power Five opponent can’t take away.

“We won’t have to bus back to Mount Pleasant,” he said.

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