There’s no question it was a gamble when Saban hired McElwain to run the Alabama offense. The Crimson Tide came off a 7-6 year in Saban’s first season at the helm, and he needed to find someone he trusted with the offense. Major Applewhite served as the coordinator in 2007 but left to take a job at his alma mater, Texas, after the season.
Saban then handed the reigns to a coach with one year of experience as an offensive coordinator at a Division 1 school. McElwain served as the coordinator at Fresno State in 2007 and guided an explosive offense, led by a breakout season for quarterback Tom Brandstater.
But the challenge of guiding an offense at Alabama is a different animal.
McElwain knew at the time that Saban was taking a chance, and it’s even more obvious to him now.
“He obviously is a guy that means a ton to me,” Jim McElwain said. “For him to take a chance on an unknown guy from out West to come run his offense and be a part of one of the best organizations -- I owe him everything. He has been very supportive ever since then. His wife, Terry, is fantastic with (McElwain’s wife) Karen. I owe him a lot. I hope the next time we see each other is (in) Atlanta around this time of the year."
Under Saban, McElwain learned the nuts and bolts of what goes into running a program. He already knew the Xs and Os on the offensive side of the football, but he still had to learn about how to manage a program. That’s why he watched Saban closely during their four seasons together in Tuscaloosa.
The Alabama coach has preached about “the process” since taking over the program, and the results are hard to argue.
“The thing is -- success in life, success out on the field, success on the practice field, success in the classroom -- all of those things are built,” McElwain said. “Really that's what helps you.”
He also learned about what it takes to truly care about players. It’s not only about what happens on the field in Saban’s program, and that’s something McElwain learned to take with him.
“Each and every person you get an opportunity to affect to be a part of something special and that’s a young man’s life,” McElwain said. “That means a lot and that’s really what we’re put on this earth to do, to be a big part and help young men and I’ve had some great guys.”
Then came the chance to move on from Saban and prove he could lead a team on his own. It was an important part of McElwain’s development, as he left the Alabama program to take the head job at Colorado State. He was able to take over a program coming off a season with only three wins, and by the time he left, the Rams won 10 games and are currently preparing for a bowl game.
There was a lot that went into it. It started with changing the culture off the field and letting that create momentum for the program on the field.
“There were a lot of things that you learn as a first-time head ball coach,” McElwain said. “Really being organized in your time. I think that’s one of the most important things and making sure to make the priorities that are the players. All of those priorities are the things we need to do.”