Following his first year as the offensive coordinator at Fresno State in 2007, Jim McElwain got the phone call he never expected. In fact, he thought he was the victim of a practical joke.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was on the other line, calling McElwain to gauge his interest in running the offense for the Crimson Tide. Once Saban called back and assured McElwain that it really was him, the two had a pleasant conversation and McElwain was named the team’s offensive coordinator shortly after.
“I'm just really excited he called back and how fortunate I was getting an opportunity like that and to learn from obviously the best,” McElwain said. “I owe a ton to coach Saban and what he gave me an opportunity to do."
From Saban’s perspective, the interest sparked because of Pat Hill, who was the head coach at Fresno State at the time. McElwain still credits Hill for where he learned about the power running game, but Hill’s influence went even deeper than that. Hill and Saban worked together with the Cleveland Browns, so the Alabama coach trusted the strong recommendation he received about McElwain.
“That went a long way, and then when I met Jim and talked to him, worked with him, I was certainly happy with the decision to have him on our staff,” Saban said.
Under McElwain, the Alabama offense took off. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart worked to keep the defensive side of the ball strong while McElwain used his quarterback expertise and recent experience in the running game to keep moving the ball while playing an important part in the rebirth of the Alabama program.
During his four-year stay in Tuscaloosa, McElwain was constantly taking notes. Some on paper, some in his head. Working around one of the best college football coaches in the history of the sport was an opportunity he wasn’t taking for granted and wanted to carry those lessons if he was lucky enough to be a head coach one day.
“I don't know whether it's one thing, because it's a lot of things,” McElwain said of what he learned. “The overall plan for the whole organization, not just the football part of it, but how everybody has to have one common goal and no independent contractors. It doesn't matter whether you're selling popcorn or calling plays, everybody's got to be on the same page trying to improve in the same direction.
“I was able to learn from him in a lot of different things that were valuable. Whether he believed it or not, I sat there and soaked every second and word he had.”
The most important message came on McElwain’s way out the door. After he left to become the head coach at Colorado State, McElwain was excited to run a program similar to the one he watched grow at Alabama. But Saban wanted to make sure it wasn’t too rigidly similar. He encouraged McElwain to put his own thumbprint on a program and allow his personality to shine through.
“I think he’s got a lot of great attributes as a coach,” Saban said. “He’s a good teacher. He’s got a really good mind. He’s innovative in terms of some of the things that he does and the problems he creates. I think he coaches with discipline and works hard to get his players to execute. He does things the right way and he’s got a good personality and he’s a great competitor. There are a lot of positive attributes there.”
Those attributes have shown up on the field for Florida this season. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East to start the season, the Gators take a 10-2 record into Saturday’s SEC Championship against Alabama, the most dominant program in college football since Saban arrived in 2007.
It hasn’t always been pretty for the Gators this season, especially since Will Grier’s suspension left the quarterback position up in the air with Treon Harris. Florida couldn’t find the end zone once at home against rival Florida State last week, and the Alabama defense is even better on paper.
A heavy underdog heading into his first SEC Championship as a head coach, McElwain wants to make his mentor proud on Saturday.
“I just want our guys to go out and play well,” McElwain said. “I want to make him proud, too. He took a flier on some guy from Montana that was out west and gave him an opportunity to coach in one of the greatest places in all of college football, in the best conference in the United States of America. For that opportunity, I just can’t tell you how grateful I am and how lucky I am.”