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Why Jim McElwain makes sense for Washington State job


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Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain walks around the field at Dreamstyle Stadium during warmups on Dec. 21 before the New Mexico Bowl against San Diego State.

One day before Central Michigan's Mid-American Conference championship game against Miami (Ohio), first-year coach Jim McElwain was asked to recall the moment when his program turned the corner.

The Chippewas, a one-win team in 2018, were at eight wins and vying for a conference title for the first time in a decade.

McElwain said he was still searching for that juncture, explaining Central Michigan hadn't reached its full potential.

But there was one place McElwain's mind took him when reflecting on all that had been accomplished in the 2019 season – relaxing by lake in his home state. 

"You know, there will be someday, who knows when, my wife Karen and I will be sitting somewhere at a lake in Montana," McElwain said, "and we'll look back and say, you know, what an unbelievable group of guys and what a great run that they've had."

That day McElwain spoke of might come sooner than later, especially since Washington State is just less than five hours driving from Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana, a spot where McElwain spent plenty of time with his family growing up.

Just when Central Michigan fans let out a sigh of relief, one final blockade has stopped them in their tracks.

McElwain has emerged as a possible candidate for the opening at Washington State, a head coaching position that became available when Mike Leach left after eight seasons to become the new head coach at Mississippi State.

Washington State athletic director Patrick Chun now has a choice to make in the near future – find a new football coach in Pullman.

Whether Chippewa fans like it or not, McElwain might be the answer. If Chun extends an offer, it wouldn't be surprising to see the 57-year-old accept the gig.

McElwain would assert himself back into the Power Five, the spotlight that encompasses just a handful of programs across the country.

Less than three years removed from his firing at Florida, McElwain would return to the top at a university that possesses a football culture.

Other coaching options have ties to Washington State like Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch (defensive coordinator from 2015-17), USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (offensive analyst from 2014-15), Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave'a (defensive line coach from 2012-16) and Montana State head coach Jeff Choate (linebackers coach in 2012).

But McElwain, who promised to remain with the Chippewas for the 2020 season, might have the formula that fits for the Cougars. He goes beyond just having ties to the program and its former head coach.

Here are five reasons why McElwain makes sense as the next head coach at Washington State.

Winning culture

From 2012-19, while Leach was at Washington State, the Cougars one the Pac-12 North Division just once in 2018, eventually losing to Washington, 28-15, in the Pac-12 championship game.

For a coach that was around for eight seasons, Leach was only able to get to the conference championship once. 

In two full seasons at Florida (2015-16), McElwain went to the SEC championship game twice, and in his first campaign with the Chippewas, he took the team from a 1-11 record in 2018 to the MAC title game. During McElwain's last four seasons as a head coach, he went to three conference championships – losing all of them.

McElwain has also proved himself as a threat in every conference he's been a head coach in. He was named Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in 2014 with Colorado State, SEC Coach of the Year in 2015 with Florida and MAC Coach of the Year in 2019 with Central Michigan.

On a resume, that's a solid boost.

While at Colorado State (2012-14), Florida (2015-17) and Central Michigan (2019), McElwain boasted a 52-33 record as a head coach and 2-2 mark in bowl games.

McElwain took the Chippewas from a dysfunctional team in 2018 to an 8-6 record with a 6-2 mark in the MAC in 2019 through a culture change he implemented from the moment he stepped foot in Mount Pleasant.

The system to implement a change was driven by accountability, discipline and hard work.

"I get on them pretty hard, but they know it's for the reason that I care," McElwain said after securing the MAC West title.

Getting close to Missoula

McElwain grew up in Missoula, Montana, which is roughly 250 miles from Pullman. That's only a four-hour drive if he were to take the job at Washington State.

Right now, McElwain is 1,865 miles away from the hometown he loves.

After playing football as an all-state quarterback at Sentinel High School in Missoula, McElwain went on to play for Eastern Washington.

McElwain's coaching career began in the Pacific Northwest with Eastern Washington as a graduate assistant (1985-86) and quarterbacks/wide receivers coach (1987-94) before taking a job as the offensive coordinator at Montana State from 1995-99.

Even John L. Smith, McElwain's boss while working for Louisville and Michigan State, called his assistant an "old western bumpkin" due to the product of his lifestyle growing up in Montana and spending decades as a player and coach in the Big Sky Conference.

Being close to home makes sense if McElwain is considering coaching for a half-decade before retiring. If he's looking to take the quickest route back to the SEC, he might be best to stay with the Chippewas.

Even Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford admitted the small-town feel of a work environment is enticing to McElwain, who currently lives in a Mount Pleasant barn.

"I can tell you he loves the people in Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University," Alford said. "For a man from a small town in Montana, it's a lot similar to what he's used to. He thoroughly enjoys this community, so that helps as well."

Pullman is much like Mount Pleasant. It's nothing fancy and passes off the feeling of an urban town inside of a rural area. The surrounding region, the Palouse, has rolling hills where crops are harvested.

The only public high school in the city, Pullman High School, has about 700 students.

Does that all sound familiar?

It should.

Akey rejoins Cougars

If McElwain were to get an offer and accept the job at Washington State, it would be unlikely that he'd leave defensive coordinator Robb Akey behind.

Beginning in 1999, Akey joined Washington State under head coach Mike Price as the defensive line coach until he was promoted as the defensive coordinator once Bill Doba took over in 2003.

Akey stayed with the program through the 2006 season before he was hired as Idaho's head coach from 2007-12.

Throughout the 2019 campaign, Akey operated in a traditional 4-3 base defense while focusing on making aggressive reads, finding matchup advantages and sending 11 players to tackle on every play.

"If you want to have success on defense, there needs to be some juice and energy," Akey said before the season. "You better be flying around. If we can get more bodies there, we have an opportunity to make some things happen. It’s got to be that way."

The Chippewa defense was predicated on stopping the run and forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw in man-to-man coverage against the cornerbacks.

While the Pac-12 is a conference built on passing the football, Akey has proven his demand for energy and success, and it will translate wherever he goes as a college coordinator.

Akey's animation, combined with the ties to Pullman, helps make McElwain and even stronger candidate for Washington State.

Quirky like Leach

A stuffed cougar, picture of his head on George Costanza's body (shirtless), talking life-size pirate, picture of a fan's dog named Mike Leach, a sombrero and portrait of himself.

Those were a few of the items inside Leach's office at Washington State.

Leach called a columnist a "sanctimonious troll" during a press conference. At those sessions with the media, he also discussed pirates, marriage, Pac-12 mascots fighting, politics and much more.

People often laughed. He was a quirky coach, and nobody is going to replace the personality he brought to Pullman.

McElwain might not be nearly as funny, but he definitely has quirky traits, an intriguing sense of humor and is generally liked by administration members, donors and fans at Central Michigan.

He once said he could win games with his dog as Florida's quarterback.

"You got to understand this, I believe I can win with my dog Clarabelle," he said. "That's the attitude."

McElwain also discussed the perfect way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He likes Twinkies, Ding-Dongs and other sustainable food without shelf life. 

He kicked a soccer ball and made a joke when it rolled to him during a media scrum, laughed at a reporter for a question about his return for the 2020 season and used the same tagline to thank sponsors on the Coach MAC Show that was hosted by Hunters Ale House and sponsored by Fabiano Brothers. 

On that radio show, McElwain continuously discussed how much he enjoyed watching others drink Budweiser and eat food because "it doesn't get any better."

"I mean, look at that pizza over there," McElwain said on the Sept. 19 show. "That's unbelievable."

McElwain also has the viral shark photo that seems to go around anytime his name is mentioned on Twitter, but he doesn't find that funny.

Even defensive coordinator Robb Akey has quite the vibrant temperament, as he once discussed how linebacker Troy Brown always cuts the nuts of opposing players on the field.

If Washington State is in search of a humorous personality somewhat similar to Leach, McElwain might be the only coach on the market to fulfill that calling.

Offensive guru?

There wasn't an offensive in college that threw the ball more than Leach's team did in 2019. To be exact, Washington State aired the ball out on 77.9 percent of plays.

But does Chun want the future of Washington State to continue playing that way?

If he wants the Cougars to keep throwing the ball around – and the personnel on the roster definitely fits that mold – McElwain might be his best option.

McElwain gained the status as an offensive guru after working as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama, but he struggled to replicate that with the Gators.

Here are McElwain's numbers from an offensive standpoint compared to the other Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams while at Florida and Central Michigan:

2015 Florida: 23.2 points per game (100 of 128)
2016 Florida: 23.9 points per game (107 of 128)
2017 Florida: 22.1 points per game (109 of 130)
2019 Central Michigan: 30.4 points per game (54 of 130)

If McElwain is hired at Washington State, he will likely find offensive success based on the conference and players on the roster, but it will be interesting to see how he matches up against tougher defenses in nonconference and bowl games.

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