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MAC West champs: In Year 1, Jim McElwain accomplishes what others couldn't


Dan Enos couldn't do it.

Neither could John Bonamego.

But then Jim McElwain walked through the door, and everything changed.

Less than 12 months after McElwain took over as the head coach of Central Michigan's football program, everyone involved began celebrating on the field as champions.

The Chippewas (8-4, 6-2 MAC) earned the Mid-American Conference West Division crown, and Kelly/Shorts Stadium was filled with players cheering and capering when the final whistle blew in a 49-7 victory over Toledo in the season finale.

Spanning two coaches with losing overall records in their tenures, McElwain was able to do what others couldn't. 

It didn't even take him a year to accomplish.

"It's just short of amazing where these guys started from – a team that was picked dead last," McElwain said. "To see how far they've come is great."

As for the game, it wasn't even close.

Central Michigan scored on its first six drives to take a 42-7 lead with 10:30 left in the third quarter. 

By the end of the contest, the Chippewas were ahead, 49-7.

Senior quarterback Quinten Dormady had two passing touchdowns, while backup Tommy Lazzaro had two rushing touchdowns. The run game was potent, as senior running back Jonathan Ward scored once and sophomore Kobe Lewis added two touchdowns.

The Chippewas accumulated 552 yards and allowed just 218 to the Rockets.

McElwain asserted his dominance from the first offensive drive of the game, and the Chippewas never looked back. As a matter of fact, the team finished the regular season without ever trailing at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Even some of the great Central Michigan teams weren't able to do that, but McElwain figured it out.

Those emotions on the field after the blowout win encompassed the discovery an identity, one that has been lost for the better part of the last nine years.

And it's all thanks to McElwain, who should be a lock for his third conference Coach of the Year in the last six years.

McElwain won't take the credit for the team's success. Instead, he'll pass it over to his players, assistant coaches and the administration.

"This has nothing to do with me – at all," McElwain said. "It has to do with a group of coaches that got together and invested in these players. These players invested in themselves.

"I'm just happy to be here for the ride. It's fun to see them grow." 

Everyone plays a part, but McElwain ultimately made the difference.

It's those same people McElwain credits that will turn the conversation back to what the first-year coach has done to change the culture.

"He brings discipline, teaches life lessons and brings accountability," said CMU Athletic Director Michael Alford. "The players love him and play for him."

Many modifications took place when McElwain signed the paperwork to take over as the coach.

The first move he made was to sit down with everyone – from players to coaches to equipment managers – to make sure the group was on the same page.

McElwain desired a selfless program, one where no single person acted as more than another. 

A few players weren't fit for McElwain's regimen. One of those was the Julian Hicks, the leading wide receiver in the 2018 season. Despite his success on the field, he transferred to Akron.

"He could care less," Hicks said of McElwain to Central Michigan Life in May. "He said I was hurting the team."

The ones that stayed were up for the challenge.

"For them to choose to invest in themselves, I've seen a lot of growth," McElwain said. "I'm just really proud of these guys."

Another change McElwain made was to practices. When Bonamego was around, music blared and players danced around the Kelly/Shorts Stadium field.

If that happened under McElwain, consequences would likely follow.

"Coach has come in and wants us to have nothing but focus and communication on the field," said wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton. "That’s why there’s no music."

Practice operates at a fast pace with no time for jokes, side conversations or anything other than football.

The nationally known coach doesn't allow for music, and the team rarely practices at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Instead, they use the East Grass Field, Bennett Track Field and Indoor Athletic Complex.

"It’s an honor and privilege to play on that field, so that’s why," said senior linebacker Michael Oliver.

That's just the beginning of McElwain's changes, but it's enough to understand what has been put into the process of going from last to first place in the MAC West Division.

And McElwain now has a shot to win the MAC championship game against Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 7 at Ford Field.

"For our kids to be able to go play on a stage like that, it's pretty awesome," McElwain said. "I want them to take it all in."