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AD Michael Alford discusses Central Michigan's success, Jim McElwain's future

Head coach Jim McElwain takes questions from the media July 23 at Ford Field.

Central Michigan Athletic Director Michael Alford knew what he was getting when hiring Jim McElwain to be the football coach in early December 2018.

"He's a winner," Alford said. "I thought it was the perfect time for the program for where we were at the time."

The first-year coach has proven Alford correct, turning around a program that was 1-11 in the 2018 season to Mid-American Conference West Division champions at 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the conference. 

The Chippewas secured the MAC West Division with a 49-7 victory Friday over Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, catapulting them to the MAC championship game Dec. 7 at Ford Field in Detroit.

Alford's relationship with McElwain from the time the pair were together at Alabama helped bring the 57-year-old to coach in Mount Pleasant.

Since McElwain was at Florida, an SEC program, from 2015-17, there's a thought that he might leave the Chippewas as soon as a Power Five offer comes his way.

Whether or not that's the case, Alford said he talks with McElwain about many different scenarios.

"Coach and I have a great relationship and talk frequently about all types of situations," Alford said. "We have a great relationship."

Alford pointed to McElwain's childhood, teenage years and young adulthood to emphasize what the Mount Pleasant community means to him.

McElwain was born in a small town outside of Missoula, Montana. He played quarterback at Sentinel High School and went on to become a quarterback in college at Eastern Washington.

The community, campus, students and student-athletes have all engaged well with McElwain, Alford added when discussing the coach's future.

"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."

When McElwain was asked if he'd stay with the program beyond the 2019 season, he avoided a definitive answer. 

"This is a great place," McElwain said on Nov. 13 before playing Ball State. "We've made some great friends and the people in the community, not only us but the whole staff. I can't tell you how proud I am of them and what they've really done to invest in us and our players. In the community, it's fun to go to work when you have people like that."

If McElwain were to leave prior to Dec. 1, he would owe the university $1.2 million, according to the buyout in his contract. If he leaves on or after Dec. 2, he would have to forfeit $1 million.

The buyout works similar for the 2020 season, just with $1 million before Dec. 1 and $800,000 on or after Dec. 2.

But that's just additional information at this point, as McElwain – making at least $590,000 this year, is prepared to coach for he Chippewas in the MAC title game. He will make an extra $50,000 for his retention bonus if he is still the coach in February.

There are other bonuses, of which some McElwain has already started to cash in on. 

While Alford was doing a coaching search to find former coach John Bonamego's replacement, he said a handful of players went to his office to express their opinion.

Alford valued what those student-athletes told him, but he found specific one aspect of those conversations meaningful.

"They had a belief that we were going to do the right thing," Alford said.

Once Alford made the hire, the players bought into McElwain's system, one that is driven by accountability, discipline and hard work.

Alford believes that McElwain's track record – winning Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year in 2014 and SEC Coach of the Year in 2015 – played a role in the players' ability to give themselves to the first-year leader. 

"They knew he was a winner and wanted to follow him," Alford said. "If you buy into the process, you'll win."

Going beyond the on-field successes, Alford said McElwain has focused on teaching the student-athletes life lessons that will serve them well even after their time on the field is complete. 

McElwain discusses making the right choices every day with the members of his team.

"What I was most proud of was seeing them grow throughout the year," Alford said. "That goes all the way back to coach Mac's first meeting, seeing the growth and the choices the student-athletes were making."

The next test for McElwain is a noon Dec. 7 matchup against Miami (Ohio) at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions.

Getting an opportunity to play in Detroit goes beyond the football program because the city is a "major market" for the university.

"Anytime we can get CMU's brand in that marketplace, it's great for the university," Alford said. "It's going to help us recruit students, engage alumni better."

For now, McElwain is a Chippewa.

Even though he might end up leaving, there's also a chance he'll stay.

Alford was just pleased to see his student-athletes celebrating a MAC West Division title that solidified another successful hire.

"Just to see the smile on their faces and them celebrating, that's what brings me joy," Alford said.