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Q&A: AD Michael Alford on CMU football's success, keeping Jim McElwain, attendance and more

Athletic director Michael Alford wanted Jim McElwain to double Central Michigan's win total from its mortifying 2018 season under former coach John Bonamego.

Two wins would suffice.

He was joking.

But, really, he wasn't.

Alford wanted the football program to take a step forward in McElwain's first season. He knew there would be an improvement from the ugly 1-11 record, but he wasn't sure of the immediate extent of that success.

McElwain went above and beyond, securing Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year while helping the program to an 8-6 overall record with a MAC West title as well as a trip to the MAC championship and New Mexico Bowl.

Much more than just two wins.

The athletic director that fired Bonamego and hired McElwain, an old friend from their time together at Alabama, was pleased with his new coach's performance.

Alford spoke with Central Michigan Life about the football team's success in 2019, keeping McElwain in Mount Pleasant and what's next for the program in 2020.

What are your expectations for McElwain's second season?

"Every year, the team is different. They come in with different personnel, different mindset. Every team has its own culture. With him, that program is headed in the right direction. We had good success last year, and I think we are going to be able to build upon that and go into next year with high expectations. Now, what that is, we have to wait and see. You never know with injuries and everything, but I think we're going to get better as a program and keep competing in every game we play."

How important was the MAC championship appearance to the entire athletic department?

"Detroit is such an important market for our university, so it's great to get to the MAC championship, play in that game, play in that city – not only for athletics but for our alumni base. To bring Mount Pleasant to them is something that's really good for us as a university."

After a 1-11 season...

"I just wanted two wins. Double our wins. I told him jokingly afterward, 'Next year, we have to double that.' It's impossible."

Did you ever expect to be MAC West champions in McElwain's first season?

"We always expect to compete, and the pieces fell together. Quinten (Dormady) coming in, he did great. David Moore had a great year when he was able to play for us. Jonathan (Ward) had a great year leading the tailbacks we had and then the receiving corps. To look at what (defensive coordinator) coach (Robb) Akey was able to do defensively with the personnel we had and putting the pieces together on the defensive side. I put a lot of credence in that coaching staff, not only Mac and his culture as the leader of the program but the rest of the staff – what they were able to do position-by-position to make our personnel better, coach them up and prepare them to go out and compete. We have high expectations, as we do in every sport here. We expect to win. That's what we expect to do. Going into this year, we're really excited about the direction of the program."

McElwain's name kept getting brought up in coaching staff searches like Missouri, Washington State and Colorado...

"It means you're doing things the right way."

What was it like to have McElwain's name in national searches?

"When you look at his career, not only in the SEC but the Mountain West and (earning) Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, he's had a very successful career. Anybody that has a job, his name is going to come up because of his success."

Did you worry about losing McElwain to Colorado just days before spring practice began after Mel Tucker left for Michigan State?

"Any job that comes open there's a domino effect. We're prepared, like any other athletic director or school in the country. You've got a list. Any school is a great opportunity and his name, as we've mentioned, is going to come up." 

Your thoughts on being able to keep him in Mount Pleasant?

"It goes to point out how much he loves Mount Pleasant. He loves this community. We have an unbelievable relationship, as I've told you. We're very open to each other and talk about things. I can't say enough about how much he and (his wife) Karen fit this community, university and really enjoy it here."

Spring practice started Feb. 15, which is earlier than normal. What went into that decision?

"It's up to that program and how he wants to set it in place for recruiting, what he thinks is best for the students with finals and everything before spring break. I leave it up to the coaches on when they start."

Any updates on the Chippewa Champions Center?

"It's in progress. The timeline is still going. They've got a lot done. It's coming right along. People are really excited. It's going to make such an impact. Put football aside, the impact it's already making for the rest of our sports of being able to go in and have a professional training center we were lacking. We actually have hydrotherapy pools – probably the last school in the conference not to have that. It's already making an impact on our recruiting."

With the new facility, video board and a winning football team, do you think there will be an upswing in attendance?

"We hope. We're on the phone, selling our vision and home games, but we're just going out, sharing our vision and hoping people partner with us. We play an exciting brand of football, and it's great to see when people do come out. I love it when our students come out. Our students give great support. I love it when I look over and see that student section full. (I'm) still trying to keep them past halftime. If you've got any ideas, I'll take them."