How Central Michigan's Jim McElwain brings normalcy to coronavirus challenges

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain waits to address the media ahead of the New Mexico Bowl against San Diego State Dec. 20 at Isleta Resort and Casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Jim McElwain's no caveman, but he hadn't fully understood the power of technology. At least not until it became the only thing he could rely on.

Small boxes with faces on his computer screen are his players and assistant coaches. Technology is used for WebEx videoconferences, FaceTime calls, Blackboard, reviewing spring practices and preparing for the upcoming season. Everything is online.

Without those online aids, Central Michigan football would be lost in the abyss of a nationwide athletic shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus. Practices are nixed indefinitely; in-person recruiting is suspended through May 31. The secret, McElwain shared, is bringing normalcy to each day.

"Looking at any situation and asking yourself, 'How can we get better?' McElwain said. “We never get today back, so what can we do today that's going to help everybody around us be better tomorrow. Those are the messages and things we are doing."

Getting on the grill to cook and fully cleaning the house are activities McElwain does to occupy himself with a little more time on his hands. But the work calendar hasn't changed.

Every morning starts with a shower and a warm cup of coffee. A coaching staff meeting is first on the agenda, beginning with an academic update. A handful of players don't have computers. Others don't have internet service.

“The professors on our campus have done an excellent job of understanding and helping the students,” McElwain said. “That’s been good.”

The staff then moves into on-field tendencies for each player as well as incoming recruits. CMU was one of the few programs that had spring practice. The Chippewas had 10 of their 15 practices before cancellations.

McElwain considers that a blessing.

“We grew as a team,” he said. “Some of the players that we wanted to see, the young guys, to see their development and growth from a year ago was fantastic.”

Coaches transition into position group and private conversations with an emphasis on physical and mental health. The strength and conditioning staff, led by Joel Welsh, provides updates on how to make improvements without a weight room.

Some players don't have dumbbells.

“The guys have been really good about sharing their workouts on a group basis,” McElwain said. “The leaders have done a great job of staying in touch with their position groups and showing them different ways to stay sharp.”

Typically, McElwain would have recruiting events on campus each weekend to showcase his program. Without visits, he's forced to set aside a portion of recruiting.

Part of the new normal is preparing for the 2020 season.

Games are still scheduled to start in early September. Without definitive knowledge of when the team will be able to return to practice, McElwain is preparing as if he's not going to have time to prepare. He's gone as far as to call other coaches to get their advice on how to schematically devise a plan for upcoming opponents.

“Breaking things down offensively and defensively and getting some preseason scouting reports done on that,” McElwain said. “We do those updates once per week with new ideas and new thoughts.” 

For McElwain to make everything normal for those within the program, he's had to find peace within himself despite the unknowns that have been caused by COVID-19.

He's steadying the state of his mental health by making others smile through daily compliments.

“We’re just pounded with the negative on a daily basis,” McElwain said. “Keeping the TV off and going to work every day is healthy.”