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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Coaching Moves

Colorado St., McElwain’s Bird In the Bush

Jim McElwain was close to agreeing to terms with Memphis before withdrawing his name from consideration. That wasn’t a terrible decision, even if the alternative was returning to Alabama as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator; F.B.S. jobs don’t come along every year, but given McElwain’s career trajectory, he could probably wait for the next train. Then McElwain became one of Fresno State’s two finalists, perhaps the top choice, for the position left vacant by Pat Hill’s dismissal. Again, as at Memphis, McElwain turned the Bulldogs down.

After he declined a second non-B.C.S. conference program, you were left with one of two thoughts. The first was that McElwain was being a little too choosy. But he can — or could — afford to be, seeing that Alabama has gone 47-6 since Saban hired McElwain as coordinator prior to the 2008 season. The program’s superb mark over the last four years is not solely due to McElwain, but take note of the work he’s done with the Alabama offense:

He reined in John Parker Wilson in 2008, complimenting a more cautious passing game with the two-headed backfield combination of Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram. In 2009, McElwain made first-year starter Greg McElroy into one of the SEC’s best — he also coordinated an offense that featured Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Ingram.

In 2010, McElwain shifted the focus of the Alabama offense, at least to a degree, from run-run-run to run-run-pass: McElroy set new school records for passing yards and touchdowns, helping the Tide offset an injury to Ingram that robbed him of much of his effectiveness.

Despite issues at quarterback and a lack of Julio Jones-like stars at receiver, McElwain’s current offense is 33 points away from exceeding last year’s total, which is good for second-most in program history. The Tide aren’t scoring 33 points in a rematch against L.S.U., but McElwain has already put Alabama above 400 points for the fourth straight year, a new program record.

So McElwain could be choosy: he could wait, flirt but not commit to a Memphis or Fresno State, and wait for a bigger offer to roll in. Even if the marquee job didn’t come until 2012, McElwain could return to Tuscaloosa, pilot the offense under a more experienced A.J. McCarron and see what pops up in 12 months.

The second thought surrounding McElwain’s candidacy was that he wasn’t waiting until 2012. He was waiting for another position to be offered this month, and there was enough interest from an as-yet unnamed program to lead McElwain to turn two birds in the hand for one in the bush.

This turned out to be the case. It wasn’t a B.C.S. conference program that came calling but rather Colorado State, which fired Steve Fairchild last week after his third straight nine-loss season. The Rams’ quick-hitting coaching search didn’t aim obscenely high — the Rams didn’t look above their pay grade, basically — but was certainly efficient, zeroing in on a handful of qualified candidates before opting for McElwain, who is very ready for this opportunity.

But why Colorado State over Memphis or Fresno State? It’s pretty simple: Colorado State is the best job. It’s clearly better than Memphis, which might have deep pockets but hasn’t shown a commitment to its football program. And it’s better than Fresno; Pat Hill made that into an extremely solid program, but a coach looking to fill his shoes might be scared off by the way his tenure came to a rocky denouement.

There aren’t sky-high expectations in Fort Collins, even if the program was a bowl fixture for the better part of a generation under Sonny Lubick. McElwain will be given a long leash: at least four years, judging by the way the program allowed Fairchild to return after a 6-18 mark from 2009-10. And the Mountain West, of which Colorado State is a part, might have as secure a postseason future as can be found among the non-B.C.S. conferences.

It’s a nice hire for the Rams. But there’s a catch: McElwain, should he succeed, will be moving up the ladder, putting C.S.U. in his rearview mirror on his way to a B.C.S. conference stop. Bad news for the Rams? Not even close. Colorado State will take three years of McElwain if he puts the program back on the map in the Mountain West. When that’s your biggest problem, you don’t have many problems at all.

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  1. 4.0 Point Stance says:

    “McElwain, should he succeed, will be moving up the ladder, putting C.S.U. in his rearview mirror on his way to a B.C.S. conference stop.”
    Are you sure about this? Sonny Lubick was at CSU from literally as far back as I can remember. And I’m sure he had chances to move up. There must be something in that job that was worth sticking around for. And Mcelwain was born in Montana, which I guess counts as “local” in that part of the country.

  2. Dr. Nick says:

    CSU can be a very competitive program in the new-look, WAC 2.0 in 2013 once Boise has followed BYU, Utah, and TCU out of the MWC. CSU also doesn’t suffer from unrealistic expectations – 7-5 seasons will do most years with the occasional 5-7 or 9-3 year thrown in. If McElwain were looking to coach somewhere for 10 years without developing ulcers, CSU is a great place to do it.

    Of course as a Saban-ite, he’ll probably win 10 games his 2nd year and catch the first private jet to an SEC heavyweight, but it’s still a great hire for the Rams.

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    Historically, CSU has been a difficult place to win. Lubick was the exception. Prior to Lubick you have to go back 55 years to find a coach with a winning record. Earle Bruce had a winning record at Iowa St. but not at CSU.

    Lubick was from the region like McElwain. Also, he got his chance at CSU relatively late in life being hired there when he was 56 after years as an assistant and an early flop as a head coach in the Big Sky. Probably appreciated the opportunity more than a younger guy would. I loved watching his teams run the ball. Not the greatest athletes in the world but good line technique and fierce north/south running backs.

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