Confetti continued to fall steadily as we made our way into the tunnel. The sound of fans still celebrating in the Mercedes Benz Superdome faded on the descent into the bowels of the stadium, but it was replaced by a louder and even more celebratory cheer, this one coming from the locker room just ahead.
The double doors to the inner sanctum seemed to breathe with the energy from within, flying open as the players inside hit each new crescendo in the verses of their fight song.
I stood ideally by, right next to the door with other reporters lining up behind as we all waited for the party to die down so we could enter and interview the champions. For the moment though, we just stood by and listened to the deafening celebration.
Then, above it all, a voice rose from the direction of the field.
“Coach Mac, Coach Mac! Where is Coach Mac?”
It was AJ McCarron, arriving tardy to the locker room since he had to stay on the field for post game interviews. Such is the burden of the national championship MVP.
“Coach Mac! Coach Mac! Has anyone seen Coach Mac?”
The crowd of reporters began to jostle me from behind, as McCarron made his way through us all like a bull in a china shop, toward the locker room and yelling all the way.
And there he was. Busting out of the locker room mob, looking for his quarterback.
The two had just put on quite a show. It was January 7, 2012 and the Alabama Crimson Tide had been the 2011 BCS National Champions for all of five minutes. The Tide rolled by an aggressive game plan that saw McElwain through everything but the kitchen sink at the LSU defense; and thanks to an Alabama defense equivalent to a brick wall, the Tigers could do nothing but sit back and watch as yet another crystal ball was packed to head for Tuscaloosa.
While the Waterford snuggled into it’s traveling case though, Bama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain jumped into his quarterbacks arms; literally jumped.
Being closest to the locker rooms doors, I was able to see this scene play out from the front row. McCarron and McElwain needed this moment to themselves before plunging back into the team scrum, and that was evident from the way they just stood there soaking it all in, together for the last time as a quarterback and his coach.
It was a simply a hug by the standard definition, but as the lines on McCarron’s face morphed from ecstatic to reflective, something else became apparent.
This was a moment fueled not by the jubilation that preceded it but by the emotions that would follow. A private time in a public place and an embrace that said everything words couldn’t.
That night was Jim McElwain’s final duty as the Alabama offensive coordinator. From there he flew out to Fort Collins, Colorado as the Colorado State head coach, his first head coaching position.
He is now ready to begin his second stint as a head coach but this time on a much bigger stage.
When it was announced that McElwain would be coming to coach the Florida Gators, my mind immediately went back to that night in New Orleans.
So many coaches and players form bonds, but there was something special in that moment that has stuck with me for years. When AJ McCarron had every expectation to join his teammates and celebrate what they had just achieved, he chose to stay just on the fringe and express his gratitude to a coach that had led him to football glory.
And when it was announced that McElwain would be coming to Florida, it took former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy back to a moment similar to that of McCarron’s.
In January 2010, McElroy was fresh off a National Championship garnering performance (the first of two that McElwain won with the Tide as Offensive Coordinator).
With the football world as his oyster and Pasadena calling, McElroy slipped away for a quieter celebration with his OC.
“After the game I went and spent time with Coach Mac and his family. That was how we celebrated”, McElroy recalled.
“You go through such a run together and you celebrate… everyone was going there separate ways but I knew Mac would be there so I spent some time with him and celebrated with him.”
Thus is the norm with Coach Mac. Everywhere he goes, players willingly follow; Whether it be to a celebratory dinner, or across the country as wide receiver Dee Hart did, moving from Alabama to Colorado, or in spirit with well wishes. He gains the trust and respect of nearly every player and person he comes in contact with.
The reason why is simple to McElroy.
“You just get to know your OC so well”, McElroy explains.
“You spend so much time together. I was around him 1000 times more than I was around my parents and I was around him probably more than he was around his kids. So you get to the point where you can complete each other’s sentences…where you can understand where he’s gonna go if he’s making a reference. But that’s one of the reason’s I think Mac has been so successful, because the season is so long. For college kids you have so much going on, you have school on top of it. So he does a great job of keeping things fresh, of keeping things enthusiastic. He does a great job of keeping things fun but still keeping it a business, which is obviously the most important thing to be in the business of winning. So I think that’s why, where some teams burn out, where some guys burn out, he never really had a situation like that. His teams get better as the year progresses. I don’t think that was ever more evident than it was his last year at Colorado State.”
Former Alabama and current Jacksonville Jaguars long snapper Carson Tinker can only really speak to the persona of McElwain and not as a coach.
“As a long snapper I know a lot about offensive schemes and stuff like that, (laughs)…but as a guy he’s just a great person, genuine, and I know we did have our back against the wall a few times that year and he found a way to get it done.”
And while Tinker may not have been receiving his play calls from McElwain, he did still share a locker room.
“Coach Mac you know he just, he created a good environment to let the guys play at their best and I think that’s, it’s a lot easier to play like that. It’s not as much pressure to play like that.”
Someone else who does know McElwain as a coach though is Rashard Higgins, who was a part of that last year McElroy praised.
The Colorado State wide receiver spent the last two seasons playing under Mac’s offense in Fort Collins and flourished.
The two star recruit out of Mesquite, Texas whose only other interest was Louisiana-Monroe, came to his own in the mountains with McElwain.
In December of 2014, Higgins found himself in the Atlantic Dance Hall at Disney’s Boardwalk, just a stone’s throw from Heisman finalist and Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper. Both were up for the Bilentnikoff Award presented annually to the nations best receiver. Only 16 yards separated the two. Cooper took home the hardware but the sophomore Higgins was no longer an unknown name.
On the Wednesday night before the awards show, Higgins sat down to a small three top table in a ballroom full of reporters. Everyone wanted to know the same thing.
Tell us about Coach Mac.
Higgins was happy to comply.
“I remember there was this one time I ran a route wrong in practice” Higgins began.
“And Coach McElwain he went over it with me in film study. He was telling me exactly how to run the route, how to push the route up, how I need to run it and it’s nothing more to say about that. Coach McElwain is just a good coach… He always feed the hot hand and that’s what I like about Coach Mac.”
For McElroy, as a player and especially a quarterback, the biggest thing to like about McElwain is his ability to evaluate talent for the easement of his players. That’s key, since according to McElwain, his offense is akin to that of a dog dropped off at the Humane Society.
“Here is who I am. I’m the dog they dropped off down at the Humane Society. He has a little bit of about every breed in him. Whatever the situation is, you try to bring that breed out that helps success,” he said back at his introductory press conference in December.
“He does a great job of understanding his personnel,” explained McElroy.
“He does a great job relating to the players. So all those things really play into the fact that he’s an outstanding evaluator, of how much the guys can handle. I think that’s why he had so much success in 2009 and in 2011 with both myself and AJ, his first year as a starting quarterback, because he gave it to us a little bit at a time. I never felt overwhelmed, I never felt like I was drowning. All that really helps. He did a great job of helping us out along the way.”
“He can get tight. He get on us a lot,” Higgins says. “He always tells us we have time for improvement. There’s always a time to work. A time to play and a time to work.”
That time to play though is still a viable part of McElwain’s day and one that’s evident within seconds of meeting him.
The film room study of mistakes is a long practice according to McElroy, and apparently it’s a moment McElwain uses to keep things light.
“He’s big about giving guys a hard time if they made a bone headed play like putting it up on the film and we all laugh about it.”
“He’s a funny man. He’s a funny guy,” Higgins smilingly says.
He tells jokes the way your dad always would while driving you and your friends to the 8th grade dance. Delivering them in a way that seems to have done nothing more than combine partials of three jokes he can’t remember, mixing them together as one and then laughing at the punch line before actually saying it.
CSU Assistant AD for communications Paul Kirk says the majority of McElwain’s jokes end that way.
“He gets that way where he wants to make a joke and then he’s like ‘how far should it go’?” Kirk explains.
That self-awareness however is what endears him even more to his players. Higgins continued, “The way Coach Mac laughs, it makes us laugh as well. Just Coach Mac being Coach Mac, that’s what people love about him.”
How do the players get Coach Mac to love them though? Easy:
Higgins suggest telling him stories and bringing up old sitcoms.
Tinker says to take him fishing.
McElroy says brush up on your music references; particularly the 80’s, the British Invasion, and of course Herman’s Hermit’s “Henrty the VIII”. Not only will they endear players to their coach, but they’ll also be helpful as he implements them into game plans.
And of course, there’s always the dog. McElwain is always willing to discuss his dog Claire-A-Belle who he has already famously mentioned could play quarterback in his hodge-podge offense.
According to Kirk and Higgins, he even likes to bring her in for “peanut-Thursday” where he will feed her peanuts based on the player’s academics that week. In what had to be an ode to McElwain, the story stopped there without any further explanation.
All of this combined into one blond headed 52 year old from Missoula, Montana and a coach that players are still finding themselves rooting for even when he’s long gone.
For Higgins that comes with some expectations;
“I say Coach McElwain [will lead Florida] to a national championship in about 2-3 years…it’s just the way he coaches. I don’t think nobody can compare to Coach Mac.”
As for the Alabama graduate Tinker, he can’t quite bring himself to root for his old foe, the Gators, but he has happily succumbed to root for the man behind them.
“I’m not pulling for Florida but I’m pulling for Coach Mac, I’m really happy for him and you got a good coach Gators.”
McElroy concurs, proving yet again that Gator Nation may have just found their coach for the future.
“I can’t think of another guy that I’ve been around that’s injected more confidence into a program. He does a great job at building confidence so I’m really really happy for Florida fans and the players that they have such a great offensive mind there… he’s the world’s greatest. I’m real happy for him.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the Spring 2015 issue the original version of this article was incorrectly attributed. Kassidy Hill is the author. Our apologies to Kassidy and all our loyal readers.