Joe Kusek: McElwain's nomadic life finds him in Alabama

2008-03-11T23:00:00Z Joe Kusek: McElwain's nomadic life finds him in AlabamaJOE KUSEK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
March 11, 2008 11:00 pm  • 

The McElwain family was happy in Fresno, Calif.

After a series of moves had taken the family from Michigan to the Bay Area and now to central California, everyone was settling in. They had even purchased a house.

The two oldest daughters - JoHanna and Elizabeth - were at the same high school, both playing volleyball. The son, Jerrett, was making friends and playing football at his elementary school.

And while still 1,200 miles away, the McElwain family was still on the same side of the United States of the extended family that is scattered around the Northwest.

At work, Jim McElwain was considered a hero.

As Fresno State's new offensive coordinator in 2007, McElwain's tireless work ethic - he didn't see a single volleyball match in the fall, according to the local newspaper - helped the Bulldogs go 9-4 after being 4-8 the previous year. Fresno State ranked among the top 40 in Division I for total yards and scoring. The Bulldogs capped their turnaround season with a 40-28 win over Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl as the McElwain-directed offense rolled up 571 yards.

"We had focused on making a life in Fresno," said McElwain, a native of Missoula. "We felt good at where we were at."

Then Alabama called.

Not the state, even though it seemed like it by the message boards, but Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban.

This was Alabama, one of the premier programs in college football. Bear Bryant's Alabama.

A program where a national title is expected, not hoped for. Saban isn't being paid $4 million a year to be mediocre.

And now he was on the phone, asking McElwain to interview for the Tide's offensive coordinator job.

"It was a shocker, No. 1," said McElwain. "And No. 2, I didn't even know they had a job opening. When coach Saban called, I didn't know what to say. I was just in shock."

McElwain had already declined Eastern Washington's offer to become head coach. That wasn't easy as McElwain spent more than a decade in Cheney, Wash., as a player and assistant coach.

The call from Saban came after the EWU interest.

Saban and McElwain initially met in Tucson, Ariz., and again in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as Saban narrowed his list of candidates.

But could the McElwain family withstand another move?

The distance from family would double, not to mention the children would be attending yet another school and once again being forced to make new friends.

"It was a very hard decision," McElwain said, his usually cheery voice dropping a little. "Making the decision was a bit overwhelming."

Another factor was McElwain's parents, Frank and Marge, both now in their mid-80s. McElwain wanted to make sure he and his family could get back to Missoula when needed.

"It's something that weighed heavily in the decision," said the son.

Saban remained persistent in his pursuit. He worked a proviso in the contract to help ease the travel burden.

Yet, McElwain remained worried about his family. His eldest daughter JoHanna is going to be a senior this fall. No time is a good time for a teenager to move cross country. But this wasn't to just a new city. This is to a new area of the country, trading crowded California for more rural Alabama.

"I've put her through so much," McElwain said. "It was very hard on her."

But this was Alabama. This was the national stage beckoning.

"You have to adapt to every situation in life and our family has been allowed so many great experiences," he added.

McElwain accepted and started on Feb. 1. Alabama is his fourth job in four years.

"You look at it like any other profession, you want to get to the top," explained McElwain, who was Montana State's offensive coordinator from 1995-1999. "Every coach wants the opportunity to work with the best.

"You look at how many programs legitimately have a shot at a national title. Maybe 12, 15 … 20? Alabama is one of those programs.

"How many times is a program like Alabama going to call a guy from Missoula, Montana? Jobs like this open only so many times and if you tell them no, they stop calling. We had to stop, look around and see this as a great opportunity."

McElwain immediately hit the recruiting trail and began immersing himself in Alabama's deep tradition.

"Oh, it hits you when you're driving down Bryant Drive," he said with another laugh. "You think about all the great coaches, the players who have been here … it's just an overwhelming experience."

And it didn't take long for somebody to mention beating Auburn.

"It was at the airport when I was leaving," McElwain said. "But I tell you what, that Cat-Griz rivalry is as good as any in the country."

He and his wife Karen will move the family to Tucsaloosa during spring break and are preparing to close on a house. "It's a college town," he said. "It reminds me a lot of Missoula."

McElwain officially steps into the Alabama cauldron today when spring practice starts. Last year's Tide spring game drew 92,000 fans.

"In the end, this is still just football," said McElwain. "You're working with young men who make young men decisions. The coaching staff is in the process of putting in all our stuff now.

"We'll see if what worked in Bozeman works in the SEC."

Joe Kusek can be reached at 657-1393 or jkusek@billingsgazette.com

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