Montana native Jim McElwain at Fresno State after year in NFL

2007-05-16T23:00:00Z Montana native Jim McElwain at Fresno State after year in NFLJOE KUSEK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 16, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

The face, the powerful stride, the distinctive multi-colored cap, it all looked so familiar.

As the man got closer, Jim McElwain realized who was walking across the football field during warm-ups.

"It was Jim Brown! We're talking about Jim Brown," recalled McElwain of the legendary NFL running back who was mingling with the players and coaches prior to the Cleveland Browns-Oakland Raiders game on a Sunday last fall in Cleveland, Ohio.

Suddenly, McElwain felt a big beefy arm - almost the size of a normal person's leg - fall across his shoulders.

"You never looked at me like that," Jackie Slater teasingly told McElwain.

Like Brown, Slater is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Slater was one of four Hall of Famers - Fred Bilitnekoff, Willie Brown and head coach Art Shell were the others - on the Raiders staff last season with McElwain, who was the team's quarterbacks coach.

"And there were guys like Jim Plunkett, Jim Otto and Jack Tatum always hanging around," McElwain added of the Raiders practice facility.

"There are only 32 NFL jobs in America and I never thought I would have one of them."

But NFL job security is like smoke. It's there, but you can't really grasp it. And it certainly doesn't last forever.

Sharing a hallway with NFL Hall of Famers was one of the perks of working in the NFL. Suffering through a tumultuous 2-14 season - with the surrounding circus atmosphere - was the darker side of the NFL.

McElwain, and most of the other coaches, were eventually let go by Oakland at the conclusion of the season.

However, things have a way of working out when you've built up a coaching reputation for more than a decade, first as the offensive coordinator at Montana State, followed by successful stints at Louisville and Michigan State.

McElwain wasn't unemployed long.

Now the always-smiling McElwain has a little more skip in his step, his smile that much larger.

He's back on the college campus, as the new offensive coordinator for Fresno State.

Now instead of worrying what national news is following the Raider Nation into practice that day, his biggest concern is whether his quarterback throws the ball to the right place and if the receiver makes the proper cut.

"I didn't know you could be so marketable after going 2-14," McElwain said with a laugh.

The move up

The 45-year-old McElwain, a native of Missoula, spent five seasons (1995-99) as the offensive coordinator for the Bobcats. His MSU offensives were some of the most productive in the program's history.

He joined head coach John L. Smith at Louisville for three seasons and followed Smith for three more at Michigan State as the assistant head coach, receivers coach and special teams coach.

McElwain wasn't looking for a job - even though a few schools had approached him - when the Raiders called.

"I was at a coaching clinic in Seattle," he remembered. "One night, the phone rings and the guy says he is with the Oakland Raiders and could I come to Indianapolis?

"I'm like, 'Yeah, right. Who is this?' I thought it was one of my buddies pulling a joke on me so I hung up the phone."

What McElwain didn't know is that he has friends in the NFL helping his career path. The Raiders representative called back.

"Turns out Art Shell has a place in Reno and lives next to a big Michigan State fan," McElwain said, connecting the dots between the Spartans and Raiders. "The fan had the games on satellite and Art would come over and watch. He liked what we did offensively.

"It's a small world."

The move to Oakland fit well within the McElwain family's long-range plans. McElwain's wife Karen is from Spokane, Wash., the two met when he played football at Eastern Washington University.

"Part of coming back to Oakland was being able to come back to the West," he said. "I've got family in Missoula … mom, dad, sister, are all still there and my wife's family is still in Spokane. We wanted to be in a place where we could drive back once in a while."

It was also fortunate timing. Smith and his staff was let go at Michigan State following this past season.

"It appears that way," McElwain said with a soft laugh about jumping ship at the right time. "But that was not plan.

"Getting back to the West was very important to us."

Returning to the West was nice, the NFL season was not.

Shell suspended receiver Jerry Porter before the season and receiver Randy Moss criticized the team on national radio during the season.

Still, McElwain enjoyed coaching at a level that few ever experience.

"I liked the fact that you don't have to deal with grades," he said of comparison to the college game. "It's time to just study football. And guys want to learn. They want to get better.

"Sometimes, I would look around and think, 'I'm a guy from Missoula. What am I doing here?' I've made a special bond with people in the NFL that will be for the rest of our lives."

Back to school

When the Raiders finally let him go, "I was kind of in limbo there for a while," he said, McElwain entertained some job offers. Some meant a move back to the Midwest.

"Actually I'm still waiting for coach (Bob) Green to retire at Montana Tech so I can take over," he said with another long laugh.

Through more football connections, McElwain was contacted by Fresno State. Bulldogs' head coach Pat Hill and Oakland general manager Mike Lombardi (since fired) had worked together in Cleveland.

"Pat needed a guy and Mike recommended me," said McElwain.

"We never wanted to bounce around like this, but it's a good move for the family."

McElwain remained in Fresno during spring drills while his family finishes out the school year in Livermore, Calif. His oldest daughter JoHanna is a sophomore in high school, daughter Elizabeth an eighth-grader and son Jerett is in fifth grade. Both JoHanna (setter) and Elizabeth (outside) hitter are heavily involved in volleyball.

"They take their volleyball seriously out here," he said.

Jerett is a center for the youth football team. "He inherited my athletic ability," joked his father. "I tell him, he gets to touch the ball on every play. Heck, on some of the plays I run, the quarterback doesn't touch the football at all.

"My wife has done a great job with the family."

McElwain joins a Fresno State program with the reputation of not being afraid to play anybody, anywhere or any time.

"We were scheduled to play Cincinnati early, now I found out it's been changed to we're playing at Texas A&M," he said.

McElwain will get to test drive his new offense against familiar Big Sky Conference foe Sacramento State in the season opener before traveling to College Station, Texas, to play the Aggies. The following week, Fresno State is at Oregon.

"There are a lot of things I need to learn," he said of immersing himself in the Bulldogs' personnel and philosophy. "There is a good solid system already in place."

And Bobcat fans might experience some déjà vu with the Fresno State offense.

"We might run a few of the same things we did at Montana State," said McElwain. "We'll find out if they're good or bad."

While he hasn't ruled out an eventual return to the NFL, McElwain is happy right where he is at.

"Coaching football is coaching football," he said. "With the pros, you don't have to worry about a lot of stuff. On the flip side, you miss a lot of things … not impacting young people's lives. Now I wouldn't give that up for anything.

"There are only so many NFL, Division I-A and I-AA jobs and there are 50,000 football coaches.

"I never guessed a guy from Missoula could be so lucky."

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