Alabama's mystery man has gift of gab, bright coaching future
Nick Saban's "one-voice" rule prohibits assistant coaches from talking in-season
Finally allowed to speak, OC Jim McElwain displayed a fascinating personality
After two successful years with the Tide, McElwain is a head coaching prospect
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Jim McElwain met with the media the other day. Alabama's offensive coordinator was articulate, funny, insightful when he wanted to be -- and articulate, funny and vague when he didn't. He gave everything you'd want from an assistant coach.
Especially one who never gets to speak.
Nick Saban's "one-voice" policy prohibits assistant coaches from talking with reporters during the season. It's a shame, because this week, when BCS rules required their participation in news conferences, McElwain opened up and gave us a brief glimpse into a fascinating personality. We heard things like this:
When he sensed Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner, would be a special player: "Mark? Is that that guy's name?"
Why he stopped using the "pistol" offense (a variant of the shotgun) after flirting with it earlier in the season: "I just got bored." And again later, when someone else asked the same question: "I must have got bored with it. I'll go back and put that in, OK?"
The transition two years ago to Alabama, after playing at Eastern Washington and spending much of his career at less traditional programs: "We had 92,000 people at a spring game (at Alabama). There weren't 92,000 people in the four years I played college ball, combined."
His concern before the season over replacing three offensive linemen from the 2008 team: "I didn't sleep for a long time."
It was good stuff, delivered in charming fashion, and there was much more. And it was easy to see why McElwain has been getting nibbles from schools with head coaching vacancies. He's got the gift of gab, but who knew?
A primer: McElwain is 47, at his sixth stop in a 25-year coaching career. The native of Missoula, Mont., toiled most of the way in obscurity, and when Saban called two years ago, when McElwain was offensive coordinator at Fresno State, he figured it was a friend playing a prank. And now, when athletic directors are looking for head coaches, McElwain is making jokes.
"I guess I must have an unlisted number," he said, even though reports recently had him in the mix at Louisville, Marshall, San Jose State and UNLV.
There. Now, anything else you wanted to know?
The stories about assistants this week have focused on Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, once Saban's protégé, and of Muschamp's connection and friendship with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Muschamp has been designated Mack Brown's eventual successor, and Smart is considered to be on the fast track to a head coaching job. Their defenses are the strengths of their respective teams; the offenses have been relegated to the background, at least in the pregame buildup.
While we're not hearing much about McElwain, we've seen his impact at Alabama in two years, and especially this season, when he had to replace a quarterback, the leading rusher and the bulk of the offensive line, including Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith. McElwain's tweaks included more use of the shotgun and Wildcat formations.
The results: Greg McElroy endured a rough patch at midseason, but he's thrown 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. You might have heard, Ingram just won the Heisman (astoundingly, the first time an Alabama player has done it) as the Tide rushed for more than 215 yards per game. Alabama averaged 31.7 points, slightly better than last season.
"He's done a really good job of creating balance using the players that we have," Saban said. "Developing quarterbacks. Especially this year with Greg, he's helped him tremendously."
Alabama has struggled at times in the red zone, and the unit hasn't exactly been a juggernaut. A popular storyline during the run-up to the BCS Championship has been comparing Texas' status as underdog to the 2005 Longhorns' upset of top-ranked USC. But the comparison is flawed. Alabama is favored, but even with Ingram, the offense isn't nearly as potent as USC's was with Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and LenDale White.
But that's OK with McElwain, whose offensive philosophy fits neatly into one sentence: "Let's figure out a way to win, and let's run off the field." And here's a little more: "Every offensive possession should end in a kick. Sometime in the world of football, you have to reserve the right to punt."
Also OK with McElwain is Saban's demanding, "one-voice" style of leadership. Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite deflected questions this week about his time as Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2007, and his subsequent decision to bolt Tuscaloosa for a lesser position (creating the vacancy filled by McElwain). Regardless of Applewhite's reasons for the move, there's no denying Saban's reputation as a harsh taskmaster.
"I don't see that," McElwain said. "I don't know where it came from. ... The guy's a ball coach. He wants you to be complete in what you do, be organized in everything that you do, be prepared in everything that you do. Last time I checked, that's how you're supposed to do it.
"Me personally, he's treated me great. I still at times have to kind of wake up and say, 'How the heck did I get here from Missoula, Mont.?'"
But the bigger question now might be: Where's McElwain headed from here?
He's made no secret of his desire to become a head coach, or that he feels well-prepared for the opportunity. He's pulled methods and concepts from different coaches -- cafeteria style, he called it -- during his career, which included stops at Eastern Washington, Montana State, Louisville, Michigan State, Fresno State and with the Oakland Raiders. But working for Saban, McElwain said, has been an eye-opener.
"I think what (Saban) has done is wrapped that all up into one (package)," he said. "It's invaluable. I don't know how you put a price on that."
We might know soon. Working for Saban, and at Alabama, is a powerful line on the résumé, especially when the boss' recommendation goes something like this: "A good staff guy. Creates good chemistry with the offensive coaches, works well with other people. He's done a fantastic job for us."
McElwain also got a ringing endorsement from McElroy, and several other players. At some point, an athletic director is going to track down his number. Until then, we'll have to be content with these rare appearances and brief insights, which is too bad. Judging from his performance this week, the public would enjoy hearing more from him.
When McElwain's interview session was finished, an Alabama writer said good bye: "See you in August."
McElwain laughed. But he didn't say anything.
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