Jim McElwain has labored in college football’s “Mecca” under Alabama coach Nick Saban and run the offense for two national championship teams.
Now Colorado State’s head coach, McElwain returns to Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night as a heavy underdog trying to find a way to beat his old boss and stop former quarterback pupil AJ McCarron.
“It’s really strange with the coaches that are there, the people in the organization as well,” McElwain said. “I find myself looking at the wrong side of the film sometimes. I’m excited for our opportunity and the organization’s opportunity to go see the ‘Mecca,’ to see what it’s all about.”
And when he says “all “, McElwain includes everything from the cleanliness of facilities to the stadium and parking attendants. Everything that makes Mecca Mecca.
McElwain was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11, so he has an interesting perspective on the program that added another title last season and the coach who runs the show.
McElwain, who is looser and more outgoing than Saban, praises his former boss’s methods, or his oft-cited “process.” He also offers insights to why Saban is successful enough to have his program pushing to become the first team to win three straight national titles in the modern era.
“He doesn’t sit, he’s always moving for what they can do better,” McElwain said. “No matter what it is, there is always a review of anything they do over how they can get better or what they can do. The process in which everything is detailed. Those guys know exactly what they’re doing in practice today. They know that they have to compete or they won’t be playing.
“They know on Tuesday what exactly is going to be installed and how it works. Wednesday and Thursday, it’s a detailed machine. They go in before Thursday’s practice and get the first eight (plays) introduced. Those guys can recite the first eight and not even have to call them into the huddle. They take such pride in their preparation to go dominate an opponent and to not just win. They go to dominate their opponent and to dominate every play. It’s fascinating. The guy is something special.”
As an example, he cites Saban’s success in recruiting and evaluating talent. But McElwain also counters one perception some might have about Saban, whom he says is “by no means a control freak.”
“There are a lot of outside people just trying to pick and find out whatever,” McElwain said. “No, the guy’s detailed. He’s a hard worker and he wants you to be complete in what you do, in every aspect. Well last time I checked, that’s the blueprint for any organization and Fortune 500 company there is.
“Be detailed in everything you do, work hard, and be complete in what you do. Don’t leave little things hanging out.”
McElwain left a program that was 48-6 during his four-year tenure. He led Colorado State to a 4-8 record last season, the program’s best since 2008, and an upset of Colorado.
“I think he’s done as good of a job with the players he has as anyone possibly could,” Saban said. “I think they’ve got good players. They’ve been very productive in the way they’ve played on offense and they have really good balance.
“I have as much respect for Jim McElwain as a coach as anybody that’s ever worked for me.
McElwain’s last game at Alabama was the Tide’s 21-0 victory over LSU in the January 2011 BCS championship game, when McCarron was named MVP.
Now, McCarron is 32-3 as a starter with two national titles (he was redshirted during the 2009 season). His former position coach is certainly impressed with how well he’s doing these days.
“I think AJ’s playing as well as anybody in the country,” McElwain said. “I’m proud of that. He plays the game the way it should be played and he knows when to take his shots or when to take his check downs. He has a true command now.”