Playing on the blue turf of the Humanitarian Bowl two seasons ago, Colin Peek found the coordinator of his dreams.
Only he was playing for Georgia Tech and Jim McElwain was leading Fresno State’s offense to a 40-28 win over Peek’s Yellow Jackets that Boise afternoon.
“I remember them throwing the ball all over us,” Peek said. “They were hitting up their tight ends and I was like, I’d really like an offensive coordinator like that.”
Two years, a transfer and a coaching change later, Peek and McElwain compete for the same side and will be on a more traditional surface in the Rose Bowl for Thursday’s BCS National Championship Game with their No. 1 Crimson Tide against No. 2 Texas.
Peek glowed when talking about his first encounter with McElwain after both made the move to Alabama following the 2007 season.
“I walked up to him the first day and said I was the tight end for Georgia Tech and I look forward to you throwing me the football,” Peek said while remembering the three Fresno State tight ends who combined to catch eight passes for 85 points in the Humanitarian Bowl.
After sitting out his transfer year in 2008, Peek’s vision came true this fall season. He is Alabama’s fourth-leading receiver with 313 yards on 26 catches in McElwain’s offense.
Though a top assistant on the nation’s top-ranked and undefeated team heading into Thursday’s BCS title game, McElwain is somewhat unknown to the public. Alabama’s policy of prohibiting assistant coaches from speaking to reporters made Monday morning’s news conference with McElwain a rare glimpse into the mind of the aspiring head coach who has had his name connected to a handful of FBS vacancies.
As an assistant who started at Eastern Washington in 1985, he paid his dues while climbing the coaching ladder. After nine years in the Pacific Northwest, McElwain spent time at Montana State, Louisville, Michigan State and with the Oakland Raiders as the quarterbacks coach in 2006. From there, he went to Fresno State, where he made the big impression on his future tight end.
The ride that brought him back to California for the BCS National Championship Game is still surreal for the coach from humble beginnings. When Alabama head coach Nick Saban called to talk about the opening two years ago, McElwain thought it was a buddy on the other end playing a joke on him.
“Sometimes,” McElwain said, “I wake up and wonder how I got here from Missoula, Montana.”
Before getting to the Rose Bowl, McElwain had to guide a transitioning offense between his first and second seasons at Alabama. Losing the starting quarterback, three offensive linemen and the leading rusher put a heavy burden on the coordinator. Sleepless nights resulted, but the key was playing to the new strengths of the rebuilt offense.
The running game was still the strength, but it wasn’t just a power team anymore. Smaller linemen wouldn’t allow the smash-mouth, between-the-tackles approach, so McElwain gave the quicker line more opportunities to make plays in space by pulling guards more often.
For left guard Mike Johnson, the addition of McElwain meant a third offensive coordinator in three seasons. His intense personality was a big shift from his predecessor, Major Applewhite, who left Alabama after one season for, fittingly now, an assistant coaching job at Texas.
“(McElwain) is a little more firy,” Johnson said. “Coach Applewhite was a little bit younger, so I think he sat back a little and listened to more of the older offensive coaches. They both will get up in your face, but coach McElwain seems to have his hands on more of everything.”
Wound up at practice, but the 48-year old is full of one-liners and a friendly smile when rare interviews are granted. The BCS requires coordinators be made available, and McElwain was ready for the occasion.
Even if he said his children would claim otherwise, McElwain comes off like a nice guy who appears ready for a head coaching job. His players know it’s only a matter of time before Missoula can claim a big-name coach.
No matter where he ends up, McElwain will have a fan in Peek — and likely every other tight end under his guidance.