When center Weston Richburg arrived at CSU, the Rams were coming off a win under first-year head coach Steve Fairchild in the New Mexico Bowl. For Richburg, a small town player from Bushland, Texas, that was exciting to see the direction his new team was heading in.
“That was definitely a big thing for me in choosing to come here,” Richburg said.
But things didn’t go as planned. Over the next three years the Rams would suffer three straight 3-9 seasons under Fairchild, eventually leading to his firing in Dec. 2011 and the hiring of Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.
Fairchild, hired under then athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, took the place of legendary and beloved head coach Sonny Lubick. Fairchild played quarterback for the Rams from 1978-80 and later returned as offensive coordinator under Lubick. After a stint in the NFL, Fairchild was hired as the 19th head coach in program history.
His first season looked promising. In his 2008 debut, the Rams went toe-to-toe with No. 17 BYU and lost by only three points. They went on to defeat Border War rival Wyoming in the program’s last win against the Cowboys until this season.
But once the program started to decline again, CSU President Tony Frank decided to make a change. He fired Kowalczyk and hired former Ram and businessman Jack Graham, beginning CSU’s “Bold New Era.” Graham didn’t waste any time. He wanted a winner, so it only seemed logical that Graham would look to pluck a coach from the winningest program in college football history, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Two years later, the Rams are coming off one of their best statistical seasons in program history and their first winning record since 2003. After improving to a 7-6 overall regular season standing, the Rams will make their first bowl appearance in five years when they face the Washington State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21.
While this is just McElwain’s second season with the team—and his first winning one—players, especially Richburg and the other 14 graduating seniors notice a difference in the way things feel around the program, and it started with a simple enough task of getting to know each other.
“Coach Mac, he’s big on family,” said tight end Kivon Cartwright before the season began. “You know guys that you never would have known if you didn’t take that step, guys from totally different background If you know the guy next to you, you’re going to work harder for him.”
That hard work has showed this season in the form of a 1,572 rushing yards by running back Kapri Bibbs and 3,200 passing by quarterback Garrett Grayson. The same work ethic has presented itself on the defensive side of the ball in players like Shaquil Barrett, who earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year this season.
While players say they have nothing bad to say about Fairchild, they admit that when he was around it felt more like a business. Now, players credit the family-like atmosphere to their turnaround season.
“All of us have love for coach Fairchild,” offensive lineman Jared Biard said. “He’s the one who gave me a college scholarship, but coach Mac what’s different about him is I think he’s a great motivator of men. He uses his emotions to motivate us and you can honestly tell he cares a lot about us because of that.”
The journey for the Rams certainly has not been easy and McElwain will be the first to tell you the program is not close to where he wants it to be. He will also likely tell you, the way he tells his players every day, there are no shortcuts in life.
“He’s completely turned this program upside down,” Richburg said. “It took me a while to kind of adapt to changes and do things the way he wants them to be done and I think that’s a big part of why things have changed this year. Guys have finally come to understand what’s expected and have bought into what he wants and that’s why you see what you see this year. I can only see it improving with him in control.”
Football Beat Reporter Katie O’Keefe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.