ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been said that life isn’t measured in seconds. But for CSU fans, two minutes of Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl game felt that way, with each moment lasting a lifetime. After the bowl trophy had been all but handed to the Washington State University Cougars, the Rams pulled off the improbable –– the nearly impossible.
But to head coach Jim McElwain, it was just a group of players doing their jobs. He did not think–– not even for a second –– that his team would come away empty. Not even during the first second of the last two minutes of the game, when his team was down by 15. Not even the second linebacker Shaq Barrett’s improbable strip of WSU quarterback Connor Halliday was taken back.
He had faith. And that faith transcended to his players, because in the next five seconds of the game, Barrett did it again.
Life may not be about seconds. But McElwain coaches like it is with an 8-6 record to prove it. Accolades go to running back Kapri Bibbs (1,741 yards, 31 TDs), Barrett (70 tackles, 12 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 INT) and quarterback Garrett Grayson (3,696 yards, 24 TDs). But McElwain is the stepping stone that got them those numbers.
“You think you are really putting everything out there, but you might not be doing it to the same level consistently,” Crockett Gillmore said in a previous interview. “Where the first and last rep aren’t 100 miles-an-hour. Coach McElwain brought in a system where you can continue to build and build, and build. And the work may seem harder, but in the end, it’s actually easier.”
This team is ions above the one he inherited two short years ago and they have achieved goals far beyond even the hopes of CSU Athletic Director Jack Graham. He said he would have been happy with a 6-7 record, rather than 7-6. Based solely upon where the program was two years ago, he could not be prouder.
“I would be thrilled to be 18 years-old again and step into a huddle with any one of those guys,” he said. “They are great men –– people of character. They are hungry for knowledge and they are tough. I love them.”
McElwain loves them, too. And while he is allowing himself to breathe a sigh of contentment, congratulate his team and send off his seniors with the honor they deserve, his thirst for success is never satiated.
Graham handed him a 3-9 team with players who were not invested in the program, fans who were lackluster at best and coaches who did not gel. Tonight, McElwain gave back players who bleed for one another, coaches who kid like brothers and a fanbase that is beginning to invest in their football team –– just in time for Christmas.
McElwain refuses to take credit for what he has done. He hands it to his players.
“When you see our guys, how they take time to say, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ to give of themselves for the betterment of others –– to me, that’s where it starts, when you really start to see the culture of things change,” McElwain said. “If you take care of the everyday and the here and now, the games take care of themselves. That’s how you build a program.”
McEwlain speaks with authority on the subject. He won two National Championships at Alabama under Nick Saban but is still known for his humility. His method of success works for him and his players, from the highly-touted AJ McCarron to the overlooked Grayson. It’s a trend Graham cottoned on to and one that the CSU community is slowly taking note of.
Slowly might be an overstatement, as fan attendance this season was at one of its lowest points. But McElwain is not bitter. He knows this bowl game win will bring out the fair-weather-fans and he welcomes them.
“We are building something special,” he said. “We are a long ways from being there but when you hear the Rams are on the rise, it’s a good time to be on the bandwagon, because good things are happening in this program.”
Football Beat Reporter Cali Rastrelli can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @c_rasta5.