The real Big Mac

Colorado State Coach Jim McElwain reacts to a call made in the second quarter of Saturdays home loss versus North Dakota State Unveristy.  CSU was defeated 22-7 in front of a sold out crowd at Hughes Stadium.
Colorado State Coach Jim McElwain reacts to a call made in the second quarter of Saturdays home loss versus North Dakota State Unveristy. CSU was defeated 22-7 in front of a sold out crowd at Hughes Stadium.

Jim McElwain laughs at his own jokes. When he talks about the pure-blooded hunting instincts of his 5 pound Yorkie-poo, Clarabelle, it’s hard not to laugh along with his easy, tooth-filled mirth.

His players revere him, his family loves him, but the student body doesn’t know him. They know he won two national championships under Alabama’s Nick Saban, and that he is primed to begin his second year as head coach of the Rams.

“Jim worked as hard as anybody as I’ve ever had coach for us in our program,” Saban said via Alabama media relations. “He is really driven to do well, he’s a perfectionist in a lot of ways. He takes it as hard as anybody if things don’t work out the way he’d like for them to.”

All true statements about McElwain, but not what McElwain is about. Do people know about the way the ice-blue eyes light up when he talks about his team? Or how his boisterous voice goes somber when a certain 9 year-old boy is mentioned?

Not yet.

On the surface, the sandy-haired native of Missoula, Montana looks like any other Division I football coach who is hungry to win games, with a fierce sunglasses tan line and more than a few stress-wrinkles. But he cares about so much more than winning games.

“I was driven from a young age to win and take responsibility for my actions,” McElwain said. “But (my father) had an affinity for those who weren’t as fortunate as us. He took his time for those that had special needs, I think I inherited that.”

Those close to McElwain know this to be true inside the locker room, but also as an extension to the rest of the Ram community.

The Rams recently welcomed a new member to the team, 9 year-old Colorado-native Jack Miller. Miller was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age three, and has been undergoing chemo treatments since.

In a rare moment of pure vulnerability, McElwain discussed the interaction his team has had with Miller.

“He’s a team member, he’s got a #1TTD (wrist) band, he’s got a game jersey and he’s going to be with us whenever he can between his treatments,” McElwain said. “You realize that you all get consumed with your own problems, to see the glitter in Jack’s eyes and the smile on his face when the team gave him his jersey, sang him the fight song; I think that’s something all of us should step back and take a look at.”

In the short time he has spent at CSU, McElwain has built his team upon the same blocks that he grew up on — family at the center.

The day he married his wife Karen, and the births of their three children, Johanna, Elizabeth and Jerrett were four of the five most important years of McElwain’s life (He named winning a championship at Alabama as an afterthought).

“In this profession we aren’t (home) as much as we’d like to be,” McElwain said with a serious tone. “But I think if you were to ask them, they know that I am always here if they need me.”

His children away from home certainly know they can count on their coach. Ask any player on the roster about Coach McElwain, and their answer begins with a smile.

“He taught me not to feel sorry for myself when I want to, taught me to finish when my body tells me I can’t, he inspires me everyday,” said Charles Lovett, a junior receiver. “He’s not a coach that you’re afraid to go talk to, his door is always open.”

In response to the praise he gets from players, fellow coaches and fans, McElwain is almost immune. He doesn’t view what he does as an avenue for receiving personal accolades. He isn’t in it for the recognition. He’s in it for the university, his team, the fans — his family.

“I knew pretty young that I wanted to give back as much as I could, I just want what’s best for these young men,” McElwain said. “I wish that everyone realized that I’m really in it for them. This is an unbelievably great place.”

Football Beat Reporter Cali Rastrelli can be reached at sports@collegian.com.