Jim McElwain: Big Sky to the Big Time

Jim McElwain didn't always make millions or drive fancy cars. (Steve Madden, Times illustration)
Jim McElwain didn't always make millions or drive fancy cars. (Steve Madden, Times illustration)
Published May 12, 2017

The pickup truck was in bad enough shape when Jim McElwain bought it.

The tires didn't match, and water sprayed through the rusted-out floorboards.

McElwain, then an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University, didn't care about the first part. To fix the second, he took a zip knife to one of the baseball team's old batting circles and used the turf to cover the holes. The splashing stopped.

The real problem came one morning when he opened the green Ford Courier's door … and it fell off the hinges. It had finally rusted through.

McElwain just picked the door up, threw it in the back of his truck and drove to the office.

"But that was all right," McElwain said. "It worked."

Back then, it worked was all that mattered.

McElwain couldn't afford to be picky about anything, even a one-door pickup. His program had little tradition, a bare-bones staff and a stadium deemed too small for the Big Sky Conference. He laced hand-me-down cleats, announced basketball games and delivered packages in the offseason. He slept on friends' couches and shared a freezing $50-a-month trailer off the highway.

"You learned to do a lot with nothing," McElwain said, "and not (complain) about it."

Three decades later, McElwain has almost nothing to complain about.

His program has a championship history, an eight-figure budget and 85,000 fans at every game. His only job now — Florida head football coach — pays him more than $4 million a year. His Gainesville mansion stretches 12,000 square feet.

But McElwain remains rooted in the 10 years he spent on staff at Eastern Washington, a commuter school in the 11,000-person town of Cheney, Wash.

Those experiences shape what he tells an uneasy fanbase. They influence whom he hires, the opponents he schedules and how he structures an offense trying to return to prominence, or at least respectability.

And they help answer one of the college football offseason's most unusual questions:

Why were seven out-of-town coaches sleeping in Jim McElwain's garage?

'Special times'

Head coach Aaron Best has a name for people with the grit and ingenuity necessary to succeed at a place like Eastern Washington: EKG.

Eastern Kind of Guy.

And from 1980 to 1994, McElwain learned to be one.

The former all-state quarterback in Missoula, Mont., lettered twice at Eastern Washington before being passed on the depth chart. The Eagles couldn't waste one of their 20 scholarships on a benchwarmer, so they came to McElwain with a proposal: You can keep your scholarship, but only if you switch to coaching.

"I think because they couldn't pay anybody," McElwain said.

That's not far from the truth.

The Eagles eliminated softball and women's swimming because of budget cuts in 1982. Eight years later, they axed baseball and wrestling, too.

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Because the football program was making the costly move from NAIA to NCAA Division I-AA, the athletic department spent its offseasons justifying its expenses to skeptical faculty and finance committees.

It's a stretch to say the team had a shoestring budget. The Eagles didn't even have money for those.

During their training camp at Eastern Washington, the NFL's Seattle Seahawks would throw away their lightly-used cleats. McElwain and his colleagues swooped them up.

"That's how we were able to have an equipment budget," McElwain said. "We wore Seahawks practice gear for games."

Staff responsibilities extended beyond coaching and teaching. McElwain laced the old Seahawks shoes, pumped up balls and cooked at the annual lobster dinner fundraiser.

When the basketball team's public-address announcer left, McElwain did that, too.

"He knew what it took to incite the crowd and get them fired up," longtime sports information director Dave Cook said.

Even then, McElwain could sell a program.

Eastern Washington traveled cheaply, with 10-hour bus rides across the West. The Eagles could splurge on commercial flights to Northern Arizona, but they had to sleep in the Phoenix airport after the game and fly home the next morning.

"That happened several times …" said J.D. Sollars, then an assistant with McElwain. "You'd pick a wall, you'd put your bag down there and sleep."

Recruiting trips to Seattle weren't much better.

If McElwain had a friend nearby, he'd sleep on his sofa. That opened up a spot in one of the two beds the five coaches shared in their cheap hotel room. If not, someone slept on the floor.

One night, the head coach lost the rock, paper, scissors battle and took the spot on the ground. McElwain got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and accidentally kicked his boss in the head.

"Those were special times," McElwain said.

Even with the best planning and penny-pinching, Eastern Washington still had to deal with unexpected expenses, like when the Big Sky required teams to switch from film to VHS. The up-front cost was about $80,000, and McElwain had no idea where they were going to get the money. The Eagles decided on a last-minute contest at Houston for $175,000.

The outcome was an embarrassment; David Klingler threw an NCAA-record 11 touchdown passes in an 84-21 rout.

But that was all right. All that mattered is that it worked: Even after travel expenses, the Eagles made enough money to buy the cameras and VCRs.

From Pinto to pickup

Like his Eagles, McElwain was scraping by.

He and a buddy split the $50 rent for a trailer. They didn't have a phone, and what heat they got from an oil furnace escaped through the metal roof. Coworkers who stopped by for a cold one learned to wear parkas.

McElwain later moved into a house called the Cow Palace, so named because of the bovine skull hanging outside, above the front door.

"It was a palace, boy, compared to the trailer," said Jerry Graybeal, then an Eagles assistant.

Because assistants made about $10,000 (with no benefits), McElwain had to work side gigs.

He tended bar. His brother got him a job at JCPenney, first in sporting goods, then in men's clothing. In the offseason, McElwain delivered packages for Airborne Express when he wasn't in the office.

"You just did something to figure out how you could live comfortably," McElwain said. "Believe me, I lived comfortably. I never knew I didn't have any money."

But he knew how to stretch every cent he had.

After his 1972 sweet-pea green Ford Pinto broke down for good, McElwain bought the beat-up Courier the previous owner used to take bear hunting. The guy wanted $400 for it. McElwain talked him down to $325.

The town mechanic couldn't weld the rusted-off door back. He told McElwain he could glue it on, but it wouldn't open.

No problem. McElwain just slipped in and out through the passenger's side - for years.

As tough as things were, McElwain didn't think about quitting the business, even after he left Eastern Washington for Montana State in 1995. He had no timetable to jump from the Big Sky to the WAC or Pac-10. That helps explain why only three Power Five head coaches — Indiana's Tom Allen, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Wake Forest's Dave Clawson — coached longer than McElwain before joining a I-A staff.

McElwain thought for a while that he'd get into high schools like his dad, who taught math, coached football, basketball and track and worked as an official. The money would have been better.

But McElwain felt loyal to the program and the people in it.

Eastern Washington gave him a chance to play football, an education and, eventually, a career. He wanted to pass those opportunities along to the next generation.

McElwain's parents taught him that if you did well at your job, whatever it was, someone would notice. If Washington or Colorado never found him, so be it.

"It never crossed my mind," McElwain said, "because I was never worried about me."

Besides, McElwain grew up going to Montana football and basketball games. His mom worked in the Grizzlies' ticket office. In his mind, he didn't need to leave the Big Sky to make it to the big time.

He was already there.

Image matters

When McElwain's Big Sky days ended with a staff shakeup at Montana State in 1999, he thought his coaching career might be over, too. A friend was trying to get him a job driving a Schwan's grocery delivery truck; the route would have paid more than what McElwain had been making as the Bobcats' offensive coordinator.

Before he could interview for it, McElwain got a call from John L. Smith — a Big Sky connection — to join his Louisville staff as the receivers coach.

McElwain quickly learned how different things were in Conference USA. On his first recruiting trip, McElwain did what he always did. He crashed at a cheap motel, the kind where you drive your rental car right up to the room door.

When athletic director Tom Jurich found out, he told McElwain he didn't have to do that anymore. That wasn't the image Louisville wanted to portray.

"There's a lot to that," McElwain said.

There's more to it now that the 55-year-old McElwain heads a storied program trying to catch up with Alabama and Florida State.

The $1.8 million mansion isn't for McElwain. It's for the program; coaches' homes are part of the college football arms race.

Look inside it on a Sunday morning, and you'll see how little McElwain has changed. He opens the newspaper, takes out the comics section and finds himself looking through the coupons.

Even though McElwain's program brings in $79 million more than his old one, he still uses some of the same Big Sky philosophies.

It's not a coincidence that four of his nine assistants spent time in that league. The change-of-pace quarterback package he plans to use this fall is an Eastern Washington throwback.

McElwain couldn't afford to worry about style points back then, and he doesn't care about them now, either — no matter how frustrated UF fans get at one of the conference's worst offenses. All that matters is that it works: McElwain is the first coach to start his SEC career with back-to-back appearances in its title game.

Even now, McElwain doesn't mind sharing his Big Sky pride. Ask him about rivalries before the Georgia game, and he'll bring up Montana-Montana State before the Iron Bowl.

"I've seen a lot of people in this profession that somehow forgot (where they came from)," McElwain said.

McElwain doesn't want to be like them.

That's why he donated money for Eastern Washington's new turf. That's why his Gators will host the Eagles in 2020.

And that's why he opened his garage to a coaching staff from 2,700 miles away.

The pinnacle

To get from Eastern Washington to UF in March, Best and six members of his Eagles staff drove 15 miles north to Spokane, flew commercial to Tampa (with a stop in Denver) and piled in a rented station wagon for the two-hour ride to Gainesville. All to spend a few days observing practice and talking ball with the Gators.

It's the kind of roundabout trip McElwain might have taken decades ago, before he earned access to the university's private plane. Now that he's in a position to give back, he did what he could for the next generation.

He taught Best about becoming a first-time head coach. He cooked hot dogs and Mexican lasagna. And a man who once had to camp out on friends' couches invited the Eagles to his mansion's bonus living space — a converted garage with running water and blow-up mattresses.

"I'd like to fib and act like we're tougher than most," Best said. "It was carpeted."

Like its former assistant, Eastern Washington has grown up.

The Eagles won a I-AA national title in 2010. They upset No. 25 Oregon State in 2013 and knocked off Washington State in September. Two players were drafted last month.

But some of the financial challenges McElwain faced there remain. That's why Best — a 2001 Eagles alumnus — is looking for EKGs.

"Mac," Best said, "is the pinnacle of EKG."

A few weeks after the visit, Best sent McElwain a gift: An EKG T-shirt. McElwain gets chills just thinking about it.

Then Best's comment makes its way back to McElwain. He pauses for six full seconds.

"I don't think flattering's the right word," McElwain finally says. "That probably means …"

His voice trails off. Another pause.

"Wow. That's special."

Sitting in his office this spring, McElwain seems as far away from Eastern Washington as possible.

Three national championship trophies stand behind his desk. Renderings of UF's upcoming $60 million stand-alone football complex are everywhere. A Sept. 2 showdown against Michigan looms.

And when McElwain goes out in the morning, he can open one of the four functional doors on the Mercedes UF provides. Then, on the drive to the office, McElwain tries to remind himself to be grateful — for what he has now, and for everything it took to get here.

The odd jobs. The trailer. The rusted-out truck.

"I wouldn't give any of that up to have jumped faster or whatever," McElwain said. "It really made you who you are."

An Eastern Kind of Guy.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.