'Our head coach lives in a barn': Why Jim McElwain fits right in at CMU

Courtesy CMU Athletics

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. -- Jim McElwain lives in a barn and works in a trailer. The new digs at Central Michigan suit him just fine.

We'll circle back to the trailer in a bit. McElwain isn't the first major college coach, in the age of constant facilities enhancements, to be relocated to temporary office space. The barn, though, might be a first.

The idea was hatched in December, during a party at athletic director Michael Alford's house shortly after McElwain's hiring. Many of CMU's top donors attended, including Chuck McGuirk, a third-generation business owner whose family has supported the athletic program for decades (CMU plays basketball at McGuirk Arena). McGuirk asked Jim and Karen McElwain where they planned to live.

"We'd like to live in a barn," they told him.

The McElwains knew from previous head-coaching stops at Florida and Colorado State that they'd need space to host large groups: recruits, players and staff, or donors. (There's a pretty cool story behind what happened with their home in Florida.) The problem: Mount Pleasant isn't filled with sprawling properties.

Fortunately, McGuirk had a solution: a 6,000-square-foot barn a few miles from Kelly/Shorts Stadium and CMU's campus. McGuirk bought the barn about five years ago and thought about building living quarters on the lower floor. The McElwains soon visited and made the call: This was the spot.

"It has a whole house inside a building," McGuirk said. "This was unlike anything else we've had around here. It's very unique. I had the same vision as they did, so it all started from there. We built it out for them to have recruiting abilities that really no one else has."

Construction soon began. Jim lodged at the Courtyard by Marriott next to the stadium, while Karen finalized their move from Ann Arbor, where Jim had spent the 2018 season as Michigan's wide receivers coach. In early April, the McElwains moved into their barn-home.

"It's pretty cool, it's another adventure," McElwain said.

He paused and smiled, almost in disbelief.

"A barn."

Living in a barn and working for a directional Michigan school coming off a 1-11 season is a surprising third act of a head-coaching career that began with great promise at Colorado State in 2012 and then took some strange turns at Florida, culminating in an ugly week in October 2017. But it also makes sense, both for McElwain and to McElwain. He is used to life a bit off the grid -- he grew up in Missoula, Montana, played college ball at Eastern Washington, and spent his first 15 years in coaching at Eastern Washington and Montana State.

Central Michigan brings a sense of familiarity.

"He's as comfortable as can be here," said CMU defensive coordinator Robb Akey, who has known McElwain for 30 years. "He appreciates being back in the saddle again and wants to get things rolling. The town has embraced him. The folks here have had open arms. It's been a good thing. This is obviously a different deal than the SEC animal.

"He's back in the comfort zone that he likes."


THOSE WHO KNOW McElwain always expected him to lead a program again. But McElwain liked being at Michigan, working with Jim Harbaugh and a talented group of receivers. McElwain didn't lobby for head-coaching vacancies. "I wasn't that jacked up to do it again until [Alford] called," he said.

McElwain knew Alford from Alabama, where they had overlapped in 2008, McElwain as offensive coordinator and Alford as general manager of Crimson Tide sports marketing. Alford's wife, Laura, a former college volleyball player and coach, coached McElwain's two daughters in the sport.

Although McElwain had no other direct ties to CMU, he knew the area after coaching stops at Michigan State (2003 to 2005) and then Michigan. He also knew CMU's history, particularly the notable coaches who have passed through.

Roy Kramer led the Chippewas to the Division II national title in 1974 before beginning a career in administration that culminated with him becoming SEC commissioner. College Football Hall of Famer Herb Deromedi won three MAC championships here. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones combined for three league crowns in four seasons before bouncing to bigger jobs. CMU lost a team-record 11 games in 2018, but won eight in 2017, capping a stretch of nine bowls in 12 seasons.

"It just needed a reset of some energy into the program, and into the community," Alford said. "That was the main thing I was looking for."

Defensive back Da'Quaun Jamison and his teammates were struck by McElwain's positive tone in his first team meeting. McElwain never mentioned 1-11. "Attack the now," would become a program motto -- and while it's a common theme for new coaches, CMU players needed to hear it.

"When he says, 'Good morning,' you feel that energy," linebacker Michael Oliver said.

"It's connected on both ends," Jamison added. "It shows you the coaches are just as excited to get out there and run around and coach, just as you're ready to play. We definitely needed some new life."

New life and no dead fish.

When recruiting in Seattle for various teams over the years, McElwain used to visit the famous Pike Place Market. He loved watching the low-flying fish, but he didn't always leave with a smile.

"You walk by when those fish are on ice, they really make you feel miserable," he said. "They've got no energy, they've got nothing to 'em, right? Just a bunch of dead fish. Being energized by the people around you is something I think is really important. I truly believe these guys are hungry, and I don't think they feel really good about what happened [last season].

"I haven't seen a bunch of dead fish."

McElwain has prioritized the player-coach connection at every spot. Like many new coaches do, he met with each CMU player shortly after getting the job and tried to identify common threads.

"In doing those interviews, it's their words," he said. "They're the ones telling you what the team needs."

One word was accountability. Another was energy.

McElwain didn't have every assistant hopscotching the country in January to salvage the recruiting class. It was more important for the coaches to spend time with the players already on the roster. The coaches eat breakfast and dinner with players almost daily. They show up for weight-room sessions.

"It's always been about the players, and then it's how you execute on the field," said Central Michigan offensive coordinator Charlie Frye, who, like Akey, was part of McElwain's staff at Florida. "He enjoys the journey. That's the rebuilding, the development of the kids and seeing it from the ground up."

Construction on the Chippewa Champions Alumni Center, CMU's $32 million facility in the north end of Kelly/Shorts Stadium, began immediately after spring practice last month. In his final post-practice speech to the team, McElwain actually told players to clean out their lockers. The program now operates in trailers west of the stadium that contain locker rooms, an athletic training area, coaches' offices and more. Although the facility plan launched before McElwain arrived, the new coach had say on how to design the trailers.

"He's doing everything that he can to maximize the space for the players," said Albert Karschnia, CMU's director of player personnel. "He says, 'It's not our building, it's their building.' It's taking 10 square feet off of coaches' offices to give that to locker room or weight room. 'Can we fit another training-room table in here?'"

McElwain doesn't discuss his past with the players, but they know where he has been and how those experiences shape his approach with them.

"He's been at big-time programs, he knows how to win," offensive lineman Steve Eipper said. "Obviously, things at Florida didn't go the way he wanted. Now he gets a chance. Like, we get a chance to have a revival of our program, and he gets a chance to have a revival of his career."


McELWAIN'S TIME AT Florida ended badly, although tension had existed almost from the start. Georgia Week in 2017 kicked off with McElwain saying his family had received death threats, which blindsided school officials. Florida then released a statement that distanced itself from the coach. There were talks of termination for cause, a 35-point loss to the rival Bulldogs and then a mutual separation, which seemed like a relief for both sides.

But McElwain also coached Florida to division titles in his first two seasons, winning SEC coach of the year in 2015. It wasn't all bad in Gainesville. It was more weird than bad. After an excellent start, quarterback Will Grier received a yearlong suspension for taking a banned substance, and later told Bleacher Report that McElwain didn't want him back. The most bizarre sequence occurred in the spring of 2017, as McElwain repeatedly denied being the naked man posing on top of a dead shark in a photo that went viral.

"I asked him about it," Alford said, "and I'd done my research. But also I had a personal relationship with him. I know Jim McElwain. I know what he's about. I was not concerned with the situation at Florida at all. ... Not being there and not knowing all of the particulars, it was strange. Sometimes, it's just not a fit."

McElwain believes every stop along the way helps you learn. The lasting lesson from Florida?

"There were people there to help, and I just didn't use them," he said. "I'm one of those guys that's always tried to figure out how to fix it, whatever it might be. They deserved to win, and I didn't get that accomplished. That is what it is. But those players and those people, I truly care for and care about.

"I probably wasn't a very good fit, and in this business, there is a lot to be said about that," he continued. "And yet, I'm proud of what we did. I wished we could have won the SEC championship those times we played in it. We weren't quite there yet, but I think they'll get there."


DESPITE HOW THINGS ended at Florida, Alford fully expected McElwain to find another head-coaching spot. He had McElwain on his candidate list if CMU made a change.

Although Central Michigan has an impressive coaching lineage, none of them arrived with an FBS résumé like McElwain's: 44-28 overall as a head man, coach of the year honors in two leagues, and two national championships as Alabama's offensive coordinator under Nick Saban.

"It means something," Akey said, "that Jim McElwain is here."

McElwain's on-field credentials were only part of the equation. Alford knew who McElwain was, and how he'd adapt to CMU. Both men have worked in high-profile settings -- Alabama, Florida, USC, the Oakland Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys -- but understand the DNA of places like Mount Pleasant.

"Mac's from a small town in Montana," Alford said. "He went to Eastern Washington. He understands this type of college town. You can go to the grocery store here. People might say, 'Good game, Coach,' but he's not posing for photos. I knew him and his wife, Karen, would fit this community instantly. People just rave about how open they are."

Akey thinks back to the places in Big Sky Country where he and McElwain grew up, and where they met as young coaches.

"They're college towns surrounded by farmland," Akey said. "Well, that's what we've got here. So you're familiar with how to build something in there."

Alford said McElwain has "never been a stranger" since his arrival. At events shortly after the hire, Alford saw McElwain introduce himself to everyone. It's a strength previously successful CMU coaches such as Kelly and Jones had, and one that has helped create instant support.

"What his wife and him are doing for the community, for the kids and for this program has been amazing," McGuirk said. "Very real person and just tells it like it is. He's here for a reason."


THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN McElwain and Karschnia began matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, I got that barn on the corner there, turned it into my house," McElwain said.

Karschnia drove around the area, thinking to himself: What barn is he talking about? He did three laps before going back to McElwain.

"Coach, are you talking about the big-ass white barn on the corner?"

"Yeah."

"Oh my God, what?!"

For a recruiting chief at a Group of 5 program without many luxuries, this was Christmas morning. Karschnia's creative juices are flowing as a new recruiting cycle ramps up. The barn will be CMU's new hub for official recruiting visits -- perhaps unlike any in college football. It also will be used for athletic department fundraising events.

"You've heard of rooms, houses," Alford said. "Like, Nick [Saban] has his boat and he takes all the kids out. But the barn, it's just a unique concept."

"It fits us," Karschnia added. "You say it: 'Our head coach lives in a barn.' If that turns you away, it's not the place for you. But take a minute, come inside and hang out with us."

McElwain, 57, will hang out at CMU for a while. He doesn't love the cold -- a mid-April snowstorm got him "a little bit itchy" -- but values the Rockwellian feel around here, and the locals' connection to the program.

"This town's really opened up their hearts to us, man," he said. "There's a lot of pride in the Chippewas. That's been really fun to see. Karen and I, we've been comfortable. Coming to a place that was hungry and, obviously, had a couple stumbling blocks, and yet they're excited to get back on top.

"We're excited to help them."