AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain hung up on Nick Saban seven years ago, believing one of his buddies was pulling a prank.
Fortunately for McElwain, Saban called back.
It was McElwain’s big break — he left Fresno State to join Saban’s staff as offensive coordinator — and the start of a four-year apprenticeship that changed his football fortunes forever. McElwain watched everything Saban did between 2008 and 2011, taking unbelievably detailed notes about organizing, managing, administering, controlling and overseeing a program.
They spent countless hours together, breaking down video, scheming plays, devising game plans and ended up winning one Southeastern Conference championship and two national titles.
Nearly a decade later, they’ll be on opposite sidelines in the SEC championship game in Atlanta on Saturday, when Saban and second-ranked Alabama (11-1) will try to lock up a spot in the College Football Playoff against McElwain and No. 18 Florida (10-2).
“I want to make him proud,” said McElwain, who worked wonders in his first year in Gainesville. “He took a flier on some guy from Montana that was out west and gave him an opportunity to coach in one of the greatest places in all of college football, in the best conference in the United States of America. For that opportunity, I just can’t tell you how grateful I am and how lucky I am.”
The Gators might just be the big winners.
McElwain has genuine reverence for Saban. It’s obvious when he talks about his former boss and even more evident in how he’s rebuilding the program in Gainesville.
“I was able to learn from him in a lot of different things that were valuable,” McElwain said. “Whether he believed it or not, I sat there and soaked every second and word he had. Took notes. Tried to learn as much as I can. I do the same thing here. … I get a chance to visit with a lot of people. It’s all an opportunity to learn and he gave me that opportunity. The guy is really good now. Sometimes the public perception doesn’t do justice for what a good guy he is.”
McElwain is one of several former assistants who have branched out from Saban’s growing coaching tree.
The list includes Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio as well as former head coaches Will Muschamp, Josh McDaniels, Pat Shurmur and Derek Dooley. Current Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart appears to be the next addition, with several reports saying he will take over at Georgia following the SEC title game.
“I think he’s got a lot of great attributes as a coach,” Saban said of McElwain. “He’s a good teacher. He’s got a really good mind. He’s innovative in terms of some of the things that he does and the problems he creates. I think he coaches with discipline and works hard to get his players to execute. He does things the right way and he’s got a good personality and he’s a great competitor. So there’s a lot of positive attributes there I think.”
McElwain left Alabama for Colorado State following the 2011 season.
McElwain brought his notebook and vision for how to run a program to Fort Collins, Colorado, and made an immediate impact. The Rams improved every year under McElwain and made him Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley’s top target to replace Muschamp last year.
In just a few months, McElwain changed a decades-old approach to one of the league’s football powerhouses. No longer were past championships, solid academics and mostly warm weather enough.
Although the plans were set in motion during Muschamp’s tenure, McElwain made improvements and helped get a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility built before the season. He beefed up the team’s secondary support staff, which is expected to bolster around-the-clock recruiting efforts. He challenged everyone in the building. He changed thinking, altered blueprints and dared to do things differently.
In short, he wants Florida to be more like Alabama.
McElwain is the first to say the Gators still have a long way to go. But he hopes to eventually get a stand-alone football facility, upgrade dorms and make it so everything is top of the line in a world in which food, facilities, facets and features make a difference in the ever-expanding college football arms race.
McElwain learned that — and much more — from Saban.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling popcorn or calling plays, everybody’s got to be on the same plays trying to improve in the same direction,” McElwain said. “That’s something he’s done an outstanding job of obviously. But the one thing he did tell me on the way out the door, he said, ‘Mac, whatever you do, make sure you do it with your personality and put your thumbprint on it.’
“That’s a great piece of advice.”