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'Can't cut corners': Jim McElwain gets career reboot at CMU

Evan Petzold
Special to The Detroit News
Jim McElwain speaks in Mount Pleasant on Monday.

Mount Pleasant — Cheers broke out at the John G. Kulhavi Events Center on Monday morning as new Central Michigan football coach Jim McElwain walked up to the podium and flashed a smile. 

His first words to the public, naturally: "Fire Up Chips."

McElwain was officially introduced as the 29th head coach in program history, after signing a five-year contract that will pay him a base salary of $400,000. He will make up to $600,000 a year with supplemental income, and still is drawing from his $7.5-million buyout at Florida.

“This is going to be a transition that’s fast and furious, and yet we can’t cut corners,” said McElwain, who arrives in Mount Pleasant following a year as Michigan's wide-receivers coach. “If you build the program without the stable foundation, as fast as you rise, it will crumble.”

Central is coming off its worst season in program history, at 1-11. 

John Bonamego was fired following the regular-season finale, a blowout loss at Toledo, on Nov. 23.

Athletic director Michael Alford moved fast in finding the replacement, and officially hired McElwain on Sunday.

“There’s going to be discipline,” McElwain said. “In our lives, all of us have choices. We all have freedom of choice, but we don’t have freedom of consequence. We need to learn that and invest in it. For them, it was a little bit of an eye-opener.

“We are here to win games the right way.” 

McElwain, 56, is in his third head-coaching job, after three years at Colorado State (2012-14) and three years at Florida (2015-17), which began with two SEC divison titles, but ended in tumult.

McElwain said he will begin meeting individually with players. He already has addressed the team as a whole. The goal, he said, is to find out what each person’s vision is for the future of the program, and he said it all starts with development.

Specifically, offense is the big issue. Of 129 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision programs, Central this past season ranked No. 128 in total offense.

“I wanted someone with a strong offensive philosophy,” Alford added. “I’m extremely comfortable bringing him (in) and having him represent CMU.”

Quarterback was a major issue in 2018, a revolving door, after Shane Morris departed following the 2017 season. The expected quarterback room for the 2019 season consists of junior Tommy Lazzaro, redshirt freshman Austin Hergott and true freshman George Pearson. East Mississippi Community College's Messiah deWeaver, a former Michigan State quarterback, is interested in joining McElwain’s team.

DeWeaver would be immediately eligible to play upon his transfer.

“Great hire,” deWeaver said. “He’s a great coach. Everywhere I’ve been and played, I’ve won. I can be the guy. I’m just a proven winner.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called McElwain to Central a "great fit." McElwain also sat down with Michigan tight-ends coach Sherrone Moore before signing a contract with Central. Moore spent time as the tight ends coach at Central from 2014-17 and dished out advice to McElwain.

Alford also cited McElwain's recruiting ability in making the hire. McElwain plans to use the connections he made at Michigan in 2018 and Michigan State from 2003-05 to help him on the trail. 

There is work to do on that front. Before Bonamego was fired, the Chippewas had 16 commitments in the 2019 class. Now, the group is down to 13. 

Losing Detroit Martin Luther King three-star quarterback Dequan Finn, the 2018 Mr. Football winner, to conference rival Toledo was a massive blow. Central also lost two Detroit Cass Tech recruits.

Jim McElwain spoke to reporters Monday in Mount Pleasant.

“We are going to bring some guys in this weekend and next weekend, lay out our vision and introduce ourselves to them,” McElwain said. “We would love to have all of them stay.”

A few committed 2019 prospects already have voiced their opinions about McElwain joining Central:

►Alpena linebacker Logan Guthrie: "Everything about him meets the standards of a coach this school needs. I’m very excited to work with him and watch him turn this program around. The future is bright."

►Detroit King receiver Darrell Wyatt: "It’s a great start to the amazing season we are about to have. We will make history, I promise that.”

►Warren De La Salle offensive lineman Danny Motowski: “I’m glad we got a guy with big-time experience.” 

►Plant City (Fla.) Durant cornerback Demarcus Governor: "It's amazing. We've got big plans. Everyone is on the same page."

►Jacksonville (Fla.) Westside wide receiver Javon Gantt: "I'm all on board. I know he has expectations for us, and we have expectations for him."

“We are going to look to get some guys signed early,” McElwain said. “They committed to this university for a reason. It’s going to be a lot of fun putting this together.”

McElwain’s resume includes the 2014 Mountain West conference coach of the year, 2015 SEC coach of the year, two SEC East Division championships (2015-16), a head-coaching record of 44-28 and two national championships, when he was on staff at Alabama. That's where his path crossed with Alford's, when Alford was in marking, and McElwain was Nick Saban's offensive coordinator.

Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.