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Could Jim McElwain’s remarkable run at Central Michigan be short-lived?

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

So, what will Jim McElwain do for an encore?

Well, that depends if he stays at Central Michigan beyond just this season.

McElwain's Chippewas won the Mid-American Conference West Division championship Friday afternoon, routing Toledo, 49-7, to earn a date in the MAC championship game Dec. 7 at Ford Field in Detroit. Central Michigan will play Miami (Ohio) at noon.

Jim McElwain

The door to the title was opened for Central when rival Western Michigan laid an egg at Northern Illinois, 17-14 on Tuesday. This is Central Michigan’s first trip to the MAC championship game since 2009.

And making that more remarkable is the team McElwain inherited. Central Michigan went 1-11 last season, without a win over an FBS team, leading to the firing of head coach John Bonamego. Central then lured McElwain, 57, the former Florida and Colorado State coach, and the dividends have paid off immediately.

But will they pay off beyond this season?

"Look, I don't live with that on a daily basis," athletic director Michael Alford said Friday, when asked if he's worried he's going to lose his coach. "Mac and I have an unbelievable relationship and partnership. We've known each other many, many years. I can tell you he loves this community, he loves this university. He just thoroughly enjoys being here."

More: Detroit News college football picks: Week 14

Asked if by hiring a coach of McElwain's stature, he expected this kind of buzz, Alford said: "Put it this way. That means we're doing good things."

There is a belief in college-football circles that McElwain – who, most of all, Alford said, brought accountability back to the program – could be looking to make the leap back to Power Five football. There are no shortage of openings out there, such as Arkansas, Florida State and even Rutgers, though you could make a strong case that Central Michigan is currently a better job than rotten Rutgers (and Eastern Michigan might be, too, with coach Chris Creighton's name coming up amid Rutgers rumblings).

Adding fuel to the fire, McElwain was asked recently about his future at Central Michigan, and he gave a pretty vague answer.

"This is a great place," McElwain said earlier this month, according to the student paper, CM Life. "We've made some great friends and the people in the community, not only us but the whole staff. I can't tell you how proud I am of them and what they've really done to invest in us and our players.

"In the community, it's fun to go to work when you have people like that."

Notice, there's a lack of a definitive answer there, when asked if he'll be back in 2020.

McElwain signed a five-year deal with Central Michigan, and it pays him $590,000 annually – a $400,000 base salary and $190,000 in television and radio money. There's also a $50,000 retention bonus he gets each February, should he remain on the job. He also has a large bonus structure that already has earned him $50,000 this season, and could earn him an additional $100,000-plus, should Central Michigan win out, and should McElwain be named MAC coach of the year.

McElwain also is still getting paid from his $7.5 million buyout from Florida, where he coached from 2015-17, winning SEC coach of the year his first season, before his firing in 2017. McElwain then spent 2018 on the staff at Michigan, making $300,000.

There is a buyout clause in his Central Michigan contract, of course, decreasing slightly each year he stays at Central Michigan. If he leaves before Dec. 1 (Sunday), he would owe Central Michigan $1.2 million. If he were to leave Dec. 2 (Monday), or after, he would owe the university $1 million.

Central Michigan has a recent history of being a stepping-stone program for coaches, with Brian Kelly (2004-06) leaving for Cincinnati en route to Notre Dame, Butch Jones (2007-09) also leaving for Cincinnati en route to Tennessee, and Dan Enos (2010-14) leaving to be offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

MAC championship

Matchup: West Division champion Central Michigan vs. East Division champion Miami (Ohio)

Kickoff: Noon Dec. 7, Ford Field, Detroit


Records: Central Michigan 8-4, 6-2 MAC; Miami 7-5, 6-2

Twitter: @tonypaul1984