Jim McElwain has accomplished a lot during his coaching career, but his turnaround at Central Michigan would have to be at the top of his list.
McElwain, 57, accepted the Central head football coach job a year ago, given the task of turning around a program that had slipped to 1-11, going winless in Mid-American Conference play for the first time in school history.
One year later McElwain was on a teleconference call previewing the Mid-American championship game, which takes place Saturday afternoon at Ford Field with Central (8-4, 6-2) facing Miami.
Central won the MAC West title in a 49-7 rout of preseason favorite Toledo Friday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant.
“It’s amazing, to know where we started from a year ago,” McElwain said. “Just to see the growth, I mean it is a little bit improbable based on from where we started, and yet at the same time, it’s deserved.
"These guys have chosen to make more out of it than what anyone thought, and I’m really happy for those kids in that locker room.”
Central is returning to the MAC title game for the first time in 10 years.
Led by quarterback Dan LeFevour and future NFL receiver Antonio Brown, Central defeated Ohio 20-10 in the MAC title game and then Troy 44-41 in the GMAC Bowl in double-overtime.
The Chippewas finished 12-2 (8-0 MAC) and No. 23 in the final Associated Press Top 25 rankings. Head coach Butch Jones departed to become head coach at Cincinnati.
The last time a MAC coach made such a turnaround was in 2010 when Michael Haywood — then in his second season — guided Miami to the conference championship with a 26-21 win over a Northern Illinois team, which entered the game as a 17½-point favorite.
Haywood was 1-11 (1-7 MAC) in his first year before guiding the Red Hawks to a 10-4 record (7-1 MAC).
So, how did CMU get to the title game?
Central's biggest rival Western Michigan was in the driver’s seat to win the West but lost at Northern Illinois last Tuesday to open the door for the Chippewas to take care of business.
It would be safe to say the Chippewas came ready to play, scoring on their first six possessions to take a 42-7 lead in the third quarter.
No doubt, McElwain has made all the right moves, bringing in quarterback Quinten Dormady, a former four-star player who didn’t live up to the hype at Tennessee or Houston and transferred to Central after McElwain was brought in.
One of Central’s weaknesses last year was at quarterback where Tony Poljan and Tommy Lazzaro didn’t get the job done.
Poljan and Lazzaro stayed on and McElwain has found ways they could contribute. Poljan, 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, has been a force at tight end (30 receptions, 458 yards, 4 TDs), grabbing a 38-yard TD reception against Toledo to help the Chippewas defeat the Rockets for the first time since 2009.
Lazzaro is quarterback in Central's run game package and has rushed for six TDs, including two in the win over Toledo.
With openings now available at such places at Florida State, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Boston College, McElwain’s name could and should be mentioned, especially due to his track history.
McElwain is without a doubt the front-runner for MAC Coach of the Year honors. It would be his third type of honor he would receive since 2014 if he gets the nod.
McElwain took over a Colorado State program that had three consecutive 3-9 records prior to his arrival in 2012. In three seasons, he compiled a 22-16 record and was named the 2014 Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year.
McElwain had immediate success at Florida, earning SEC Coach of the Year honors in 2015. He was 22-12 with the Gators, winning the 2017 Outback Bowl.
McElwain has the Central offense humming.
The Chippewas averaging 32.8 points, ranking 26th nationally in total offense (453.2) with a balanced attack, averaging 259.2 yards through the air and 194 on the ground.
Dormady has multiple weapons to work with in sophomore speed receiver Kalil Pimpleton (73 receptions, 771 yards, six TDs), a physical receiver in 6-2, 215-pound junior Jacorey Sullivan (47 receptions, 712 yards, three TDs), and the Chippewas are on pace to have two 1,000-yard running backs in the same season for the first time in history with Jonathan Ward at 1,056 (15 TDs, 6.4 average) and sophomore Kobe Lewis (953 yards, 11 TDs, 5.6).
“Credit goes to our coaching staff and the system,” McElwain said. “When you come into a place I think it’s important to find out what kind of players you have and then try to put a system in to try and help them be successful. Our staff has done that, and we continue to get just a little bit better all the time. I think our balance is excellent.
“If you look at us, probably going through the middle of the third quarter in most of our games we probably have more passing yards than rushing yards, and I think the quality of a good team is one that can run the ball to win when you need to in the end. We have to credit that front (offensive line) in how much better they’ve gotten this year.”
Sure, McElwain has coached on the big stage of the SEC and a possible call could be coming soon to guide another Power Five school, but for now he is enjoying this ride.
“I want them to go enjoy this, how many times to you get this opportunity, and yet make sure that part of that enjoyment is putting the work in study, work in meetings and work in practice into play. From where these guys have come from and taken this season, I just can’t tell you how happy I am for them, and now we’ve got to hopefully go down and play well against a very good football team and see what happens.
“For so many of these kids in our program, let’s face it they grew up watching the Lions and they’ve seen that field so many times, so now for them to actually get a chance to run out on the field and have the opportunity to play I think it’s really special for everybody on our team. That facility (Ford Field) is unbelievable.”
And, so is the job that McElwain has done in his first year at Central.
Matchup: West Division champion Central Michigan vs. East Division champion Miami (Ohio)
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ford Field, Detroit
Records: Central Michigan 8-4; Miami 7-5