McElwain, who is in his second year as head coach at Colorado State, spent four seasons leading the Crimson Tide’s offense and had historic success. He and his Rams (1-2) travel to Tuscaloosa for a date with the top-ranked Tide (2-0) on Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
Players say McElwain was a great teacher and leader, who’d occasionally have them rolling on the floor in laughter.
“In camp two or three years ago, he brought in a picture of a dead fish and a picture of a Charlie Tunafish,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Kellen Williams said. “He said, ‘We have too many dead fish in here,’ and he put up the dead fish. Then he goes, ‘I want you to be like this guy,’ and he put up the picture of Charlie Tuna. Everybody broke out laughing.
“It was the goofiest picture I’ve ever seen.”
Williams gives McElwain a lot of credit for his development and said it will be good to speak with him after the game.
“Coach Mac was an unbelievable coach,” Williams said. “He helped me so much when I was playing center. Him and coach (Jeff) Stoutland. When I was the backup center, I would go in the film room with (McElwain) and Stoutland and they would help me get a better understanding of the offense. That’s why I’m at where I’m at right now.”
Under McElwain’s direction, the school produced it’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 2009 with Mark Ingram. McElwain also helped guide the team to two national championships in three years (2009, 2011). Alabama compiled a 48-6 record while McElwain orchestrated the offense.
Throughout the years, Tide coach Nick Saban has faced many of his assistants, but Saturday will undoubtedly be different.
“I think Jim McElwain has done a fabulous job,” Saban said. “He obviously did a fantastic job for us the four years that he was here. He’s a very bright guy and has a lot of energy and enthusiasm and affects players in a positive way. I think he’s gotten the most out of his team and the players that he has.”
Tide quarterback AJ McCarron won’t let the emotions of the game force him to lose focus of the team’s goal.
“It’s going to be different (seeing him on the other side), but at the same time it’s just like any other game,” McCarron said. “He’s an opponent, so we’ve got to come out focused. It’s going to be a big week for us to not have a let-down week after a big win, so we’ve got to come out and handle business.”
McElwain is ready for a return to the place that helped shape his career. He relishes the opportunity his players and the entire Colorado State organization will have in on Saturday.
“I’m excited for our opportunity and the organization’s opportunity to go see the ‘Mecca’ and go see what it’s about,” McElwain told reporters Monday. “Part of it is not only our players. I would say the majority of it actually is our whole organization, to go out and see what it means to do your job no matter what your job is as good as it can.”
Colorado State hired McElwain in December 2011, although he split his time between CSU and Alabama, working with the Tide through its national championship game win over LSU.
He took over a program that had endured three straight three-win seasons. The Rams went 4-8 last season in McElwain's first year on the job.
One of his graduate assistants has Alabama ties -- former Tide walk-on receiver/quarterback Rob Ezell.
McElwain said he appreciated every part of the Alabama community and how much hard work was put into making the organization run smoothly.
“When you go through that stadium and you see how immaculate everything is,” he said. “How the people who are taking the tickets take pride in what they do. How the people who are in the parking lots handle whatever their job is.
"The people with game-day operations, it is the best, and they take pride in what they do. What I got from there is not allowing mediocrity in anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s what I’m really kind of excited for a lot of people to see.”
As a 38-point underdog, his team may not have much of a chance, but McElwain isn’t showing any signs of backing down from the challenge. He’s excited his team has the opportunity to potentially perform in front of 102,000 fans, but doesn’t want them to be afraid of the moment.
“I think our approach and what we need to understand is, guys, who gets an opportunity to go match yourself against the best?” McElwain said. “You can't say that every week. As a competitor, the guys who are afraid, I’ll leave them home. I’ll see it in their eyes. They aren’t getting on the plane.
“I want the guys that are down there to compete every single down and not worry about anything but how they prepare and their ability to do their job. That’s what we're looking for.”
Anniston Star Sports Writer Marq Burnett covers Alabama athletics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @marq_burnett.