It doesn’t matter if you win or lose—wait—that’s what matters most in football.
Although it seems backwards to celebrate a losing season, when things were as bad as they had gotten at Colorado State, even 4-8 is worthy of smiles and good feelings.
Following the win over New Mexico in the team’s season finale, first year head coach Jim McElwain was rightfully a bit exuberant.
“Guys, obviously, that was a lot of fun,” Jim McElwain said to us media types following the season finale win. “It was a great way to end it (the season). I’m really proud of those seniors. I thought a couple of those guys really battled their tails off in this game.”
McElwain is a cheery kind of guy, at least in press conferences. He’s a bit sassy, certainly witty, but will never make media members feel like complete fools. Even through all the losing this season—six straight losses at one point—he never lost his cool or lost his sense of humor.
When I asked him following the win about his comment to CSU Radio man Brian Roth that, “This has been the longest year of my life,” Coach Mac quipped, “I think, you know, dealing with you guys.”
Even through all the losing, he never gave up on his players. McElwain is all about laying the foundation for greatness. He’s done that this year in so many ways they’re almost too numerous to list. He revamped the strength and conditioning program, pushing his players to excel in the weight room like no one at CSU has before. He put in place a mental conditioning program that forced players to become more in touch with themselves through role-playing and group therapy. It’s a somewhat revolutionary notion of training football players’ brains emotionally as well as their bodies physically, that he was happy to note only a few of the highest tier programs in the country have adopted. He’s also cut down their access to the media and other outside distractions, implementing strict policies that will boot even the best players from the team and school.
McElwain has challenged all of his players to focus on new philosophies, and they’re proving successful. “WIN” or, “What’s Important Now” is the coach’s way of explaining that they must forget about mistakes—and even positive plays—and look toward the very near future. He also demands that they strive to be a champion every day. Following the team’s season-opening win over CU, McElwain explained those presumptions, “But the expectation should not be, ‘We just got a win.’ That’s not the expectation. The expectation is, ‘How do we keep achieving our goal of being excellent every day?’”
His players—which includes those he recruited and the ones left over from the previous failed regime—they paid the respect back by refusing to quit, rejecting rolling over and dying as they had in recent years.
McElwain is a special type of coach; he can inject life into whomever he speaks to, or make them reflect on themselves as individuals. When he says he’ll always be there for his players, he means it wholeheartedly, and they know that.
Following six straight losses, these Rams won three of their final five games. Those include the last three home contests, in front of one-third to one-half full Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium. Of course, fan support has tapered off in the last few years of football futility at an alarming level, but these aren’t the same sorry Rams.
This team was depleted—losing players due to transfers, expulsions and injuries—but it caused them to bond together, to accept McElwain’s lessons on life and football and they became a better team because of it all.
Even when they were losing, certain aspects of the team showed flashes, while other parts floundered. The defense surprisingly has come along quicker than the offense—with Coach Mac being an offensive-minded guy—and they should receive much of the accolades for the team’s last three wins. They scored touchdowns against Hawai’i and UNLV, and they held New Mexico’s fourth-best rushing attack to a mere 137 yards in the season finale win.
Offensively, the playbook, schemes and techniques that McElwain had been teaching all year finally produced results in the second half of the season. He wanted better pad level and “fire” from his offensive line, he got it. He wants a power rushing attack, and the Rams enjoyed a 100-plus yard runner in five straight games to end the year. He’s had to work with three different quarterbacks due to severe injuries, and squeezed success out of each of them. Redshirt freshman Conner Smith went 3-1 as a starter, going 61-100 for 768 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions, progressing to his most efficient game to close the season.
The bottom line is this; Colorado State improved.
They not only improved in the win-loss column, but in the way the football culture is run—with Jim McElwain in charge, the future of football in Fort Collins looks bright.
That’s because the head coach wasn’t happy with his team’s record—and he insists he’s never satisfied—expecting to take Colorado State to a championship level in the next few years.
With Coach Mac, that can become a reality.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. You can follow Rich on twitter or facebook for all your CSU Rams news and opinion.