By Scott Carter
University of Florida Head Football Coach Jim McElwain is onstage at a theater in Orlando, speaking to another group of orange-and-blue faithful on his annual spring tour around the Sunshine State.
Seated in a row up front near the corner of the stage, Jim’s wife Karen McElwain and their youngest daughter, Elizabeth, watch and listen as Coach Mac entertains the crowd with a mixture of one-liners, inside info about the team, and lessons he has learned during a coaching career that spans four decades.
Karen has heard most of the stories many times, but the tall, blonde, Washington native is as enthusiastic as anyone among the crowd of approximately 400. Jim, as she refers to the man she married in 1988, is on top of his game this night, much like that evening in 1984 when she first realized she was falling for the quarterback-turned-coach.
As they would often do, Jim, Karen and a group of their friends were out for a night of dancing near the Eastern Washington University campus. They moved among the same circle of friends, many of them EWU baseball players. Jim was a roommate with a baseball player, and Karen had served as one of the team’s batgirls.
At the time, Karen ’87 (BA mass communications) was still an undergrad on the Cheney campus, and Jim ’85 (BA physical education) was in the early stages of his coaching career as a graduate assistant under former Eagles head coach Dick Zornes.
Karen recalls that Jim was a great Western swing dancer. On this particular night out, another young woman thought so too. She wrote her phone number on a napkin and dropped it down the back of Jim’s shirt. Karen immediately took notice.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t want her calling Jim.’ I realized I was in love with the guy,” Karen said. “My protective mode came on. She must not have met my approval.”
A friendship soon blossomed into more, helped along by Jim’s talent in the kitchen. He made Karen a spaghetti and stuffed mushroom dish on their first date. They dated for four years and then married, remaining close to their alma mater as Jim’s coaching career took off.
In his spacious office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, far removed from Woodward Field where Jim was a quarterback and two-time letter winner for the Eagles in 1981-82, he looks back fondly on where his and Karen’s journey began.
“When you reach back and really look at the impact of your life, the city of Cheney and Eastern Washington University probably are as thick a fabric as we have,” he said. “I obviously grew up in Montana, but really spent 1980 to 1995 in Cheney. That’s where I started my life with my family. That’s pretty much home for all three of our kids.”
The McElwains remain close to many of the friends and family they met at EWU. Marc Hughes, associate athletic director for development at EWU, has arranged many trips over the years to visit the McElwains wherever they are.
The door is always open for EWU pals at the MacFam Inn, which has called eight states home over the years.
“It’s a rotating door,” Karen said. “It’s a lot of fun for us, and we’re thankful we can share the experience with so many people we have met over the years from all the different places we’ve lived.”
The McElwains last visited EWU in 2010 when Woodward Field, now known as Roos Field, celebrated the installation of a red turf with financial contributions from many alumni, including former NFL All-Pro Michael Roos, national media personality Colin Cowherd and the McElwains.
Instead of building an outdoor kitchen at their home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during Jim’s four seasons as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator, Hughes convinced the couple to donate money to the renovation of the EWU football stadium.
“We take a lot of pride in being Eastern Eagles and what that place meant to us,” Jim said.
As the McElwains prepared for their second season at the University of Florida, they returned home over the summer to their place on Flathead Lake in Montana for a special occasion – the wedding of their oldest daughter, Hanna.
Those who have known the McElwains since they were at EWU swear they are the same couple who met in college. Down to earth. Approachable. Fun to be around.
“He grew up pretty humble. Most of us did,” said Mark Bray, a childhood friend of Jim’s who once lived with the McElwains in Cheney. “We know our roots. He’s made it big time and it doesn’t change him.”
The McElwains now call a 16-acre plot of land in Florida home. Hanna lives in Phoenix. Elizabeth lives in Orlando. Son Jerrett is finishing college in Alabama.
Life has moved fast for the couple since their nights dancing in Cheney. These days, they are focused on creating special memories as Gators, including nights like the one in Orlando where they mingled with Florida boosters and fans.
“We’re the newbies,” Karen said. “Being captain of the ship, Jim needs to know who his mates are. It’s all about relationship building and being genuine about it. It’s their baby. They have always been Gators. We hope this is our last stop.”
But the McElwains will always remember their first stop – Woodward Field, at the intersection of Elm and Washington Streets at EWU.
Coach Mac’s Career
1985-86: EWU – graduate assistant
1987-1994: EWU – quarterbacks, receivers
1995-1999: Montana State – offensive coordinator, receivers, special teams
2000-2002: Louisville – receivers, special teams
2003-2005: Michigan State – assistant head coach
2006: Oakland Raiders – quarterbacks
2007: Fresno State – offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
2008-2011: Alabama – offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
2012-2014: Colorado State – head coach
2015-present: Florida – head coach
Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, 2015
American Football Coaches Association, Regional
Coach of the Year, 2015
Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year, 2014
American Football Coaches Association, Regional Coach of the Year, 2014