The city of Fort Collins is one of the nation’s hidden gems. It was recently honored with the title “Happiest City in the World” by the LA Times. However, most Colorado State football fans wouldn’t be so quick to agree.
For the past five years, there hasn’t been much to cheer about within the walls of Hughes Stadium. The team has only managed to win 13 times in the 48 games since their 2008 New Mexico Bowl appearance, and attending football games has become more of a draw for tailgating craft beer aficionados than fans of the game. When the ball is kicked off, one would be hard pressed to find a less pumped up crowd at a pee-wee league game.
That is all slowly changing as the fans are beginning to fall in love with second year Head Coach Jim McElwain. After leaving his job as Offensive Coordinator at perennial powerhouse Alabama, McElwain didn’t waste any time trying to re-shape the mentality in the Rams locker room and around campus. McElwain’s hiring prompted Athletic Director Jack Graham to proclaim a “bold new era for Colorado State Football”.
Realistic (albeit jaded) CSU fans hoped for just two things last season: To beat the Colorado Buffaloes and to eclipse a win total greater than three, something former coach Steve Fairchild was unable to do in the previous three seasons. In his first season, McElwain accomplished both. Most schools would be disappointed with a four win season, but CSU students and fans seem to understand the process will take time. The program and the city are buying into McElwain’s mentality and his way of going about business.
To fans, former coach Steve Fairchild had always seemed to be the angry father who rarely smiled and seemed to never take pride in the accomplishments of his ‘children’. McElwain is more than a gruff coach caricature. He is motivated by his opportunity and, judging by his Twitter feed, in love with this city.
McElwain reaches out via social media, inviting students to eat lunch with him on Tuesdays. He even thought up the hashtag #OneTownOneTeamOneDream. Few can recall a football coach at CSU pumping up the crowd at basketball games. Nor one who will take time out of his day to pull aside a group of students – athletes or otherwise – to remind them that academics should and will always come first.
Not only has he changed the mentality on campus and around the state, he has changed how the program does business.
The most important part of buildings a successful program is recruiting, and when a team routinely loses recruits within it’s own state, changes must be made. Homegrown interest is often a barometer for how seriously recruits take a particular school. In a recent interview, McElwain talked about the importance of in state recruiting when he hammered home, “Our program’s backbone is the state of Colorado.” For years, the University of Colorado has won the recruiting battle and McElwain knew this needed to change. While Colorado was busy trying to find a new head coach this past year, McElwain used that time to add a new wrinkle to his recruiting process. The team held camps in cities across the state, inviting local young players that are contemplating one day playing Division I football to compete in front of coaches, while simultaneously showcasing his own program’s new-found stability – something CSU’s rivals in Boulder can’t currently offer.
With a new mentality and fresh approach to team building, fans are starting to get on board. Coach McElwain is laying the foundation for something big at Colorado State. Fans are trading in their jokes for fight song lyrics and beginning to help push this team toward something greater. McElwain’s affection and passion for this University is contagious. He is going beyond the duties of a football coach. He is bringing this community closer together, and by doing so, rekindling football’s fire at Colorado State University.