Jim McElwain figured it was just a prank and hung up.
Luckily, Nick Saban hit re-dial.
McElwain still wonders why Saban did and took a chance on McElwain back in 2007, a move that set the stage for a meteoric rise that has reached the University of Florida.
At first McElwain, then the offensive coordinator at Fresno State, did not believe it was Saban on the other end of the phone.
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“I actually might have hung up thinking it was one of my buddies busting my chops, not knowing he had a job opening,” McElwain said with a laugh. “I’m just really excited he called back. I owe a ton to coach Saban and what he gave me an opportunity to do.”
Now, McElwain will face Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide in the biggest game the Gators have played since the two worked on the same sideline.
Those experiences as Saban’s offensive coordinator would produce McElwain’s greatest successes in coaching and pave the way for greater opportunities. None has been bigger than the one at hand during Saturday’s SEC championship in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
McElwain’s first Florida team is a 17.5-point underdog, on the heels of a 25-point loss to Florida State and faces the possibility of another ugly loss in the span of a week.
Whatever happens, the Gators (10-2) remain ahead of schedule under McElwain. He inherited a program that had totaled 11 wins in two seasons and was picked to finish fifth this season in the SEC East.
Florida instead won the SEC East for the first time since 2009.
But McElwain has a much grander vision for the Gators. He only has to look across the field Saturday to see the ultimate destination.
Saban has carried the torch of legend Bear Bryant into the 21st century in Tuscaloosa.
McElwain hopes to echo the successes of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer in Gainesville.
To do so, McElwain will lean on many of the tenets he learned during his four seasons (2008-11) under Saban.
“Whether he believed it or not, I sat there and soaked every second and word he had,” McElwain said. “Took notes. Tried to learn as much as I can.”
After winning a second national title with Saban in 2011, McElwain would take his first head coaching job, at Colorado State, with a better appreciation for the overall organization of a program and a plan for putting the right people in place.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a coach or whoever it is in the organization, he hires great people and he lets them do their job,” McElwain said. “He sets the parameters and, you know, usually great coaches work really well under, ‘You just give me the schedule, let’s go.’
“It was the one thing I really appreciated, him allowing me to do my job.”
Saban also allowed the offensive-minded McElwain to match wits and talk Xs and Os with one of the great defensive minds of his generation – a man McElwain touts as, “the best ball coach in our era.”
Saban can reel off the qualities that underlie McElwain’s success.
“He’s a good teacher,” Saban said. “He’s got a really good mind. He’s innovative in terms of some of the things that he does and the problems he creates. He coaches with discipline and works hard to get his players to execute.
“He does things the right way and he’s got a good personality and he’s a great competitor.”