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December 14, 2011

HURT: McElwain doing double duty

It's perfectly understandable that the first question most University of Alabama football fans had about the new job opportunity for Jim McElwain, the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator, had nothing to do with Colorado State.

UA fans have no grudge that I know of against CSU. Nearly all UA supporters appreciate McElwain's four years in Tuscaloosa and will wish him well. But the focus of the Crimson Tide faithful is not on Fort Collins at the moment. It's on New Orleans. So the question is: How will McElwain's departure, and a few weeks of split duty, affect the Crimson Tide as it prepares for the BCS National Championship Game against LSU?

There is no way to answer that question precisely. But my best guess is that McElwain - who has earned his shot as a head coach - will handle his brief stretch of double duty just fine. Other coaches have done it. Bo Pelini did the same thing in the 2007 season's BCS title game - he coached as LSU's defensive coordinator in New Orleans after he had already been named the head coach at Nebraska.

Alabama fans have less pleasant memories of Mike Price coaching Washington State in the 2003 Rose Bowl before coming to UA, but Price, as it turned out, was undone by issues far greater than coaching against Oklahoma in that game proved to be. Furthermore, there is a far different distraction level when it is the head coach leaving as opposed to an assistant.

It's quite possible that McElwain coaching for Alabama against LSU will turn out to be a boon for Colorado State as well. Certainly, the Rams will get far more ESPN mention - the gold standard in the realm of collegiate athletics media exposure, like it or not - than the amount (zero) they would have received otherwise during BCS week. It isn't going to be a CSU infomercial, but it will be positive publicity. And since nothing succeeds like success, it would enhance McElwain's recruiting effectiveness for years to come if he could add a second national championship ring to go with his first.

A win over LSU would also help enhance his legacy in one of the world's least appreciated positions. Alabama has had plenty of offensive coordinators who have won a remarkable number of games, but in 40 years of following UA football, I can remember a grand total of one season - 1989, with the beloved Homer Smith - when everyone was pleased with the offensive coordinator (and even Smith didn't get the bouquets and applause in 1988, or in his second stint at UA).

That's totally unfair to coaches such as Mal Moore, who has more national championship rings than anyone else in the sport, and could pick up his ninth in a few weeks, and to McElwain. But it's just the nature of fans, who inevitably want an offense to either be more wide-open, or, if things aren't going well, more conservative.

McElwain has a daunting challenge ahead. Alabama didn't score a touchdown the last time it faced LSU in November. But it's also a chance - after four very good years - to show he saved the best for last.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0225.


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