The 2015 Southeastern Conference Championship Game pits familiar foes, as No. 2 Alabama (11-1 overall, 7-1 in SEC) and No. 12 Florida (10-2, 7-1) will compete in Atlanta for the eighth time in the 24-year history of the league’s title game.
The familiarity extends beyond the storied programs, as both coaches have experienced success in SEC title game, as well. This marks Nick Saban’s seventh title appearance and Jim McElwain’s third – however it will be his first as a head coach.
“I think the SEC Championship Game is one of the best competitive venues, other than the National Championship Game or the playoff game, that I’ve ever been in,” Saban said Sunday during the SEC Championship Game teleconference. “It’s something special to me to be able to play in the game and have an opportunity to maybe win a championship.”
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McElwain seconded that.
“Well, first and foremost, all I can say is wow. It was amazing in both years we were in it,” said McElwain, who guided the Gators to a 10-2 mark. “The energy that’s in there because they’re all true fans. The place it’s located, everybody can get to. I got to tell you, it’s something special.”
In fact, the last time both Alabama’s Saban and Florida’s McElwain entered into the Georgia Dome to compete for the league title, they did so for the same team.
At the conclusion of Alabama’s 2008 season, under head coach Saban and offensive coordinator McElwain, the Tide lost to Florida 31-20 in the championship. A year later, the schools rematched, only this time it was the Tide who prevailed 32-13.
“That was a heck of a ball game now,” McElwain said of those Alabama-Florida SEC title games. “Let’s not forget there were some pretty good players on the field, too.”
McElwain is correct, as a combined 23 players were selected in the 2008-2009 NFL drafts from the schools.
So how did the Montana-raised and Eastern Washington-groomed McElwain find his way onto Saban’s staff after one season as an offensive coordinator at the FBS level?
Former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill gets the assist.
“(Hill) had told me that Jim was a really good coach and had done a good job,” Saban said. “When we had an opening, I sort of always do a pretty thorough job of trying to look around and see who’s available and who we might be able to get to come here and be our offensive coordinator. Jim was one of those guys, and Pat Hill thought so much of him that I trusted him, and that went a long way.
“When I met Jim and talked with him and worked with him, we were certainly happy with the decision to have him on our staff.”
McElwain couldn’t believe Saban would reach out to him to discuss a potential job opening. In fact, McElwain claims to have hung up on Saban at first.
“Well, I’d never met him. Obviously knew of him,” McElwain recalled. “You can say the best ball coach in our era. I think, when he first called, I actually might have hung up thinking it was one of my buddies busting my chops, not knowing they had a job open. I was just really excited he called back.”
The opportunity to help lead Alabama’s offense proved to be successful union, as Alabama compiled a 48-6 record during their four years together — including two national titles. The run helped cement Saban as college football’s best head coach and paved the way for McElwain to land his first head-coaching job at Colorado State.
McElwain improved his record each of his first three seasons in Fort Collins — taking over a 3-9 team and improving it to 10-2. He is among the candidates for National Coach of the Year in his first season in Gainesville.
So what did the Florida coach take from his time with one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport?
“Probably the overall plan for the whole organization, not just the football specific, and how it all ties and how everybody has to be — have one common goal and no independent contractors,” McElwain said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling popcorn or calling plays, everybody has got to be on the same page going in the same direction. That’s something he’s done an outstanding job of, obviously.”
As for advice Saban gave his protégé before he left, one thing in particular stood out to Florida’s head coach.
“But the one thing he did tell me on the way out the door, he said, ‘Mac, whatever you do, make sure you do it with your personality and put your thumbprint on it.’ That’s a great piece of advice,” McElwain said.
Six seasons later, McElwain faces the daunting task of ending his mentor’s national title aspirations. The Gators opened as a 12-point underdog to Alabama, but have since been downgraded to a 17-point underdog.
“Well, it’s a huge challenge,” McElwain admitted. “We’re playing the best team in college football. This is just another opportunity for us to get out there and, you know what, match ourselves against the best. As you go through life, having opportunities to test yourself against the best is something that’s invaluable. We sure look forward to the challenge.”