Jim McElwain's task at Florida: Building roster, thinking ahead

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Florida -- Not even a step inside Jim McElwain’s new office at the University of Florida, and the first thing on the left is a silver trophy in the shape of a football. It’s new, too. McElwain earned it last season as the Mountain West’s Coach of the Year.

“A lot of great players led to that,” he says pridefully. “A lot of great players.”

The coach and his staff clearly played a role, too. As a first-time head coach, McElwain took Colorado State from four to eight to 10 wins in three seasons. Prior to his arrival, the Rams hadn’t won more than seven games since 2002.

The rise of CSU is largely what got him noticed by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. McElwain became Foley’s fourth football hire. When Foley brought in first-time head coaches Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, it didn’t go so well. When he hired a head coach with head-coaching experience, Urban Meyer, the fruits were two national titles.

It's a relatively small sample size, but Gators fans are hopeful the theory holds in McElwain’s case. And his time at Colorado State is illustrative of a growing trend in college football: There’s often a stop now between coordinator and running a high-level program such as Florida.

“That experience was invaluable,” McElwain said. “You’re learning from the mistakes you make and the things that work. You never get a do-over in life. Maybe in golf, but not in life.

“The key is being realistic and truly learning from all the things that happen, continually evolving and realizing you don’t have all the answers.”

But by the time you’re at, say, Florida, perhaps you have more answers -- or at least better understand the questions, the challenges. That’s why many ADs prefer to see that head-coaching line on the résumé because, as they say, it’s very difficult to learn how to be a head coach at an elite-level program. Muschamp found that out the hard way, and that ultimately falls on Foley.

If Fort Collins was the dry run in a sense, here is what's now being applied here in Gainesville.