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On Jim McElwain, Colorado State, Florida and the realities of rooting for the little guys

Jim McElwain left Colorado State for Florida after revitalizing the Rams, and his departure will forever color one of the greatest seasons in CSU football history. His exit hurts, but it's the kind of thing that simply comes with the territory when supporting all but the most powerful programs in college football.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

On Aug. 11 then-Colorado State head football coach Jim McElwain said that Fort Collins "was a place to call home," and I believed him.

Looking back on that less than four months later, as Coach Mac leaves Colorado State to try his hand at leading the Florida Gators back to prominence, I’m bitter and angry.

Not at McElwain. At myself.

Let’s get this out of the way first. I bleed green and gold. As a student at Colorado State, I did not avail myself of the opportunity to take part in some of the best seasons of the Sonny Lubick era nearly as often as I should have. I regret that now, but since I graduated, my affinity for — and dedication to — the Rams has grown exponentially. Part of that has to with my job, where I cover NFL, MLB and Pac-12 teams. It’s great work, but it’s work nonetheless, and I have experienced a subsequent decrease in passion for the teams I grew up devoted to into those leagues.

In my neck of the woods no one cares about Colorado State football, and that’s awesome. I have this little corner of my sports world that doesn’t interfere with what I do for a living and allows me to geek out as much as I want. Plan my Saturday afternoon around streaming coverage of CSU vs. Cal-Davis? Fine. Waste a weekend by leading the Rams to fictional glory on my Playstation? Sure. Yell, curse and scream like a madman when watching the replay of a Colorado State game I’ve already seen? Geez, I need a hobby.

So I’m gutted that McElwain — by all accounts a great guy — is leaving after helping to turn around the program in just three short years. He was perhaps the best thing to happen to Rams football since Lubick, who is still a legend in Fort Collins. Mac could have been a legend himself. After all, he inherited a squad that went 3-9 for three-straight seasons under Steve Fairchild and made incremental gains each year, culminating in this season’s 10-2 campaign that saw them in Mountain West title contention until last week’s loss to Air Force.

In so many ways it’s been a magical season for CSU, who posted double-digit wins and spent two weeks ranked in the AP Top 25 — both of which hadn’t happened since I was a student in Fort Collins. The Rams were fun and exciting, featuring perhaps the best quarterback-wide receiver-running back combination in the nation in conference Offensive Player of the Year Garrett Grayson, Biletnikoff Award finalist Rashard "Hollywood" Higgins and Alabama transfer Dee Hart, who came to Fort Collins strictly because of his ties to McElwain when both were in Tuscaloosa with the Crimson Tide.

Yet for every victory won during the team’s amazing run this season, there was a thought in the back of my mind that all this success might mean Mac’s time in Northern Colorado could come to a close as jobs at powerhouse schools were rumored to be opening up. But I calmed myself with reports like this one from October, when McElwain told The Coloradan, "I believe there are great things that can happen here, and we’re nowhere close to the expectation of where I think we can get." With the university poised to finally begin work an on-campus stadium that will drastically improve the gameday experience — and potentially the recruiting ability — of the program, I believed Coach Mac was in for the long-haul.

Looking back on it, he never came out and explicitly said that he wouldn’t entertain offers to leave Fort Collins, which is what a lot of coaches say when they start to experience some success at any program at any level — It’s a lie, of course, but we all believe it if it’s our school and our guy. It’s what I wanted to believe about McElwain, all the while knowing that my beloved CSU program couldn’t hold  candle to a powerhouse program like Florida, Michigan or Nebraska in terms of money or prestige.

But, I said to myself, there are other factors, like loyalty and quality of life -- I mean, have you been to Fort Collins? -- or perhaps the challenge of putting a place like Colorado State on the national map. And didn’t Coach Mac just seem like he wanted to stay and build my Rams into something they’ve never been before? Wasn’t he the architect of "The Climb" that could take the CSU to previously unattainable heights?

But when it comes to sports I’m a realist above all, and what I should have told myself in those moments I found myself believing McElwain’s coachspeak is that CSU — no matter how much I love it — is a third-or fourth-rate program, and third-or fourth-rate programs simply don’t exist on an equal playing field with the big boys. It’s a reality San Diego State faced when Brady Hoke left for Michigan in 2011, that San Jose State felt when they lost Mike MacIntyre to Colorado the following year and that even MWC bully Boise State stared down last year when Chris Petersen left for Washington. It’s what CSU itself faced two years ago when basketball coach Tim Miles left for Nebraska of all places.

The contract extension that former Colorado State Athletic Director Jack Graham worked out with McElwain just months ago included the now-infamous $7.5 million buyout designed so that CSU would stop being a "stepping-stone" job for bigger and better programs. But save for Miles —and now McElwain — Colorado State has never been a stepping-stone job. McElwain is the first coach in Rams history not to have left Fort Collins retired or fired.

Mac’s departure comes at a high point for the program, and he certainly leaves CSU in better shape than he found them. But the fact that he’s leaving will forever color one of the greatest seasons in Colorado State history, and that’s a shame. It also just comes with the territory of being a passionate fan for anybody but the most elite — and maybe it's the best I can hope for.

So I’ll own it, tell Mac thanks for the memories, wish him the best with the Gators and start devouring each and every piece of speculation about who the new head man for the Rams. Maybe we’ll poach him from a lower-profile school than CSU, and maybe I’ll believe him when he says he wants to stay, too