ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Jim McElwain and Mike Leach, in their past careers at their former schools, it might have seemed bowl games were like the cap and the whistle.
They just came with the job.
As the head coach at Texas Tech from 2000-09, Leach took the Red Raiders to a bowl every single year.
As an assistant coach at Louisville, Michigan State, Fresno State and Alabama, McElwain coached in bowl games nine times in 11 seasons.
“I just thought that was something that happened, all the places I came from,” McElwain said.
Some old habits, it turns out, don’t die at all. They just hit the snooze button.
After a year’s hiatus at their new schools, Leach and McElwain are back in a bowl. McElwain’s Colorado State Rams will play Leach’s Washington State Cougars on Dec. 21 at University Stadium in the eighth annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Both coaches are finishing their second year on the job, having taken over programs in tough times.
How tough? In his first year at Colorado State, McElwain went 4-8. Leach was 3-9 with the Cougars.
Each year, more than half the members of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision play in a bowl game. It’s not the most exclusive of clubs.
Yet, Washington State last played in a bowl in 2003, CSU just once – the 2008 New Mexico Bowl – since 2005.
It is, then, a club of which both schools are delighted once again to be a member.
Leach, after his messy departure at Texas Tech, came to Pullman, Wash., with the intention of re-establishing that old habit as quickly as possible.
He made it clear he values not only the bowl-game experience and exposure, but the extra practices that accompany a bid.
“You want to do it (go to a bowl) every year,” he said Wednesday during a brief press conference following a luncheon at Four Hills Country Club. “You try to do it every year so that you can continue to reinforce your skills with the young guys.
“If there’s a date to play a football game, we want to be one of the teams playing, no matter what.”
McElwain, as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, played a role in two national championships. After he accepted the Colorado State job, he was asked – given his championship rings and his ties to Saban – why he hadn’t waited for a shot at a head-coaching job at a school in a BCS conference.
The delighted reaction of his CSU players to news of the bowl bid, he said, is reason and reward enough.
“One of the accomplishments you want early (in a new coaching job),” he said, “is to be able to get in a bowl game and be part of that club.
“You talk about it. There’s a certain aura that goes with being a bowl team.”
With more than a half-century of college coaching experience between them, Leach and McElwain will walk opposite sidelines for the first time Dec. 21. Each has made his mark as an offensive mastermind.
Their teams’ 2013 statistics reflect their divergent philosophies. The Cougars and the Rams both run up-tempo, no-huddle attacks, but with different emphases.
The Cougars, in Leach’s signature spread offense, have thrown the ball 75 percent of the time. Connor Halliday, WSU’s junior quarterback, has thrown more passes (656) than any other FBS quarterback.
“He’ll probably throw it coming off the bus,” McElwain said. “… What coach Leach does at Washington State with the pass offense is something that’s very unique, and we’ve got our work cut out for us on that side of the ball.”
In McElwain’s offense, the Rams strive for balance. Colorado State is the only FBS team this year that has a 3,000-yard passer (junior Garrett Grayson) and a 1,500-yard rusher (sophomore Kapri Bibbs).
“(Balance) is something I believe in. That’s how I’ve grown up,” McElwain said. “In a perfect world, you’re gonna have 500 yards of offense and you’d like 250 rushing and 250 passing.”
Certainly, that’s not Leach’s perfect world. But, in both coaches’ version of college football perfection, it starts with a bowl game.
The next step: winning one.
Washington State is an early three-point favorite.
NOT JUST A COACH: Last year, with Washington State professor Buddy Levy, Leach authored a book on Geronimo, the Apache chieftain who roamed the Southwest – including New Mexico – in the 19th century.
After the New Mexico Bowl, he said, Geronimo might bring him back to the state.
“I need to take a road trip back down here,” he said, “and slowly go along all this material (on Geronimo and the Apaches) that we’ve studied and the specific locations and things.”