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Gazette Premium Content KLEE: With limited roster, CSU football must rely on flexibility of coaches

By Paul Klee Published: June 18, 2013

DENVER - Given the option of skis or a snowboard, Jim McElwain chooses the comfort of a fireplace.

"I sit in the lodge," the Colorado State football coach said with a laugh.

On sunburned August afternoons during training camp: Visor or hat?

"Full ballcap for me."

And the end-all question: Tebow or no Tebow?

"This is all I will say about that: I saw that guy single-handedly beat us (Alabama) in the SEC championship game as a junior," McElwain said. "I would never bet against the guy."

Who doesn't want options? Too bad football coaches aren't always fortunate to have them.

In 2012, his first season with the Rams, McElwain had fewer than a bankrupt salad bar.

When the Mountain West released its all-conference teams, the highest honor for a Ram went to the kicker. With respect to second-team selection Jared Roberts, who can boom it, that's rarely a good thing. The Rams finished 4-8.

Before McElwain stocks the roster and revs up the playbook like he did as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, he must show the most underappreciated quality of a good coach.

Flexibility.

When we consider great coaches, we think about Coach K and Jim Boeheim and Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. They win with the biggest, strongest, fastest players on the circuit.

But give me basketball coaches Bob McKillop (at Davidson) and Rick Byrd (Belmont) or football coach Gary Patterson (TCU).

How they rack up wins without armies of top draft picks is more impressive than their big-budget counterparts.

The great coach is one who can adjust to fit his playbook to his players. This requires a personality trait that is often foreign in the coaching fraternity: humility.

Sometimes - as was the case for rebuilding CSU in McElwain's first season - the players just aren't there.

"I do get a kick out of guys who come into a place and say, 'This is what I do and this is how we're going to do it.' Well, maybe you don't have those guys to do that," McElwain told me. "For us, the important thing is to figure out what we can do and then fit the parts in there."

One coaching staff that has shown dramatic flexibility is just down the interstate. McElwain and the Rams have spent time around John Fox and the Broncos staff at Dove Valley.

The Broncos once shed a passing offense designed for Kyle Orton in favor of a read-option look with Tim Tebow - then circled back around to Peyton Manning's robust offense.

"That's the strength of any coach, adapting to what a player does well," Manning said after a recent workout at Dove Valley.

McElwain can't say it, but I can: CSU football needs a jolt of athleticism like AD Jack Graham needs a million-dollar donation. Last season there was a glaring lack of speed and playmakers inside Hughes Stadium.

"I think we've really evolved defensively with what kind of guys we have," McElwain said. "We're still getting there on offense. That starts with your trigger guy, too."

The Rams are in the critical process of deciding on their trigger guy. Will it be Garrett Grayson or Conner Smith starting at quarterback?

"I leave that up to them," McElwain said. "One thing you can't do as a coach is force leadership. Leadership emerges because of who you are and what you're all about. We're waiting to see who emerges."

CSU is scheduled to return 15 starters when it opens McElwain's second season against Colorado on Sept. 1.

Here's another option: Should CU and CSU play their annual rivalry game in Denver or rotate between campus sites?

"I know this isn't the answer you're looking for," McElwain said, knowing I want the Rocky Mountain Showdown moved to Boulder and Fort Collins.

"But I'm really on the fence on that one. I'd play 'em in a parking lot."

How's that for flexibility?

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Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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