FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2014, file photo, Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain talks in his headset during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Boston College in Boston. A person familiar with the search says Florida has hired McE
Stephan Savoia, File
December 04, 2014

There were the 10 wins and an appearance in the Top 25. Oh, and that $7 million, too.

Hard to say Colorado State lost even though the coach who orchestrated the dramatic turnaround is bailing on the Rams after three years to take over at Florida.

Jim McElwain may have used the Rams as a stepping stone to a more high-profile coaching gig with the Gators, but he left the team in great shape - and with a financial windfall.

As part of the buyout agreement, the Rams will receive $7 million, including $5 million in cash and $2 million to play a football game in Gainesville, Florida, down the road. His buyout clause was for $7.5 million.

Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin will step in as interim coach for the team's upcoming bowl game as the school begins a national search.

''CSU athletics has benefited from the three-year association with Jim McElwain,'' President Tony Frank said in a statement.

An emotional McElwain met with his team one final time Thursday in the auditorium where he's gone over many a game plan. There was a roar from inside the room.

In his time in Fort Collins, Colorado, McElwain restored the luster to a program that had gone 3-9 in three straight seasons before his arrival. The Rams won 10 regular-season games this season for just the fourth time in school history.

''As a university we have to be happy for him. He came in and he helped us out,'' said tailback Dee Hart, a graduate transfer from Alabama who arrived on campus over the summer because of his relationship with McElwain. ''He put us back to where Colorado State wanted to be at.''

And now it's back to the business of football. There's an undetermined bowl game to prepare for under Baldwin, who called the plays for a high-powered offense that averaged 36 points a game this season behind senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Garrett Grayson.

Baldwin may receive strong consideration for the position should the Rams prefer continuity. He came on board with McElwain and has head coaching experience, with San Jose State from 1997-2000.

There are plenty of big-name candidates out there, too, like recently fired Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who knows the Mountain West given his past ties with San Diego State.

Here's an intriguing possibility: Once again courting an Alabama offensive coordinator. This time, Lane Kiffin, the former USC coach who has roots with the Rams after serving as the team's offensive line assistant coach in 1999.

Hiring an Alabama coach certainly worked out well the first time, when McElwain was lured to Fort Collins from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He served as offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and helped the Tide capture two national titles.

When he was hired, McElwain was billed as an offensive mastermind who could lift the Rams from their doldrums, even if it was his first head coaching position. The team went 4-8 in his first season and then 8-6 in 2013, which included a win over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl.

This season, the Rams (10-2) flourished as Grayson took another step in his development under McElwain.

Grayson had quite a few explosive weapons, like Hart and sophomore receiver Rashard Higgins, who leads the nation in yards receiving (1,640) and TDs (17).

''The sky is the limit (for the offense),'' Grayson recently said. ''We are a very talented group.''

McElwain turned the town into big football backers again, with the parking lot at Hughes Stadium usually filled on Saturdays, much like it was when Sonny Lubick was in charge.

The success also helped push forward the agenda for a new stadium, with Frank even recommending last week that the school build a new sports stadium on campus instead of renovating the existing football arena.

Former Colorado State tailback Kapri Bibbs was sorry to see McElwain go.

''I think Colorado State probably just lost one of the great coaches to coach this game,'' said Bibbs, who's now with the Denver Broncos. ''This new coach, if he can try to implement what Coach Mac had in place, I think they'll have another successful season.''

Colorado State put a positive spin on losing a coach who has turned around a downtrodden program, saying in a release that it was receiving the largest-ever buyout. The school said the amount it recouped had eclipsed the $4.3 million that Texas paid to Louisville to hire away coach Charlie Strong.

There's no timetable to find McElwain's replacement. But there's plenty of interest.

''I would say I have been contacted by 40 to 50 candidates. Impressive ones. It is staggering,'' interim athletic director John Morris said.


AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and AP freelance writer Dale Bublitz contributed.

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