“Go Gators!” is scribbled in Sharpie on individually wrapped sugar, peanut butter, M&M and chocolate chip cookies.
This is what awaits the Florida Gators football team after their Wednesday practices for “Special Treat Wednesday.” The plastic bags are signed “Mama Mac,” or as she is more widely known, Karen McElwain, head coach Jim McElwain’s wife.
It’s a tradition the couple started during Jim McElwain’s tenure at Colorado State University. Karen McElwain and the other coaches’ wives would bake cookies for the football players as a mid-week reward.
“It’s just really important to get to know them on the other side of football, little things to get to know them to their faces,” she said.
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For more than 30 years, Karen McElwain has bonded with her husband’s players from around the country as the couple has moved around for Jim McElwain’s coaching jobs. Now, having lived in Gainesville for a year, Karen McElwain’s role is “Mama Mac” for the Gators.
After a 10-win season and a trip to the SEC Championship, it was quite the first year for the McElwains. Jim McElwain was named 2015 SEC Coach of the Year, and the team recently wrapped up a successful recruiting season, with the 2016 class ranked No. 12 according to ESPN Insider.
For this new Florida family, football is just the surface.
“It’s important to the McElwains that it’s all about family,” Karen McElwain said.
And the matriarch of the Florida Gators family is “Mama Mac.”
During the recruiting process, she and her husband get to know the football prospects from the start. Recruits and their families come over to the McElwains’ home for a weekend of food and fun. Plus, the McElwains get the chance to bond with the athletes who may become Gators.
“We think it’s important that they get to come to our house so they know where we live and know what we’re all about,” Karen McElwain said.
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It was a long road for the McElwains before they ended up in Gainesville.
The two met in college at Eastern Washington University, where Jim McElwain was a quarterback for the football team.
Karen McElwain grew up in Washington and worked as a bartender in college. Jim McElwain cooked stuffed mushrooms for her in his dorm room on one of their dates.
They married in 1988, and so began their cross-country journey as a football family. They have come a long way since then, and they have lived in all areas of the country as Jim McElwain worked his way up the coaching ladder with nine different teams.
The McElwains have three children — Hanna, Lizzi and Jerret — all of whom attended the University of Alabama and worked in their football recruiting office, keeping the family’s passion for the game alive.
When the McElwains are able to congregate in the same place, food takes center stage.
“We all love to cook,” Karen McElwain said. “We all get involved in the kitchen. We’ve been known to the have the music blasting — some classic rock music.”
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“Coach Mac” is in charge of the grill and the main courses, while “Mama Mac” whips up her signature side dishes and desserts.
Karen McElwain’s love for food and her life as a coach’s wife inspired her to co-found the company Heart for the Game. The website started five years ago and shares a behind-the-scenes look at football from the perspective of a coach’s wife.
The website, which includes areas for food, fun and fashion, aims to tell the stories of coaches’ wives, give gameday recipes and share Karen McElwain’s message about all the good things college football can do for its players.
She says a common misconception is that the coaches are only gone for three months during football season, but with recruiting and Spring football, husbands like “Coach Mac” are only home for a few weeks in July.
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The McElwains keep an open-door policy during football season: Their home has been dubbed the “Mac Fam Inn” for all of the friends, family and transitioning coaches they have housed throughout the years.
“During the season, for every home game there’s one to four couples staying at the house,” Karen McElwain said. “We’ve even been known to have blow-up mattresses in the yoga room for people to crash.”
This trail of visitors continues into the off-season, when friends the McElwains have collected from across the country come to see the family for “‘Mama Mac’s’ cooking and ‘Coach Mac’s’ barbeque,” as Karen McElwain calls it.
With one season of Gator football under Jim McElwain’s belt, the family has settled into Gainesville.
Karen McElwain said one of her favorite things about UF is the fans and how they have “pride, passion and love” for their university.
“When they have it, it just makes you feel happy and you want to provide an excellent program in more than just football,” she said. “To give that back to the fans who have the pride, passion and love is just a special thing.”
Coach Jim McElwain and Karen McElwain before attending Easter Sunday service last month. The McElwains have been in Gainesville for a year now, with a 10-4 regular season record in their first season with the Gators.