GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They hadn’t even signed the buyout agreement yet, but Florida officials and Jim McElwain had gone far enough down a bad road by Sunday afternoon that they agreed McElwain wouldn’t spend another day as the Gators’ head coach. A day after a 42–7 loss to Georgia that probably came after the real final straw, the only coach in SEC history to win division titles in his first two seasons would not finish his third at Florida.
So how did this happen? It wasn’t only because the Gators lost their last three games. It wasn’t only because a coach hired to fix a struggling offense couldn’t develop a reliable starting quarterback by year three. It wasn’t only because of blowout losses to Florida State and Alabama to end McElwain’s first two seasons. It wasn’t only because of an odd press conference last week. It was an amalgam of factors that all swirled into one giant ball of mess in the past six days, and suddenly there was only one plausible move: Fire McElwain and make defensive coordinator Randy Shannon the interim coach for the remainder of the season.
On a day when everything should have been sunshine and lollipops, one of the first major cracks in the relationship between McElwain and Florida’s administration formed. McElwain’s Florida team had just whipped Iowa 30–3 in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, and Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi served up an easy question about how much positivity the win might inject into the program. The answer started off fine…
“We’ve got a lot of really good recruits that are excited to be Gators, and that’s a good thing,” McElwain said. “We had a heck of a year. Two straight SEC East championships, new facilities.”
Then came the statement that, had it been uttered on a sitcom in the ’80s, would have been followed by a record scratch…
“We’ll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that’s at,” McElwain said.
When McElwain said this, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin—who had been on the job about two months at the time—was already working on a contract extension for the coach that would be announced a few months later. This is how some people high in the Florida athletic department viewed McElwain’s sentiment. Here’s a guy who has heard the word “Yes” more than Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp combined, who is about to get more money despite a second year with an offense ranked in the 100s, and he’s questioning the administration’s commitment?
Do not be fooled into thinking that one bizarre week turned McElwain from two-time SEC East champion into fired two-time SEC East champion. The implosion at Florida was at least a year in the making. The above incident is one of several that erased the kind of benefit of the doubt the Gators exercised when retaining Will Muschamp after he went 4–8 in 2013. But make no mistake, last week hastened an exit that might not have happened until next year. “This was more than just wins and losses,” Stricklin said Sunday night, “and I’ll leave it at that.”
The timeline accelerated last Monday when McElwain claimed to have received death threats and then declined to elaborate when asked by Florida officials for more information. This caused Florida administrators to release a statement saying that McElwain refused to provide additional details. They did not have to release that nugget to the public, and they did not do it lightly. That put the beef out in the open. No longer could the sides hide behind coded quotes and words left unsaid. The statement also boxed in both parties. Once it went out into the ether, the relationship was basically unsalvageable. All that remained was a 42–7 loss to Georgia on Saturday in Jacksonville to seal the deal. “At the end of the day, we were brought here to win. And we haven’t done it,” McElwain said at a postgame press conference that sounded more like a post-firing press conference. “My concern isn’t about my job. My concern is about these players and our staff.”
Ultimately, McElwain was let go for (mostly) football reasons. But he was let go this quickly because he failed to endear himself to the people he worked with and for. Florida coaches who win SEC and national titles don’t have to endear themselves to their co-workers. Coaches who claim their dog could run the offense and then fail to score an offensive touchdown in two tries against a hated rival (Florida State) do need to curry some favor. McElwain elected not to. “I know what I was brought here to do. We haven’t been good on offense. I get it. We’ve won a few games, but we haven’t won enough. We haven’t won a championship. That’s real. That’s life. That is this business. And I take full responsibility for all of it.”
The Georgia loss encapsulated McElwain’s issues on the football side and also offered another hint as to why the Gators accelerated this process. Feleipe Franks, the highest-rated quarterback McElwain recruited, completed 7 of 19 passes for 30 yards. That’s 1.6 yards per attempt. Unless Franks blossoms this offseason under a new coach, Gators still don’t have a quarterback of the future. Florida’s defense, which kept the Gators afloat for the bulk of 2015 and ’16 while still loaded with Muschamp recruits, got bulldozed by the Bulldogs. DBU is DB-useless when the opponent averages 8.3 yards a carry. Florida State and Alabama exposed Florida’s talent deficit in McElwain’s first year. In year three, the Gators looked just as far behind when playing a team with championship talent.
It looks even worse for Florida that Georgia coach Kirby Smart, hired a year later than McElwain and a defensive coach rather than an offensive guru, identified and landed his quarterback of the future immediately. Smart, like McElwain a former Alabama coordinator, flipped Jake Fromm, a Warner Robins, Ga., native who had been committed to Alabama, a few months after getting the job. Fromm took over after former five-star recruit Jacob Eason hurt his knee in Georgia’s season opener. Eason is back, but the job is Fromm’s. Georgia has at least two quarterbacks who could start at Florida now, and top-ranked recruit Justin Fields is on the way. McElwain and company were excited to welcome Californian Matt Corral for next year, but the timing of Corral’s commitment this summer was telling. It came just after Fields crossed Florida off his list.
Smart already was drinking McElwain’s milkshake on the recruiting trail. Now he’s also doing it on the field. And since Smart appears to be building a monster in Athens, Florida—and Tennessee, for that matter—must move to upgrade before they get left in the dust by the program that could take over as king of the SEC after Alabama’s Nick Saban retires.*
*Saban turns 66 on Tuesday. He looks like he’s in his 40s. It’s quite possible he coaches 15 more years and this predicted Georgia ascension never happens. But Saban might tire of beating everyone else in the league eventually.
McElwain was surprised when he got to Florida that the Gators lagged so far behind in facilities. They didn’t have an indoor practice facility. (They got one last year.) Unlike most of their peers, their day-to-day locker room facilities are under an end zone in the stadium rather than in a separate football operations building. Stricklin has created a master plan to build such a facility, but that will take time and money and the construction of a new baseball stadium—because the new football building will have to go where the reigning College World Series champs currently play.
This shouldn’t matter that much. Florida’s weight room and locker room are perfectly nice, but everyone else spent the money they weren’t allowed to give to the players and Florida saved it. The following jobs could be open by the end of next month:
• Texas A&M
Of that group, Florida’s facilities would rank last. But Florida’s access to nearby talent is better than Nebraska and Tennessee and as good or better than Texas A&M. That’s the equalizer to the facilities issue. Despite not having the most palatial digs, the Gators should still be able to sign quality players because they’re closer to the homes of those players. Meyer complained about the facilities, but he also upgraded the roster and won two national titles.
McElwain might have coasted for another year based on the goodwill the two SEC East titles bought him. But Florida’s fan base realized even before Florida’s administration that those two titles were the result of a weak division. The end-of-season meetings with Florida State and Alabama showed exactly how far the Gators really were from competing with the kind of programs Florida fans believe should be the Gators’ peers. Florida State is down this year, and there will be no end-of-season meeting with Alabama, but the Georgia loss served the same purpose. The Gators aren’t good enough.
Had McElwain handled things differently, he might have gotten another year to try to make them better. Instead, someone else will try. The next coach will face the same expectations that so rankled McElwain. But that is life at a program less than 10 years removed from its last national title that sits in the middle of the state that has produced more current NFL players than any other. The next coach had better embrace those expectations, or they’ll also swallow him whole.