From the beginning it seemed like the right move.
After Day One, it never felt like a really good fit.
After just 2½ seasons as the Florida Gators head football coach, Jim McElwain and the University say they’ve mutually agreed to part ways.
That’s a nice way of saying UF wanted him out of there and he wanted to leave but we’re still negotiating the buyout. Athletic Director Scott Stricklin confirmed Sunday night that they had agreed on the split but haven’t signed the deal.
At his opening press conference, McElwain seemed like the exact right guy for the job in Gainesville. After years of an over intense Ron Zook, the unlikeable Urban Myer and a super intense Will Muschamp, the Gators program was looking for a glib, affable guy to lead the program.
You know, a Spurrier-like guy.
McElwain seemed to be the exact right person: An SEC pedigree, an offensive coach and a winner as the head coach at Colorado State. If they mixed up a formula for what the Gators needed, he seemed to be the solution.
He won his opening press conference.
He won two SEC East titles in his first two years and just a month ago the Gator football team was 3-1, ranked and seemed poised to win the East for the third straight year. Even though there were rumblings among the Florida faithful, you figured he’d get the offense straightened out, Feleipe Franks would come around and they’d compete down the stretch.
But the exact opposite happened.
Two late-kick losses at home started the ball downhill. The offense looked disorganized and without an identity. Georgia came in as a two-touchdown favorite and within six minutes in Jacksonville showed they were winning, and scoring, at will.
That morning the rumors of not just the fans but the UF administration’s unhappiness with McElwain also started to surface.
He didn’t listen to anybody. He rebuffed Steve Spurrier’s offer to help the offense. Twice. He commandeered the soccer field for practice one day without asking anybody. Complained publicly, and privately, about the Gators football facilities and he didn’t attend the all-school head coaches meetings, instead sending surrogates. And he didn’t buy into the UAA philosophy of one-for-all and all-for-one, kind of a loner, an iconoclast. But not in a good way.
One of my colleagues derisively calls him “folksy.”
And the whole, “death threat” thing was weird. Without prompting on Monday of Florida/Georgia week, McElwain talked about the “hate” and vaguely talked about him, his family, coaches and players being under duress and used the words, “death threats.”
When I first heard that I thought, “Oh, that’s a ‘Week of Florida/Georgia Motivational Ploy.” But when McElwain declined to elaborate to his bosses later in the day they issued a terse, non-supportive statement saying their head coach declined “to offer further details.”
At Wednesday’s weekly presser, McElwain again declined to offer further explanation but told us he’d let us know if the situation became “unmanageable.”
Which seemed even weird-er.
It’s clear now that the UF administration was looking for a way out and McElwain’s strange actions all week, compounded by the embarrassing loss to Georgia and his post-game admission that he didn’t know if he’d be coaching in Gainesville past that night confirmed it.
“It’s hard to speculate how this situation might have played out if last Monday hadn’t happened,” Stricklin said Sunday night.
When I talked with McElwain before his second season he was glib, friendly and said all the right things. But he had a somewhat detached air about him. You might have sensed it during his press conferences when he would talk about “us” as in “the Gators” and it seemed a little hollow.
I often joke that the most important words surrounding the Florida football program are “Before Nineteen-Ninety.” That’s because the twelve years of the Spurrier era were exciting and seemed relatively calm on the coaching front. Steve took the blame for losses and deflected the credit for wins. He was a Gator through and through.
But that was not the norm around Gainesville.
In the 40 years I’ve covered college football the intrigue and cutthroat nature of the business hasn’t changed. The hook has gotten quicker for coaches who aren’t winning but there’s nothing pretty about it.
When Charley Pell was elevated from Defensive Coordinator to Head Coach at Clemson, the man he replaced, Red Parker, had terrible things to say about him. Pell left Clemson for Florida, staying with the Tigers just long enough to create enough recruiting violations to put them on two-year NCAA probation. His tenure at Florida was a constant rumor mill of NCAA investigations, slush funds and illegal recruiting tactics. When he was finally forced to resign, 107 NCAA violations were left behind.
Gator fans exhaled when Galen Hall was named Pell’s replacement. He seemed like a calm in the storm, a regular guy. But out of the blue just four years later in 1989 he was forced to resign after an internal investigation turned up cash payments to both assistant coaches and players.
And everybody was like, “Here we go again!”
In the short term the Gators had arm waving, never smiling Gary Darnell who everybody knew wasn’t the answer.
And then Spurrier. In “1990.”
And even his departure was strange in that he was angry with then AD Jeremy Foley for not pursuing the Darnell Docket trying to break Errict Rhett’s leg in a pile during the Florida/FSU game. So he exercised his chance in his two-week window to take the Redskins job in the NFL.
So as strange as this departure was, it falls right in line with a lot of others at Florida and at most big time football universities.
It’s never pretty.