Jim McElwain was not the right coach.
It almost felt like he was a Nick Saban Wannabe in a Gator costume.
For a while he fooled himself — fooled all of us, including me. His tenure was a rocky road from the start, however, and the potholes only got deeper with time and circumstance.
Jim McElwain enjoyed moderate success, was likable most of the time and appeared at one point to have the Gator Football Express back on track.
In a flash, his train went into the ditch and he wound up getting ushered out of town with a few parting gifts instead of a $12.75 million buyout check.
Many mistakes were made, but none greater that the aloofness, perceived arrogance and disconnection with the fans.
In the end, he was a Montana cowboy who loved to marvel at Big Sky star constellations as if they were offensive formations more than explaining why he couldn’t grow quarterbacks or keep them eligible or keep his offense on the field by converting third downs, which is what he was hired to do.
It looked like Mac became discouraged, lost his will and was eaten alive by the monster that is Gator Nation.
Being coach at the University of Florida is not a job for the faint of heart. Men of steel have been daunted at times. Remember, two Hall of Fame coaches with national championship resumes in the trophy case have scars to prove it.
Steve Spurrier left after 12 seasons, ostensibly for more money and a chance to coach in the NFL. But he also acknowledged a weariness. “Pretty soon,” Spurrier said of the fans and administrator, “they get tired of hearing all your stories.”
Urban Meyer rolled out of bed during the night, clutched his chest thinking he was having a heart attack, was rushed to the hospital and resigned. Meyer tried it come back, but it was never the same.
What do they have in common with McElwain?
Pressure. Excruciating pressure. Unrealistic expectations by the fan base. The demand for overnight success and an unwillingness to allow time for building a program from the ground up or remodeling after a disappointing season. There is almost no margin for error because of the high salary.
If you are not rock solid in the saddle or a native son of the program, you will not survive the storms ahead as Gator coach.
There were signs along the way – we just missed them.
Right off the bat, McElwain’s extrication from Colorado State wasn’t smooth. Ostensibly he had to fork over $2 million of his Florida salary to facilitate the CSU buyout, although I believe UF covered that with a contract extension.
Right off he seemed to be embattled with the UF administration over the construction of the indoor practice facility and, in general, the athletic facilities. He held a closed-door, off-the-record confab with about 15 members of the media whereupon he expressed that frustration to us. It was a head-scratcher.
Not long after that, McElwain was criticized by Associated Press writer Mark Long for taking the “used car salesman” approach to answering questions by the media.
That first season McElwain’s embarrassing sideline meltdown was caught on national TV when he got into the face of running back Kelvin Taylor, son of Gator All-American Fred Taylor.
At a Gator Club meeting in Ocala, several members were disappointed and even insulted by McElwain’s arrogance in addressing the group, saying he would answer questions but “not the stupid ones.” Whereupon he was asked about his offense and replied, “Haven’t you seen my offense (Colorado State) before?” And he declined to answer another on the grounds that it was “stupid.”
The most damning evidence was probably his flippant response in his first press conference. Asked about who his quarterback might be, he replied “You gotta understand this – I think I can win with my dog Clarabelle.”
OK, so it was an ill-fated attempt at humor, not to be taken as a declaration. But when I followed up with a question about what he might name his offense – given the fame achieved by Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun, he said: “I don’t know what you call it. It’ll be a blast. How about ‘The Human Society.'”
Indeed, it has been a dog of an offense – one of the worst I can remember in at least 35 or 40 years. And in view of the fact that he leaves behind a team that is ranked dead last in the SEC in total offense, the “Clarabelle” comment sounds even worse.
Five touchdowns passes are the fewest by any Gator team since 1988. And the 1,160 passing yards are less than half of what Missouri or Ole Miss have produced.
So there’s all that plus what many Gator fans consider one of the most egregious oversights of his 2½ seasons and his 56-game stint (33-23): The failure of McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to tap into the fertile brain of Steve Spurrier, considered to be an offensive genius and who is about to become only the fourth man in history to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as both a coach and a player.
There was one report by Matt Hayes of SB Nation that Spurrier had been “rebuffed twice” in his attempt to offer advice to McElwain and Nussmeier. On Monday, Spurrier said there was no validity to the story in his attempt to offer advice.
“I never offered anything unless I was asked,” Spurrier said on The Buddy Martin Show. “A couple of times when they asked me I offered a few ball plays — some which they tried and some they didn’t. But it’s really hard to design a ball play when you’re not at practice and don’t see the players every day.” He shot down the notion that he was treated rudely by McElwain or anybody on his staff.
And on another subject, he had no names to suggest as Gators coach. When asked if he thought former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops would ever coach again, Spurrier said: “I don’t have any idea. You’d have to ask Bobby about that.”
And then there were the so-called “death threats” brought up by McElwain.
I don’t want this to seem like I am piling on McElwain because he deserves some credit for bringing about a modicum of success in a transition of coaches.
However, I think Mac either secretly wanted out and subconsciously sabotaged himself, or that he just misspoke. But he never took it back nor did he seem contrite. You can draw your own conclusions.
There will be plenty of talk these next few days about his successor. I’m just going to leave my short list here: 1. Dan Mullen; 2. Scott Frost; 3. Charlie Strong.
Any of the three would work for me. I don’t think I need to explain why.