Gainesville, Fla.–Here is the first thing you need to know about Jim McElwain. After three seasons as the head coach at Colorado State, he is thrilled and more than humbled to be the new head coach at Florida. It is a dream job with all of the resources necessary to consistently compete for championships.
But here is the second thing you need to know about the former offensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama: He did not come here to be the caretaker of a program that won its last SEC and national championship in 2008. This spring was about putting his stamp on Florida football and infusing it with the culture he believes is necessary for the Gators to again become one of the elite programs in college football. And in order to do that, McElwain concedes he might have to ruffle a few feathers.
Here’s a case in point.
In an interview earlier in the spring with Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports, McElwain quoted British Economist John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas,” McElwain said, “but in escaping the old ones.”
Translation: It’s time for Florida to turn the page because Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer ain’t walking back through that door.
When I sat in his office, I asked “Coach Mac,” as players and friends call him, about the quote.
“It’s not personal. It’s not about me or about our coaches,” said McElwain. “This is about getting our brand to the level it deserves to be. We have great people at Florida who really care. This is an awesome working environment.”
McElwain was hired by and works for one of the nation’s best directors of athletics in Jeremy Foley. Still, McElwain has said publicly that, based on what he’s seen around the SEC, it’s time for Florida to make some substantial investments in facilities for the football program. He says the current Florida facilities are “nice, but tired.”
“Sometimes you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall on some of these things,” said McElwain. “This is just something we need for our football program. As we send people out to see what’s out there it’s really opened some eyes. Now we need for somebody to take the ball and run with it.”
McElwain has a point:
**–Tennessee invested $45 million into its Anderson Training Center which includes a dining hall, a nutrition bar adjacent to the weight room, a barber shop, and state of the art video facilities. A new athletics dorm is being built that will directly connect to the Anderson Center. Everything from weight lifting to tutoring will happen under one roof.
**–Kentucky is currently spending $165 million for a face lift to Commonwealth Stadium and the building of a brand new training complex for its football players.
**–In 2013 Alabama did a $9 million upgrade on its player facilities, which were already among the best in college football. It includes a hydrotherapy room with four waterfalls.
It is a reality of recruiting the modern day internet athlete. Thanks to social media an elite high school football player goes on an official visit already knowing what a school has–or doesn’t have–in the way of facilities that will make his life more comfortable.
“When you bring a guy to your campus he wants to know where he’s going to live, where he’s going to practice and where he’s going to work out,” said an SEC assistant coach. “If your competitor has facilities that you can’t offer, the kid is going to ask why.”
When I visited his office, Foley said confidently that McElwain will have all the resources he needs to be successful. In fact, Florida has already begun construction on a new $15 million indoor practice complex and has several other projects on the books.
“We support Coach McElwain,” Foley said. “We are on the same page.”
The point is that most mid-major coaches walking into a place like Florida would wait a little while before rocking the boat. Florida doesn’t have that kind of time because the rest of the conference ain’t standing still. They are building.
“We’re kind of like one of those shows on HGTV,” said McElwain, reciting another of his familiar themes this spring. “We live in a great neighborhood (the SEC). The absolute best. But what we have on our hands right now is a fixer-upper.”
McElwain insists this is not a knock on former head coach Will Muschamp, who was dismissed after four seasons with a 28-21 record.
“It’s not that guys before us did anything wrong,” said McElwain. “It’s just that we’ve gotten snake bit at some positions.”
In one of his final press conferences as Florida’s coach, Muschamp insisted “Don’t let the new guy tell you he ain’t got no players. (The) locker room is better than it was four years ago.”
There is no doubt that Muschamp had some cleaning up to do when he took over the program from Urban Meyer four years ago. Those who didn’t want to clean up their act were shown the door. Muschamp deserves a lot of credit for that.
But there are some realities McElwain has had to face since taking over the program. One of those realities is that, for a host of reasons, when spring practice started Florida had only 58 players on scholarship. By the end of spring practice there were only six scholarship offensive linemen. Six more will enroll this summer. That’s it. Having half of your offensive linemen as true freshmen is not a good thing in the SEC.
Here is another reality: Florida got into an offensive hole in Muschamp’s first year (2011) and never got out of it with three different offensive coordinators (Charlie Weis, Brent Pease, Kurt Roper). The offensive line underachieved. There were no real elite SEC play makers on offense. The past four Florida teams have had the following national ranking in total offense: 105, 103, 115, 93. You don’t fix that in one year.
“So we have to do a great job as a coaching staff of figuring out what our players do well,” said McElwain. “Who are going to be the explosive play makers? How deficient are we up front and how do we hide that? And we have to elevate the people around the quarterback position.”
Ah yes. The quarterback. McElwain knows how to develop them and he’ll start at Florida with sophomore Treon Harris, who became the starter late in the 2014 season, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Harris missed several practices this spring due to the death of a family member. Both quarterbacks need a lot of work.
If we’re going to be candid, Florida hasn’t had a dynamic player at the wide receiver position since Percy Harvin left. Rising junior DeMarcus Robinson had 53 catches last season on a bad offense so the hope is that he’s ready to be a star. Brandon Powell was moved from running back to slot receiver with the hope of getting some more big play potential. But Powell had to shut it down about halfway through spring practice due to a bad foot.
Powell said he is confident that McElwain is going to get the offense turned around.
“Coach Mac has a plan and I know we’re going to be better on offense,” said Powell. “Last year was hard but everybody is buying into what he’s selling. You saw what we did against Georgia (34-10 win) last season. Now we have to learn how to do that on a consistent basis. We’re going to be back and it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”
As it was under Muschamp, the Florida defense will be very good again. Geoff Collins comes over as the coordinator from Mississippi State. With guys like Brian Poole and Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida could have the best secondary in the country.
“I never thought I would have to play for more than one head coach but Coach Mac has a brought a new energy,” said Powell. “We pride ourselves on good defense around here and I don’t think there is going to be a drop off.”
When this spring ended McElwain left one clear message with his new team: “Come up and see me sometime.”
“There are days that they are going to need to check on me because I’m going to need uplifting,” said McElwain. “We’re all in this thing together.”
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