When Jim McElwain was hired by Florida in December, he inherited a program that is 37-26 over the last five years, with more 7-5 seasons than BCS bowl appearances, and more losing seasons than SEC East titles.
And that's at least part of why so many Florida fans were excited by McElwain: He represents a dramatic difference from Will Muschamp as Florida's head coach merely by not being Muschamp.
McElwain is, in fact, very much different from Muschamp, at least on the surface. He's a Montana-born outsider, and maybe a mercenary, not a guy whose Gainesville childhood can be used to sell him. He comes to Florida from a Mountain West school, like that guy who won two titles with the Gators in the last decade did. His background is in offense, which satisfies Florida fans who crave points. And he has experience running a program as the head coach, even if he was only at Colorado State, something Muschamp (and Ron Zook) lacked.
McElwain and Muschamp both cut their teeth on a national level as Nick Saban lieutenants, of course, and had only moderate success — Muschamp helping Auburn and Texas to good seasons as a defensive coordinator, McElwain winning 10 games three seasons after taking over a Rams program that had been 9-27 in the three years prior (but losing his CSU finale, after which the Rams were crushed in a bowl game) — beyond Saban's staff. And they're both smart, savvy operators who use down-home charm to connect with people.
The major difference between their comportment, I think, is how they choose to use that chumminess. Muschamp carries himself with Eric Taylor's confidence and dry wit: You may recall "We'll get it turned" as a refrain, and "Don't let the new guy tell you he ain't got players" in his I'm-getting-the-boot press conference. McElwain, on the other hand, is more prone to try to give you the feeling that he's telling it like it is, maybe with a chuckle.
And he's doing that, using his folksiness and newness and his Not Will Muschamp status, to manage expectations at Florida. He's doing it well.
I watched all of McElwain's opening presser, and the only things I remember for sure are the folksiness; the assertions that he thinks he can win with his dog playing quarterback, and that his offense could be called the Humane Society; and the idea that he could tailgate at Florida's bowl game — which he did. Since then, I remember that he's said ... that Florida's roster is "insufficient" at some areas, and that there was one bad practice a while ago? I think that's really it.
McElwain has the ability to say very little despite saying a lot, and it's an important talent, because it means that people will come away with takeaways — like that McElwain thinks Florida is "insufficient at some of the areas," and won't be very good in 2015, which runs counter to Muschamp's assertions.
Except, well, Muschamp admitted in that press conference last November that there were weaknesses on his roster. "I think we've got a deep, talented team," he said, when asked about his recruiting — before saying, in the next breath, "I think, you know, at some key positions where we've strugged, hopefully in the future, they've been able to make those positions better."
So this isn't really a contrast: It's Muschamp saying something, in the "Don't let the new guy..." crack, that got construed as bragging about the roster, without anyone remembering the admission of weakness, and McElwain saying something, with his "insufficient in some of the areas" remark, that gets construed as a shot at Muschamp, rather than an recognition of the same weakness.
"There's nothing we can do about it," McElwain also said, speaking about that same dearth of offensive linemen, but that dearth helped the Gators land a bumper crop of six high school linemen on National Signing Day. (And, yes, that's more than Muschamp took in his first two recruiting cycles combined.) A lack of depth translates to early playing time in recruits' minds, and always will.
And at the other primary areas I think McElwain could be alluding to, like running back and linebacker, any lack of depth is a bit artificial: Florida's only got two healthy running backs at the moment in Adam Lane and Kelvin Taylor, but that's partly because McElwain's staff has moved Brandon Powell to slot receiver full-time after he flashed at the position in late 2014, and, besides, Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite are the cavalry arriving this summer.
Florida's got just four healthy scholarship linebackers for now, but will have three more this fall, when Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison are healthy again and Rayshad Jackson is on campus — and, besides, Randy Shannon was hired as Florida's linebackers coach despite Geoff Collins turning Mississippi State linebackers into All-SEC performers, so it's not as if those players won't be coached up.
It could certainly be argued that Florida has depth but not sure talent at many positions, like wide receiver (and, maybe, quarterback, given how green every competitor is), as well.
But Florida has 59 scholarship players right now, and will add 19 more this summer; that gets the Gators to 78 players without any attrition (and I wouldn't expect much between now and the fall), more than what Muschamp had to work with in 2011, when he only had 72 scholarship players, four of them walk-ons, by year's end.
McElwain doesn't have a senior starter at quarterback like Muschamp had in John Brantley, but he does have options at the position who have promise; he doesn't have explosive runners at the moment, like Muschamp did in Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, but he does have running backs who aren't the size of golf balls, and might have an explosive back when Scarlett arrives. McElwain's best wide receiver this fall will be Demarcus Robinson; Florida's leading receiver in terms of yardage in 2011 was, I kid you not, Andre Debose, though Deonte Thompson was ostensibly that team's No. 1 receiver. (Rainey led all Florida players in catches!)
And the defensive rosters are comparable, I'd argue. Florida's secondary is absurdly logjammed with talent, its defensive line stocked with guys who are green but dripping with potential; Muschamp's 2011 defense had Dominique Easley, Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, and Ronald Powell entering their second seasons at Florida, yes, but it also had liabilities at corner and at linebacker. (It seems funny to say this now, as all three players are on NFL rosters, but Florida playing Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, and Lerentee McCray at linebacker spots in 2011 was playing players who hadn't yet come into their own.)
I don't think Muschamp left the sort of stocked cupboard that Zook did for Urban Meyer, but I don't think this Florida roster is nearly as "insufficient" anywhere other than the offensive line as some of the reaction to McElwain's comment conveyed. And I think that's kind of what McElwain wanted: Media members left exasperated and grasping at straws might bad-mouth him, or his roster, but entering a first season, that's just fine, because it's okay, and even preferable to be underestimated. (Note that, at that link, the reporter in question calls McElwain "a used car salesman," explains Muschamp's remarks about the roster as tradecraft ... and yet arrives at the conclusion I suspect McElwain wants — don't judge this team too harshly just yet — despite that.) Big talk gets remembered, and used as a measuring stick, better than doubletalk does.
You'll remember McElwain saying things were "insufficient" this fall, when Florida's offensive line is leaky against Mississippi or Missouri or Tennessee or something. You might remember McElwain complaining about effort in a practice, before later copping to that being a motivational tactic, or him calling Florida a "fixer-upper" in a story in which the writer calls it "astonishing" that Florida "has hit this type of slump."
And if Florida goes 7-5 again, or even 6-6, you'll probably be just fine with that: He's rebuilding, you'll say. Wait until 2016 to judge him in full.
If that's the case, McElwain is winning the expectations game.
Remember, though, that you're being fed lines — expertly.
No one may know that better than the guy who last had to do what McElwain is doing now. And Will Muschamp, in one of the other remarkable lines of the spring football season, cracked about it last week: "Said he could coach a dog and win. Heck, he like the dog better than his players?"
You'll remember that, too.
You probably won't remember that Muschamp, in the same meeting with media, noted that the (unexpected) departures of D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore impacted Florida's offensive line depth significantly, saying "Certainly, at that position at the offensive line, the numbers are obviously down. Other than that, there are a lot of good football players sitting down there."
But McElwain's not the only one who can say something he wants you to remember to distract you.