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The Alligator Army Weekly Open Thread, Vol. XXXV

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It’s important to know how to read beyond just knowing that letters make words.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Typically, these Weekly Open Threads are entrees to discussion rather than genuine #content, but I’ve turned them into the latter this before and I’ll do it again.

Today, a few — okay, nearly 2,000 — words about media literacy.

Zach Abolverdi of SEC Country — an SEC-focused site run by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a Cox Media Group property — published a story early Tuesday headlined “Coaching rumors: ‘Whispers’ that Florida’s Jim McElwain could leave for Oregon.”

It’s aggregation, rather than original content, which triangulates Dan Wolken’s original USA TODAY report, published late Monday night, on movement within the college football coaching industry, one that mentions this about Jim McElwain in regards to the Oregon job, one that has not even opened up:

There also are whispers that Florida’s Jim McElwain could be intrigued by the opportunity to return to the Pacific Northwest, close to where he went to college and started his coaching career at Eastern Washington. Despite winning SEC East titles in his first two years, McElwain has been a bit under-appreciated by the Florida fan base and just got a new athletics director in Gainesville.

On one end, this is essentially unprovable hearsay masquerading as reportable fact. “Whispers” that McElwain “could be intrigued by the opportunity” to coach the Ducks could come from anywhere, and Wolken — whose reporting often cites sources “within the coaching industry,” who are likely coaches, athletic department workers, coaches’ agents, or people close to those coaches, athletic department workers, or agents — doesn’t specify where these originate.

On the other end, Wolken makes a subjective judgment — that McElwain “has been a bit under-appreciated by the Florida fan base,” which is more or less accurate, but is mostly unquantifiable — and observes a fact — that Florida is now under the new management of athletic director Scott Stricklin, not Jeremy Foley, who hired McElwain — that is supposed to imply that McElwain may have some sort of discomfort with his situation, without connecting any dots.

This accomplishes the goal of associating McElwain with Oregon and implying discontent on McElwain’s end at Florida — and Wolken doesn’t even have to name McElwain a candidate at Oregon to do it, just say that he “could be intrigued by the opportunity.” That McElwain’s name is the fifth one mentioned in Wolken’s paragraph, behind Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, Penn State’s James Franklin, and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, goes unmentioned by Abolverdi — because that doesn’t need to be mentioned by a news outlet pitching its story at Florida fans.

Abolverdi also links to a piece by 247Sports writer Travis Haney — who recently joined the recruiting-and-news network of sites after spending several years as a “college football insider” with ESPN — that discusses McElwain and Oregon.

This is the relevant McElwain-to-Oregon? passage from Haney’s piece:

Whether it’s a homerun or a cannonball can be debated, but the name that suddenly everyone — industry sources and media members, alike — seems to be talking about is Florida coach Jim McElwain.

A general rule this time of year: If everyone’s talking about the same person, it’s either imminent - or it’s B.S., likely an attempt to leverage an extension and raise.

Lean toward the latter, but the possibility remains that McElwain and UF are not a snug fit, a relationship perhaps made more complicated by the arrival of a new athletic director.

McElwain is 18-7 with two SEC East titles in his first two seasons in Gainesville. Florida plays No. 1 Alabama this week in Atlanta. Florida’s defenses have been outstanding, and the team’s offenses have proven so far to be as stagnant as Will Muschamp’s were — despite that McElwain, formerly Nick Saban’s OC at Alabama, has had offensive success wherever he’s been. Forecasting toward 2017, a perceived talent drain on the defensive side could theoretically make this a good time for a move.

Plus, those industry sources remind us that McElwain is a West Coast guy. The 54-year-old grew up in Montana and played quarterback at Eastern Washington. He won 22 games in three seasons at Colorado State before being lured away by then-Florida AD Jeremy Foley. Foley retired and was replaced earlier in the month by Scott Stricklin, formerly at Mississippi State.

Haney’s report, which also mentions Harsin and Fleck (in that order) does the same thing that Wolken’s does, but goes further, quoting unnamed “industry sources” to explain Oregon’s thinking.

Candidates such as Boise State’s Bryan Harsin and Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck have been mentioned repeatedly to 247Sports, but those close to the Oregon search do not think the school’s administration — and big donors — are overly enthused by the idea of bringing in a Group of 5 coach.

“If they’re hiring from the outside, which they haven’t done, they want to swing for the fences,” one of those industry sources told us in the past week or so.

“They do not want to pay (Helfrich’s) buyout if they don’t have someone to make a splash,” another said.

For Oregon, in that light, targeting McElwain would make sense as a splash. He does have two SEC divisional titles, and is both younger (at 54) and more obtainable than the only other currently employed coaches with that line on their résumés: Alabama’s Nick Saban (65), who is simply not going to leave Alabama for another collegiate job, and Miami’s Mark Richt (56), who has spent his entire coaching career in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, and is now the head coach of his alma mater.

The other four coaches with multiple SEC divisional titles this century are all more or less out of football: Houston Nutt is a broadcaster, Phillip Fulmer is aiding in the rebirth of East Tennessee State’s football program as a consultant, Gary Pinkel is retired and dealing with a bout of cancer — one that, just Monday, he announced was in remission — and Les Miles is doing whatever it is Les Miles does. Of those coaches, only Nutt, who coached at Boise State for one season, and Pinkel, who worked under longtime Washington head coach Don James, have ties to the Pacific Northwest — and neither one of them is a plausible candidate at Oregon, nor are Fulmer and Miles, nor are a lot of other coaches who could be considered the splashy hires Haney suggests Oregon would want to replace Helfrich.

All of those coaches (but Nutt, arguably) are among their schools’ finest ever, though, and Saban, Miles, and Fulmer all won at least one national title. None of those coaches — not even Saban — won divisional titles in their first two seasons with their SEC schools, as McElwain has.

And yet: McElwain is certainly not currently viewed by most Florida fans, whose views are jaundiced by the sight of the Gators’ still-anemic offense, as a program-changing coach in the same way that even Pinkel was. That may or may not be an fair and accurate assessment by Gators fans — who may or may not know that McElwain’s 18-7 record through 25 games is identical to Will Muschamp’s 18-7 record through 25 games, and only slightly better than Ron Zook’s 16-9 record through 25 games — but it simply is the assessment for at least the loudest elements of the fan base, the ones that use Twitter and Facebook to signal their displeasure with an offense ranked in triple digits, despite the presence of a reputedly offense-savvy head coach.

Those fans are also the ones more likely to grouse about recruiting — where Florida lags in both rankings and in the pursuit of exciting prospects — and other off-the-field aspects they find lacking, I believe, and the ones most visible to media members. They are not, it should probably be noted, the Bull Gators, especially the ones with the largest bank accounts, who comprise Florida’s donor class. Those donors’ rarefied air tends to be stiller, and even though there will always be, as Zook famously noted, “noise in the system” at Florida, there has been no indication that they have abandoned McElwain en masse.

What I think this report by Wolken — and the analysis by Haney, who has sources far and wide, and the contextualization by Abolverdi, who includes a couple of McElwain quotes to help flesh out McElwain’s public feelings, and others on the Florida beat — most likely indicates is that McElwain is not perfectly happy with his current circumstances at Florida, and quite probably interested in getting a raise or other institutional support after accomplishing the feat of winning the SEC East in back-to-back seasons. Oregon may not be seen as a program on par with Florida, given its lack of a national title and its distance from the recruiting grounds that are home to the players who comprise teams that have historically won titles, but Oregon is unquestionably one of the nation’s foremost supporters of its coaches, thanks to the tens — maybe hundreds — of millions that Nike founder Phil Knight has poured into the school over the last 20 years.

Florida’s athletic program does not have a donor quite like that — no other school does, not even king of the mountain Alabama or oil-fueled Texas (or T. Boone Pickens-supported Oklahoma State). And Oregon will remain unique in that regard until Knight’s philanthropy ceases, which seems unlikely to happen for as long as he lives.

But that won’t stop coaches from lusting after that sort of support, nor will some support — like Florida building a new indoor practice facility in record time, overhauling its athletes’ academic support facility, expanding its support staff, and committing to further upgrades — ever preclude wanting more.

Coaches want to keep up with and best their competitors wherever possible, because that’s how they keep their jobs (and the millionaire lifestyles that come with those jobs) — and it would probably help McElwain do his job if, say, that $100 million facilites upgrade proposal made public by Foley back in September were fully funded sooner rather than later. It might also be helpful for McElwain to be able to hire younger, more vital recruiters and shift reliable hands to support staff roles — just like what Saban, who has former FBS head coaches Mike Locksley and Steve Sarkisian on staff in non-coaching roles, and has just one assistant over the age of 50, has done in Tuscaloosa.

All of this, it should not be lost on you, requires money. Money is the lifeblood of everything in America, and much of the world, because it confers power — and the more money can be brought to bear on any problem, the more can be done to solve it.

Money often goes unmentioned in these discussions about coaches, but it shouldn’t be. It ought to be noted that the two jobs Wolken has linked McElwain to — remember, Wolken suggested McElwain “could be mentioned in connection with” Texas back in October — this fall are two of the very, very few schools on par with or ahead of Florida in terms of overall athletic revenues. McElwain’s only means of getting leverage for desired improvements would seem to be arguing that he deserves more than what Muschamp and Zook got for similar records because of his two SEC East crowns, or creating the appearance of interest in other jobs that might compel Stricklin to extend or enrich his contract.

McElwain can’t say all of that himself, though — it would be regarded as rude at best, and obnoxiously arrogant at worst. So maybe people close to him become “industry sources” for someone else, or say things to those “industry sources,” and one credulous reporter writing something about what those sources say becomes fodder for everyone on a beat to write about a story without being able to talk to the man at the center of it — because this story came after McElwain’s Monday press conference, and before his Wednesday appearance on the SEC coaches’ weekly teleconference, in a vacuum that allows the story to fester — because those same fans who are cited as a reason for McElwain’s discontent will eagerly click on a headline like that, and reward a relatively simple post with the attention, in the form of traffic, that makes money for media companies.

Maybe that’s how the sausage gets made.

And maybe we should read beyond the headline, and demand that writers — and I’m not criticizing Haney or Abolverdi, who contextualized their reporting and aggregation well, except in the sense that I’m criticizing all of us — give us more than headlines, too.