There is not one quote that has defined Jim McElwain’s tenure at Florida. Quotes don’t define tenures; wins, losses, and what happens on Saturdays and to the fan base do.
But there is a quote that has dogged McElwain: It is the one he offered in his introductory press conference about whether he could win with the Gators’ then-underwhelming quarterback corps and his pooch, Claire-a-bell.
You can hear it in context — just after McElwain wonders, in jest, whether that a reporter’s phone going off is “fineable” — at about the 35:30 mark of this press conference video.
Here are what I hear as full quotes of that question — which I believe was asked by Antonya English, the former Gators beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times — and answer, adapted from the transcript, with all of McElwain’s folksy-to-a-fault “y’know” usage intact:
I don't know how deeply you've gotten into your evaluations, but can you win with the quarterbacks that Florida has on this (team) or do you have to go out and get yourself a quarterback?
Y'know, I don't think that's fair yet. I haven't, y'know, been with them yet, y'know? I've seen some things, but I think being able to kind of watch them interact with the team, see how they practice, y'know, we'll get an idea.
But, y'know: you gotta understand this, I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell. Y'know? I mean -- but that's the attitude, so. Y'know ... there's good players here. And, and that's just our responsibility, to get that going.
What’s the most important part of that quote?
To my mind, it’s probably “that’s the attitude.” McElwain is saying, for effect, that he believes that he can win games with his dog — implicitly playing quarterback — because his attitude is that he can win games with whatever quarterbacks he has.
And, uh, he’s probably not alone in that regard. Most football coaches at the FBS level or above, I think, want to share McElwain’s attitude that they can make wins happen with the talent on hand.
But only McElwain is coming off a loss to Arkansas in which Luke Del Rio had a woofer of a performance, and — because McElwain stated his belief colorfully once — getting his words thrown back at him.
Mac probably wants this one back right about now... pic.twitter.com/erLDnoQ3hg— Saturday Down South (@SDS) November 5, 2016
That tweet combines a couple of my least favorite tropes of Internetting: The feigned, presumptive omniscience — something that has come into vogue in recent years, as platforms for and encouragement of personal expression have cluttered media that used to be used by people trained in and aimed at writing provable truths — that suggests McElwain gives even a fraction of a damn about something he said in December 2014 in November 2016 is bad, but the selective quoting is even worse.
“You gotta understand I believe I can win with my dog” and “You gotta understand: I believe I can win with my dog — that’s the attitude” are remarkably different, I think. The latter clarifies that the former is less a brag than a statement of belief grounded in confidence.
To be fair, though, I should note that I thought what McElwain said was even more benign than that: For much of the last two years, despite listening to that press conference and transcribing the quote, I thought McElwain might have said “I have to believe I can win with my dog.” That would have been even less ripe for being thrown back in Mac’s face; it would have been just him noting, rightly, that he ought to believe he can win in adverse situations.
What he did say should still probably be interpreted as a garden-variety expression of his confidence in his abilities, not the brag that has been thrown back in his face. It was a quip, delivered as an explanation.
There are plenty of reasons to find fault with McElwain, of course. But: We should probably blame him for not winning football games, and maybe being wrong about his capacity to do so with woof-worthy quarterback play, rather than presumed arrogance that just isn’t quite there.