Just minutes before Jim McElwain made the mistake that accelerated the end of his Florida tenure, he finished answering a question in last Monday’s press conference about how he and his staff had managed to secure commitments from talented recruits despite a lack of high-profile wins in 2017 and any attendant negative recruiting from other programs.
McElwain stressed that his and his coaches’ relationship-building was the key to that effort: “We’re honest and upfront, and let ‘em know the way it’s gonna be.”
Three questions — really, a question and two follow-ups in search of a quote — later, McElwain was asked about whether his coaches deserved credit for staying upright through a stormy season.
And, after initially demurring with a savvy explanation that “Credit, in this business, is internal — it’s never external,” he threw himself into the wind.
“You know, I think it’s a pretty good, kinda, lesson for the way things are. You know, there’s a lot of hate in this world. And a lot of anger. And, uh — and yet it’s freedom to show it. And, you know, the hard part is obviously when — the threats against your own players, the death threats to your families ... y’know, the ill will that’s brought upon out there. And yet, you know, I think it’s really one of those deals that really is a pretty good testament to what’s going on out there nationally. There’s a lot of angry people. And in this business, we’re the ones you take the shots at. And that’s the way it is.”
The next question was simple: “Death threats?”
McElwain answered with a “Mm-hmm.”
Another follow-up: “Can you expand?”
But McElwain would later expand, suggesting that players and coaches’ wives had been targeted, and that “They know what they signed up for, as well,” before ultimately responding tersely to a final follow-up about the threats with “Let’s move (on),” all but delivered through gritted teeth.
Before the end of the night, Florida had issued a terse statement of its own:
"The [UAA] takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon and he offered no additional details."
McElwain’s talk of threats required Florida to respond. Anything else would make Florida look as though it were not adequately responding to its head coach claiming he was — and players, and coaches, and families were — receiving death threats. McElwain’s apparent lack of details behind the threats, though, required some explanation, too — had he told Florida officials of details, that statement on Monday would probably have mentioned cooperation with law enforcement, or some effort to do more than meet only with McElwain.
And Florida’s less-than-full-throated defense of McElwain gave many in the media occasion to reveal the fissures between Florida’s athletic department and its highest-paid head coach — ones that were easy to hear all along, if only you were listening to McElwain’s gripes about “commitment” from the Florida administration.
McElwain struck up his one-man chorus about needing more from Florida’s administration often — despite that administration moving swiftly to fast-track a long-awaited indoor practice facility before McElwain’s Gators had even gotten to their first National Signing Day, despite renovated dorms being put in place for that fall, and despite plans for a standalone football facility that is liable to most benefit Florida’s football coaches being set in motion under his watch.
And there had been other signs that McElwain and Florida were not a perfect pairing of coach and program, like the out-of-nowhere rumor that McElwain was interested in the head coaching position at Oregon in 2016, and a similar rumor suggesting McElwain could bolt for Oregon State just last week.
But those were off-the-field concerns that could be hand-waved while Florida was winning — and over McElwain’s first two years, Florida did a fair bit of that winning and covering up for other issues.
The Gators starting 7-0 with Will Grier (mostly) at the helm of what looked at times like a potent offense in 2015 gave many fans hope of an alarmingly alacritous return to national title contention. And even after Grier’s year-long suspension for a failed NCAA-administered drug test, McElwain steered the Gators to Atlanta, becoming the first coach ever to get a team from the SEC East to the SEC Championship Game in his first season before the first week of November was out in 2015, then repeated that feat in 2016 despite once again losing his starting quarterback — Alabama-turned-Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio, this time — due to injury.
For those inclined to hope, rather than fear, Florida getting back to winning — and to Atlanta — was reason enough to stomach some of the less stellar aspects of McElwain’s reign. McElwain laying into running back Kelvin Taylor in what would become a viral video and necessitate an apology, Florida recruiting at a level below even that of Will Muschamp’s worst years, McElwain and Grier parting ways with a messy goodbye that still leaves fans wondering what might have been and blaming McElwain for not bending over backwards to keep a cheater, McElwain’s sometimes adversarial and often obfuscatory relationship with the press: These were all nettlesome, sure, but they were also tolerable, and concerns were largely swallowed for the sake of believing in a brighter future.
But Florida’s 2015 ended with three straight losses to top-tier teams — Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan — and its 2016 featured a second-half collapse at Tennessee, a dismal loss to Arkansas on the road, and another pair of lopsided losses to the Seminoles and Crimson Tide. And through two seasons, McElwain’s Gators recorded just two wins over teams that went on to win 10 games — over Ole Miss, in 2015, on a night when everything seemed just right, and over Georgia in Jacksonville that same season — and just one other victory over a team that would accrue at least nine wins.
Through two years, McElwain’s Florida was 16-1 against teams that would finish with eight or fewer wins — and 3-7 in its games against teams that racked up nine or more victories.
2017 has only made the differences between how McElwain’s Gators perform against so-called lesser teams and in big games more stark: Florida is 3-4, with wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, and losses to Michigan, LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia.
It is no secret which of those groups Florida’s administration and Gator Nation perceives as one rife with peer programs for Florida. And it is — now, anyway — no secret that Florida’s administration and McElwain have had a frayed relationship for much of that relationship’s existence.
And it should be no surprise that when the wins that covered for less savory aspects of McElwain’s tenure dry up, those aspects became suddenly unpalatable.
2017 has featured a widely-publicized credit card fraud scheme that has relegated nine Florida players to purgatory, legal and otherwise; a bizarre saga in which McElwain was forced by slanderous rumor-mongering to address a picture of a nude man embracing a shark — and drew criticism for his response, because you’re apparently supposed to laugh with people who make baseless assertions about you now; and, most recently, McElwain’s assertions about threats, which earned him very little sympathy and seem to have cost him dearly, whether or not Florida was able to use them as cause or as a threat to fire with cause to fire him.
It has also featured a six-point win over Tennessee on a Hail Mary, a one-point win over Kentucky notable for Kentucky completely failing to cover Florida receivers on two separate touchdowns, and a two-touchdown win over Vanderbilt far closer than the final score indicated.
With a few good bounces, Florida could be 5-2 right now, and have a decent chance of making a good bowl game. Or it could be 1-6 right now, had two games decided by a single score gone the other way.
And that last bit, the one about Florida being this close to being really, really bad, is why McElwain absolutely could not give Florida the opening he did this week with those comments about threats.
I believe in this truth about the industry of college football (and, really, big-time men’s college basketball, too): Winning is what gets you hired and keeps you employed, and losing is what gets you fired.
Everything else is noise, more or less, and it takes an atrocity or close to dislodge a winning coach — note, for example, how Art Briles survived quite some time as an embattled coach at Baylor before being ultimately ousted for, at minimum, tolerating a culture of lawlessness, or how it took a third major scandal for Rick Pitino to finally get the boot from Louisville. Virtually anything can be excused if you win — Bobby Petrino still has a job, doesn’t he? — and thus generate money for the program, too.
When you don’t win, you are vulnerable. Your insatiability reads as insatiability, not an effort to make things better for your program. The victories of the past are just memories. Your churlishness with the media is not accepted as valid treatment of enemies of the state. The offense struggling is an indictment you cannot escape. Your body language is fodder for talk radio. The contract extension you signed just months ago becomes an albatross, not an asset. Your frustration with a stupid, cruel lie can even mean that the frustration — and not the lie — is lamented.
Jim McElwain was not winning in 2017, not to the level demanded by his job and his program and his salary. And so he was vulnerable.
And just minutes after he claimed that being honest and upfront with high schoolers was key to his program, he made a claim without proof that reflected poorly on nearly everything related to Florida. Minutes or hours after that, he apparently wasn’t honest or upfront about those death threats — threats that I was told at least one family member of a Florida coach had “no idea” about as of Monday afternoon — to his bosses. Hours or days after that, it seems, Florida had begun the process of figuring out whether that alone was enough to turn a vulnerable coach into a former coach.
And now, not a moment too soon, Jim McElwain is no longer Florida’s coach — even if he hasn’t technically, officially been fired.
Things happen fast when you don’t win.