New Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain sat down with the media on Wednesday for the first time since his introductory press conference nearly a month ago.
The 40-minute back-and-forth saw McElwain touched on a number of topics that will be broken down here on OnlyGators.com over the next couple of days.
Though McElwain was surprisingly close to the vest on a number of issues, which are outlined below, he also discussed at length his initial thoughts on the Gators football team and plan for hiring a wide receivers coach, the last open position on his coaching staff.
SO FAR, SO GOOD
McElwain plans to make a number of organizational changes over the next 18 months but some of the first evaluations he was able to make were on the team. As a bystander during practices leading up to the 2015 Birmingham Bowl – and during the game itself, of course – McElwain was pleased to see a group of young men giving top-notch effort despite all of the circumstances surrounding the situation.
“Man, I just love the way our team played in that bowl game,” he said to open his press conference. “[I appreciated] the guys that held that thing together. The character in which they played with, the energy they played with, they made plays when they needed against a very, very good football team. …
“Just to see the competitive nature was great. Having an opportunity to get out in the parking lot before the game, I didn’t know it was like that. there’s some good people out there, man, that was awesome. I really enjoyed that. I was really proud of our guys.”
McElwain held his first Florida team meeting on Monday night, hours after the coaching staff was officially announced. He said there was “great energy in the room” during the initial meeting with the players acting “very receptive” to the changes and “feel[ing] good about themselves” and the situation they are in entering 2015.
“As you go through life, one of the most important things that you do is really kind of the energy that you carry. There’s a lot of unknowns. Everybody in this room gets a little nervous when there’s something different, when there’s change. Your routine is a little bit out of whack and yet there’s a real excitement, and I was really proud of how our guys and our new hires jumped in and have embraced our guys,” he explained.
FIRST THING’S FIRST
McElwain has spoken extensively about the type of coaching staff he wanted to hire – guys that are not “independent contractors” but rather coaches that are looking to remain at a program like Florida for a long time and care as much about helping kids succeed in life off the field as they do making them the best player possible on it.
But he also wants the Gators’ players to reciprocate that love and affection. “I’ve given them some assignments, as any good educator should. The first assignment is to get to know [the coaches],” McElwain noted.
Florida players are expected to get into the weight room on their own not to work out but rather to meet new director of strength conditioning Mike Kent and begin to understand the components of his program. McElwain wants the Gators to meet the coaches and begin to form relationships so they can better understand how those coaches care about them as people and players and plan to affect the young men for the rest of their lives.
“It isn’t just about coaching ball. It’s about being involved in their lives. It’s about being there when things don’t go well and when things do go well and knowing that my door is always open as all our coaches are, to come up and say hello,” he said.
“One of the first things I told them was, ‘Look, there’s going to be days that I’m kind of like a dead fish, man.’ … The last thing I want is a bunch of dead trout hanging around. It’s about energy and affecting the people around you in a positive way. There’s days I’ll come to the office – even after I’ve had a bunch of cups of coffee – I may still look like that dead trout.
“As I explained to our team, I need them to come up and say, ‘Coach Mac, how are you doing today? Is there anything I can do to help?’ Those are the things that we’re doing right now.”
Individual, one-on-one meetings will begin with the players on Thursday. His second assignment to each player was to be prepared to come into his office with a list of things they love about the program as it currently exists and others that they dislike and wish could be adjusted or changed.
“What you find out is, when you do this, you may find a common thread within everybody, some things that come up more than once, more than twice. There’s a lot of outliers and yet there’s some things that then kind of allow us to attack the organization and the infrastructure as to what direction we need to go,” McElwain explained.
“I’m very patient in what we’re doing because I believe you’ve got to get this right from the start. That’s not only with the coaches, that’s with everything that is involved with touching the desk of the head football coach. There’s a lot of great things here at the University of Florida. And yet, there’s things that may need to be adjusted and I don’t know those yet. I’m not ready to jump to a decision one way or another. …
“It takes time and those are the things that we’re building right now. … The total evolution might not be done until next fall because there’s a lot of pieces that great organization, it doesn’t matter whether it’s football or whether it’s in the corporate world or whether it’s at the local donut shop – there’s certain things within the infrastructure, pillars and fundamentals that help you be successful. This is no different.”
ONE MORE HIRE
With all but one member of McElwain’s staff hired and officially announced – introductions come on Thursday and Friday – the focus now turns to who he will bring on to fill the final position of wide receivers coach.
McElwain noted matter-of-factly that former Gators quarterback Chris Leak, who was promoted from graduate assistant to wide receivers coach last season after Joker Phillips stepped down, is no longer a member of the program…at least for now. “Who knows as we move forward – if in what capacity or any capacity,” he said. “Again, there’s a lot to be done before we move forward on that.”
Sources close to the program told OnlyGators.com on more than one occasion over the last two weeks that the plan was for Leak to remain a member of Florida’s staff in some capacity, just not as a position coach. How and when that will unfold remains to be seen.
As far as who will replace Leak and when that decision will be made, McElwain would not provide any information other than to note with a sly smile that Gators fans will be pleased.
“The key is to get the best guy, the guy that’s going to affect these young men’s lives and allow them to perfect their craft. There’s a lot of things going on out there in the world of football. I do know this: I think you guys will be happy with it when it happens,” he said.
McElwain added: “We’ve got a ton of interest as in every position. There’s a lot of components that go into that. Am I just going to throw a dart at that board over there? No. Do I have a firm short list? Yeah. Am I ready to pull the plug right now and go at it? We’ll make it right.”
NOTES AND QUOTES NON-ANSWERS
» On the status of linebacker Antonio Morrison, who appeared to seriously injure his knee Saturday in the Birmingham Bowl: “Right now, it’s under evaluation. … It hasn’t been totally discussed as to what direction it is or what direction we need to go yet. I fully trust [the doctors and trainers].”
» On what he believes quarterback Will Grier can bring to the table: “I’ve got to see how these guys handle the team a little bit when we get going with the offseason things that we do form a leadership standpoint. He’s a guy that can throw it, comes from a system, was recruited here into a system. I think that would probably be considered pretty similar in some of the things we do.”
» On defensive end Gerald Willis III being kicked off the team: “He made a choice. There were some things that we all do. We’ll be here for him. It’s nothing personal. At the end of the day, affect the people around you in a positive way and do what’s right.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» On open competitions and actions speaking louder than words: “There’s no preconceived [notions]. My eyes are wide open with every position on this team. As I explained to them, ‘I don’t care about history right now. You’ve got an opportunity, blank slate, man.’ As I explained to them, ‘Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.’ There’s a lot of guys that got a lot of this and then you just sit back and say, ‘OK, let’s talk about your actions because those are what tell me what and who you are.’ We’ve got a whole group of guys that are, right now, able to do whatever they want to do. Life is choices and decisions. … With freedom of choice, we don’t have freedom of consequences, so life is about choices and decisions. ‘Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear what you say’ really makes sense.”
» On some juniors declaring for the 2015 NFL Draft and others staying in school: “I’m 100 percent supportive of whatever choice or decision they made. I spoke with all of them. The only thing I told them was, ‘You will always be a Gator, I want you to come back here no matter what the decision is – whether you’re coming back as a pro or coming back as a Gator on next year’s team. Know this: we’re here for you and we support you in everything you do.’ When you have to talk someone into something or whether it’s actually totally in their heart, what you find out in life is the guys that are always maybe looking over their shoulder wondering what if…you got to be all in or all out, no matter what you do. In this case, those guys made the choice and decision to move forward with their life. We’re here for them. I’ll do everything I can to support them. … We give them all the information. We don’t try to talk them in or talk them out. We give them the information so they can make an educated decision in what they choose to do. … You hug them, wish them well and know that we’ll always be there for them and then you go out and recruit.”
» On early returns from recruiting prior to the dead period: “From a national standpoint and a recruiting standpoint, we’ve got great feedback on what we’re doing and how we’re going about doing it. A lot of it becomes relationships and trust. We’re not going to get every target we have. … I know the guys we’re going to sign are really going to be good players. They’re going to be guys that are committed to being part of something special and a resurgence, and I’m really looking forward to that. … We’re trying to catch up a little bit from behind. I get it. I mean, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. We’ve been doing this for a while. We got a lot of ground to make up, so this next two weeks is obviously going to be crucial to us making a dent.”
OnlyGators.com will break down McElwain’s thoughts on his coaching staff and some of those assistants’ early opinions of the program on Thursday and Friday.