Evaluating a head coach before his first season is a difficult and wholly unfair ask. And yet, Jim McElwain – folksy and quiet in public but seemingly ambitious and demanding in private – has left himself open for equal parts praise and criticism, depending whose opinion you seek.
So when the Florida Gators’ new coach took center stage at the 2015 SEC Media Days last Monday, no one expected much to be revealed … and those expectations were met. However, when McElwain went through the ringer known as the ESPN car wash on Tuesday, there was hope that a bit more would be uncovered, especially considering how much news his fellow coaches made one day earlier.
Four live television interviews resulted in four unanswered questions about the Florida quarterback situation, more than four Nick Saban inquiries and plenty of banter that led to
little no additional knowledge gained about the Gators. Off camera, though, McElwain cracked open just a tad to Ivan Maisel on his Championship Drive podcast, as Maisel actually asked some relevant, football-related questions with just over a month to go until the 2015 season begins.
Always effusive of his praise for junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, McElwain turned his attention to a different upperclassman defender who is also taking the leadership reigns despite being on the shelf with a serious knee injury.
“Antonio Morrison, who’s rehabbing and who’s just doing an unbelievable job getting himself back, he’s become Martez Ivey’s biggest fan,” McElwain began. “What I mean by that is, [Morrison’s] pushing [Ivey] to be great. To see that from a defensive guy affecting this freshman that knows he’s going to be an important cog to what we’re trying to do, that tells you you’ve got something pretty special.”
Speaking of Ivey, McElwain believes the youngster is “driven to be great.” Even though he came from a run-oriented offense at Apopka High School, the five-star offensive tackle has “been a sponge” picking up Florida’s expected pass-premium balanced attack, the coach said.
Ivey also taught McElwain what it means to actually be a Gator. The long-time Florida lean stuck with his gut and lifetime desire to play for UF rather than balk at the coaching change and pick a different program.
“I think we got a great player and a great person. Always, he’s wanted to be a Gator. We had to give him a reason to be a Gator,” McElwain said. “A lot of kids in that state, the history, the tradition and the degree from the University of Florida, what that can mean. We got to give them a reason to come.”
McElwain said earlier in the day that recruiting and winning “isn’t all about ‘stuff’” like other programs want to flaunt. That said, the “Gators are taking care of Gators” and moving the needle from a facilities standpoint with a new indoor practice facility, improved office of student life and recently renovated dorms that will keep the players comfortable and safe.
“I know we’ve started to answer a lot of our facility woes,” McElwain said. “We got the dorms [renovated], long overdue, helped them with security in them and all that kind of stuff. So they’ll be in a new place. We’ve doubled the size of the academic center, the office of student life, and our nutrition aspect.
“Last time I checked, they did invent Gatorade [at Florida].”
McElwain also explained his process of determining which of the Gators’ needs he had to attack first. He accomplished this by interviewing “everyone” in the organization, noticing a number of “common threads” that materialized in those conversations and prioritizing what could be done immediately and effectively.
Just don’t let his relaxed public demeanor fool you. Since taking over the Florida football program, McElwain has been demanding – and for good reason because the Gators have needed plenty of upgrades. The most important one, however, will come on the field, and there’s no way to truly evaluate McElwain until one sees whether Florida has actually changed for the better when the SEC schedule begins in mid-September.