Leave it to a former coach to take some credit for the Florida Gators’ surprising current success.
After first praising Florida and its players for winning the SEC East on Sunday, Will Muschamp was sure to remind Auburn reporters that he told Gators fans the new coach should have no excuses when taking over the program as the cupboard was not bare when he left Gainesville, Florida.
“I’m extremely happy for those guys. Jim [McElwain] has done a fantastic job. He really got things going offensively, and certainly they’ve continued to play at a very high level defensively and on special teams. I’m really happy for those kids,” he said.
“I said it was a good locker room when I left, and I meant it. The foundation was set.”
On Saturday, in a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt that felt much more like a Muschamp-coached game than a McElwain-coached one (though a Muschamp game normally would’ve resulted in that score being flipped the other way), Florida’s offense was stagnant. “Obviously we’ve got a long ways to go on offense,” McElwain said, conjuring up memories of a year ago when an SEC East title was a pipe dream and not a reality like it is in 2015.
While the Gators struggled mightily, really for the first time all year on that side of the ball, they watched as Gainesville native Ralph Webb, who Muschamp did not deem talented enough to offer a scholarship, gashed Florida for what very well might have been the game-winning score had it not been for a late field goal off the leg of redshirt junior kicker Austin Hardin (Muschamp’s lone commitment at that position, who to that point was 14/29 for his career).
Hours later, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, a Floridian who the Gators will likely face in the SEC Championship Game, became a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender after carrying for 210 yards and three touchdowns against LSU. Oh, you can bet Muschamp recruited him and had a scholarship offer out to Henry; he wanted the talented youngster to play linebacker.
Sure, Florida has plenty of talent on its roster; it is nearly impossible to fail to recruit at UF (perhaps less impossible after looking at the Gators’ offensive line numbers), but other things slacked under Muschamp. A foundation was set? He certainly cleaned up the program from the last days of the Urban Meyer era and provided some of the materials upon which a foundation could be built, but infrastructure is exactly what McElwain has been up in arms about since he arrived in Hogtown.
“I know this: [The players] were hungry when we got here. We were just real honest with each other as far as what it takes to really be successful, what it takes as an organization to really be successful,” McElwain explained.
“Now this isn’t just about these players, now. We’ve got a ways to go as a total organization – everybody that’s involved in Gator athletics and Gator football that touches the desk of the football coach. We’ve got to think above and beyond where maybe we are just OK with things, and our guys have done that. We’re going to continue to do that. We’re going to push every single day.”
So pardon me if Muschamp’s comments made me furrow my brow. Let’s get back to the guy who is the front-runner for SEC Coach of the Year and a contender for the national award in his first year leading a Power Five program.
Florida is winning in more ways than one under Jim McElwain. And the reason is simple: He’s not passive.
McElwain was not content with the status quo when he joined the Gators. He did not want a sub-standard indoor practice facility when he knew that UF needed a larger one to succeed. He refused to understand why team managers did not have coolers filled with ice at practice and why flags were not placed atop goalposts on the outdoor practice fields so kickers knew which direction the wind was coming from.
And McElwain sure isn’t passive on the field, either. He is not content to take a minute and 15 seconds, plus two timeouts, put them in his pocket and roll into halftime with a three-point score differential. He’s not prepared to kick a long field goal when he’s confident his running back can gain the extra yard needed to continue a drive that could end up in a touchdown. He was asked about his fourth-down philosophy after Saturday’s game, but his reply answered more than just the question offered – it described his entire coaching philosophy.
“I’m a guy who believes in going for it,” he said. “We’re going to press the mettle down and go score. And that’s what we have to do to be successful, and that’s the message our guys need to know.”
Going for it is what Florida is doing right now. Despite how woefully substandard the Gators’ offense looked Saturday, which has critics ready to anoint Alabama the 2015 SEC Champions three weeks before the game is even played, Florida has every opportunity it could dream of floating in front of its collective face.
“Let’s call it like it is: We’re on a championship run,” McElwain said after Saturday’s nail-biter.
“These guys are SEC East champs. They figured out a way to win. And I can’t tell you how proud I am of those players; and I can’t tell you how excited I am for Gators everywhere as we keep moving forward on this journey.
“We can talk and talk and talk about all the mistakes, the ‘what ifs,’ the ‘whys.’ But at the end of the day, there was a group of guys that were in that locker room that gave everything they had for this university and the state of Florida to win that ballgame. And I’ll tell you what, guys: That tells you something about who they are, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.
“Wow. That was something else.”
But that’s the thing about McElwain. He never settles. There’s always “something else” with him.
He’s not content with laying a foundation for the next guy. He’s focused on setting the groundwork for greatness … and it’s already started.