Hugh Freeze would have been another sexy hire. When you do what he’s done at Ole Miss in three years, you get high marks on the sexy scale for football coach hiring. The only way he was coming to Florida was if Ole Miss didn’t offer him a new four-year deal that included the cash to keep good assistants working in Oxford instead of going where the money was better. Florida was perceived as enough of a legitimate threat that Ole Miss reacted and more than exceeded Hugh’s expectations, which is why he’s still in Oxford.
There might have been some other names on Jeremy Foley’s list and some of them might have scored high on that sexy hire scale, too. You have to figure Bob Stoops was at least asked if he was interested, probably Gary Patterson, too, but they’re still coaching in the Big 12 this weekend.
While no one would think that Stoops or Patterson wouldn’t have instant success at Florida not every sexy hire is a good one. Just ask Rich Rodriguez about his three years in purgatory, also known as Michigan. When he was hired the Big Blue Nation thought it had the guy who was going to make Ohio State irrelevant. We know how that turned out.
Sometimes you have to forego sexy for the right fit and the right fit might be the guy who’s paid his dues, earned his stripes and still feels he’s got something to prove.
That’s Jim McElwain.
If his history of creative offensive schemes, play calling and quarterback development repeats itself in Gainesville, the guy that paid his dues for years as an assistant coach and then three years at a Mountain West Conference outpost is going to make someone look like a genius. He comes to Florida highly recommended by both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Belichick knows him through Pat Hill, who coached the O-line for the Cleveland Browns back in the 1990s when Belichick was the head coach. McElwain called the plays for Hill at Fresno State in 2007. The next year, on the recommendation of Belichick, McElwain landed in Alabama where he called the plays for four years and won two national championship rings.
In McElwain, the Gators aren’t getting another boy genius. He’s 52 years old and spent most of his coaching career beating the bushes and climbing the ladder of success one rung at a time. He coached in Division I-AA at Eastern Washington and Montana State, worked for John L. Smith at Louisville and Michigan State, spent a year in Siberia, also known as the Oakland Raiders of the NFL, and then coached for Hill and Saban.
McElwain has spent the last three years at Colorado State, transforming that program from three consecutive 3-9 seasons before he arrived to one that is 10-2 in 2014. So, he’s no overnight sensation and without question, he understands the hard work it takes to get from a place like Cheney, Washington, where Eastern Washington plays football games on bright red artificial turf, to Gainesville, Florida, where home games are played on plush green grass at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, considered one of college football’s ultimate destinations.
He comes to Florida with an impeccable reputation both personally – there have been no hints of scandal along the way – and professionally. During his four years working for Saban at Alabama, he earned a reputation for efficiency. Bama ran the ball with great success, threw the ball well when it had to and didn’t turn the ball over. That worked for 49 wins and only six losses in four years including the 2009 and 2011 national championships. During those four years, his quarterbacks were John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron, outstanding game managers who could make some plays, keep the chains moving and grind out the points.
Since taking over at Colorado State, his offenses have turned prolific, running out of a one-back pro spread that has averaged 497 yards a game and 7.21 yards per play in 2014. Let’s put the Colorado State offense in perspective.
Quarterback Garrett Grayson’s numbers this season were 250-386 for 3,779 yards, 32 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He had four 300-yard plus games, two 400-yard plus games and five games with 236 or more yards. By comparison, Florida quarterbacks Treon Harris and Jeff Driskel combined for 156-296 for 1,988 yards for 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Florida quarterbacks had two 300-yard passing games, two 200-yard passing games, three games with at least 148 yards and four in which they failed to crack the 100-yard barrier.
Tailback Dee Hart, the former Dr. Phillips star who transferred to Colorado State from Alabama, where McElwain recruited him, ran for 1,254 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 185 yards and two more TDs. Hart had six 100-yard games and one 200-yard game this season. Against New Mexico he had 230 yards and five rushing touchdowns. Backup Treyous Jarrells ran for 437 yards and six touchdowns, plus caught 10 passes for 81 yards. Florida’s top two runners were Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, who combined to run for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jones had three 100-yard plus games and Taylor had one.
Rashard Higgins, one of five receivers with more than 27 catches, caught 89 passes for 1,640 yards and 17 touchdowns. Higgins had more catches, yardage and touchdowns than Florida’s top three receivers combined. Higgins has caught passes for at least 143 yards in six straight games and has only two games in which he didn’t get at least 100 yards. Demarcus Robinson, Quinton Dunbar and Clay Burton combined for 84 catches, 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns. Robinson had a 200-yard receiving game and two 100-yard receiving games. Dunbar had one.
Granted, those Colorado State numbers were against Mountain West defenses and not against the likes of the SEC West, but it’s not like McElwain doesn’t already know how to dissect an SEC defense. Nor is it like he’s going to do on the job training. He’s been around big time programs, been a part of championships and he’s worked in the fishbowl that is Alabama. He already knows what it takes to manage a program top to bottom and get results.
So he knows the expectations are borderline ridiculous and is keenly aware that getting the Gators to a bowl game in Shreveport, where if you lose you’re required to stay another week, won’t cut it. It wasn’t all that long ago that Florida was playing for the SEC title and a chance to play for a second straight national championship. McElwain was over on the other sideline calling the plays for Alabama when that happened in 2009. Now he’s being brought to Gainesville, charged with getting the Gators back into the championship picture with something other than an unimaginative offense that is capable of curing even the worst case of insomnia.
Now some will look at the hiring of McElwain and claim the Florida Gators had a chance to go for a five-star but settled for a three-star who is long on potential, but consider this: Chip Kelly spent all but two years before he became Oregon’s head coach in Division III and Division I-AA and only five years ago Hugh Freeze was coaching at something called Lambuth, which plays in the NAIA. When first hired at Oregon and Ole Miss, Kelly and Freeze didn’t exactly score big on the sexy scale. As for McElwain, he comes to Florida with far more big time coaching experience than either Kelly or Freeze had combined when they finally got their big break.
It only goes to show you that sometimes the difference in the pageant winner and Miss Congeniality is a matter of a little bit of experience and perception. Only time will tell if Florida has a pageant winner but his pedigree and work experience make you think perceptions will be changing in the near future.
The odds-on favorite to replace Bo Pelini at Nebraska was Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who was the quarterback the last time the Huskers won the national championship back in 1997. The two guys who emerged almost out of nowhere in the last three days were Oregon State head coach Mike Riley and Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain. McElwain took the Florida job and now Riley is the head coach at Nebraska. Color Big Red fans … well, red. The fans might have been happier had McElwain been the guy since he ran very conservative offenses when he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator. In Riley, they get a 61-year-old who, while well regarded as a coach, runs a pro style offense. The last guy who did that at Nebraska was Bill Callahan, Pelini’s predecessor who lasted all of two seasons.
While they wouldn’t come right out and say it, Nebraska’s decision to hire Riley over Frost had everything to do with head coaching experience. Frost has never been anyone’s head coach and that was considered a detriment. Although he went 68-27 in his seven years on the job, Nebraska fans felt Pelini was ill-prepared for the demands of being a head coach since he was a career assistant prior to taking the job in Lincoln. They said the same thing about Frank Solich, who was fired after going 58-19 in the six seasons prior to Callahan.
Are you satisfied with the McElwain hire or do you think a school of Florida’s stature could have done better?
One of my favorite musical discoveries of the last 12 months is the Boston-based band Lake Street Dive, a band of four that met at the New England Conservatory of Music 10 years ago. The band features outstanding vocals from Rachel Price, a Hendersonville, Tennessee native who is the daughter of composer/conductor Tom Price. This is a terrific band to catch live. They do sets of their own music and aren’t afraid to do other people’s music, particularly old Beatles standards and Early Jackson 5. Today’s music is “Bad Self Portraits” from their third album, which was released back in February.