“I’m a Gator,” McElwain said.
It wasn’t just what he said. It was how he said it. McElwain left no doubt whatsoever that he was exactly where he wanted to be and if you listened closely as he described how he spent 15 years in Division IAA where his duties included coaching physical education and a year in the NFL’s version of coaching hell – the Oakland Raiders – then there was no doubt that the University of Florida isn’t simply another whistlestop on a lifetime coaching tour but the place he intends to be for a long, long time.
You can forget this notion that some fans from a school 150 miles to the west are floating out there – the one that says McElwain was way down on Florida’s list of priorities. Jeremy Foley, while admitting he and his staff went through a list of other coaches in the vetting process, said the name that checked all the right boxes and kept bobbing to the top was Jim McElwain. Phone conversations with former Alabama players who had played for McElwain when he was the offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and coaches who had coached with McElwain along the way played a part in the process – “I bet we talked to more than 25 people about him … they just raved about him,” Foley said – and there were also conversations with McElwain starting Sunday night after the Gators lost to Florida State.
By the time he boarded the private plane that would take him and associate athletic directors Linda Tealer, Mike Hill, Chip Howard and Steve McLain to Fort Collins, Colorado, Tuesday morning, Foley felt a quiet confidence.
“I kind of thought we had our guy when we went out there,” Foley said.
Flying to Fort Collins, Foley surveyed a checklist of all the things that McElwain represented. He wanted a coach with a vivid and imaginative offense mind. Check there. He wanted a coach with strong character references and a reputation for getting along well with people. Another check. He wanted a coach who can recruit, who knows the SEC and had head coaching experience. Three more checks. He wanted a coach who wouldn’t shy away from a challenge. The fact that McElwain hadn’t shied away from taking over a Colorado State program that had three consecutive 3-9 seasons put a check in that box.
So even as he flew to Colorado believing he had found the coach who would be the best fit to bring Florida football back to championship levels, Foley was cautious. Having been through three other football coaching searches as well as searches for coaches in the other 20 sports played at UF, Foley was keenly aware that a balloon will only fly as long as the helium doesn’t leak out.
“We hoped the chemistry would be special but sometimes you get in the same room and it’s not special,” he said. “It was special the minute we walked into the room.”
From that point onward it was just a matter of getting comfortable. Foley had questions for McElwain: How do you build a program? How do you evaluate talent? How do you build a staff? McElwain had just as many questions and not all of them involved football or money – “It wasn’t about paychecks,” Foley said.
The more questions asked the more satisfied Foley and the staff of four he brought with him became convinced that they had found Florida’s next football coach.
It is important to know that McElwain wasn’t simply the last guy standing on a list of high profile guys who had already sent Foley their thanks but no thanks regards. There were rumors that Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss was offered the job but used it to leverage a better deal for him and his assistants to remain in Oxford. The names Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson, Chip Kelly and Jim Mora Jr. were out there.
How many of those guys actually showed interest in the job or were even considered when the weeding out process began three weeks ago Foley won’t say. He says the only coach he actually talked to and offered a job to was Jim McElwain and with good reason.
McElwain checked all the right boxes and enough of the right references to emerge as a top contender. There was one more thing that turned McElwain from contender into the only logical choice.
Jim McElwain wanted to be a Gator.
Having gone through as many coaching searches as he has in nearly 24 years on the job at Florida, Foley has learned one very valuable lesson – whoever becomes a head coach at one of the 21 sports sponsored by UF has to want to be here. This is not a place for the faint of heart and Foley doesn’t have to tell his coaches they are expected to compete for and win championships. They see the other coaches winning conference and national championships and know immediately that’s what is expected of them.
Simply put, coaching at Florida isn’t for everyone.
“You’ve got to want this job,” Foley said. “I think there is an impression that any time there is a coaching opening here at Florida – and we have great jobs here – that everybody wants to move to Gainesville. A lot of people have good jobs. They like the people they work for, they like where they live, they like all those things. You can throw a bunch of names out there but you want somebody that wants to move to Gainesville. I learned that a long time ago.
“I’ve chased coaches before that I had no shot to get and I didn’t know it until it came time to pull the trigger and they couldn’t pull it.”
McElwain not only was ready to pull the trigger, but he didn’t blink because it was a $2 million trigger that he was pulling. To leave Colorado State to become the head coach at the University of Florida, McElwain had to agree to pay a $2 million portion of a buyout that will total $7 million by the time all is said and done.
It sounds like a lot of money and it is, but if McElwain turns Florida into a championship level program, both Foley and McElwain know that the cash flow to cover this hire will be the very least of their concerns. Championships equal booster dollars, full stadiums, more television dollars and more revenue from a host of sources. Championships make for a black ink bottom line.
For now, McElwain’s emphasis shifts to hiring a staff, meeting and learning the names of his new players, and hitting the recruiting trail at a dead sprint. McElwain knows he is here to win football games but Foley insists there is no time frame to regain past glory and that there are immediate obstacles that must be overcome. Obviously, the current roster is filled with players McElwain didn’t recruit and they will have to begin learning a new system. For some players it will be the third or fourth system they’ve had to familiarize themselves with since they’ve been in Gainesville.
Foley is confident the transition to a new coach will be smooth and that McElwain’s play for long term success will win over players and fans alike.
“He’s the head coach; he’ll figure it out,” Foley said. “You’re not hiring a guy for one year of success. How confident am I that he’ll be successful in the long term? Look at his track record. The guys been successful everywhere he’s gone He certainly doesn’t lack for confidence. He certainly is not afraid of a challenge.”
And he certainly isn’t afraid to be a Gator.
There aren’t many jobs like the one McElwain steps into at Florida. You can’t be bowl-eligible good like you can at some places and keep your job. Here, you have to win but winning requires putting a foundation in place to sustain long term success.
“I get it that everybody wants to win tomorrow,” Foley said. “He wants to win tomorrow. So do I. I’m confident he’ll build it right. I’m very confident he can build it right.”