Give Michigan credit. The folks in Ann Arbor realized they have a serious issue and they did something about it.
The issue is Urban Meyer to the southeast and Mark Dantonio to the northwest. Somewhere in between is Michigan, which was about to become irrelevant until Tuesday when Jim Harbaugh was hired to stem the tide that threatened to turn into a football tsunami capable of wiping out the Big House. Meyer and Ohio State are not going away. Neither are the Spartans and Dantonio up at Michigan State. And as long as they are coaching, Michigan felt its only choice was to swing for the fences to bring home the one coach who could make the Wolverines relevant again.
So give them credit. They made the choice to go for the gusto by hiring the one coach with a big enough name to lift them out of the quicksand of mediocrity. There were rumors that the compensation would be $8 million for six years, but the contract starts out at $5 million although Harbaugh was given a $2 million signing bonus, includes 10% raises at the three and five-year marks and a chance to renegotiate the entire deal after one year. Translate that this way: If Harbaugh delivers, whatever they’re paying Urban at Ohio State, they will match or exceed it at Michigan.
By making it a point to go get the one guy out there who could keep Michigan from drowning in a sea of Buckeye scarlet and Spartan green, the folks in Ann Arbor have inadvertently pointed a long, bony finger at Gainesville where Jim McElwain has been hired to restore Florida’s football fortunes.
Now this is no knock on McElwain, who is one fine football coach who very well may lead the Gators to the promised land. He’s got a brilliant offensive mind, is a very likeable chap and has a plan in place to get the job done. What he did with Alabama’s offense when he was the coordinator from 2008-11 was textbook efficient. What he did to bring Colorado State back from three straight 3-9 seasons to a 10-2 regular season in 2014 speaks volumes that this is a really good hire.
But is he a great hire? Is he the right hire who can make Florida football relevant in a championship way once again?
We won’t know that until he’s got the Gators consistently in the championship hunt just as Michigan won’t know for sure about Harbaugh until he’s got the Wolverines taking out their frustrations on Ohio State and Michigan State, the two programs whose shadows have turned football life in Ann Arbor dark and dreary. But Michigan does have one advantage.
Harbaugh has instant credibility and serious name recognition. For all we know, McElwain might be every bit as brilliant a play caller and twice the recruiter that Harbaugh is but Harbaugh has something McElwain doesn’t have now and may never have – instant recognition and credibility. That goes a long way on the recruiting trail and to quote the Zooker, “It ain’t about the Xs and Os, it’s about the Jimmies and Joes.” In Zookspeak that means you can draw up all the pretty plays you want on the blackboard but if you don’t have the studs to execute you’re spinning your tires in quicksand.
Harbaugh doesn’t need an introduction to get into a recruit’s living room. He’s had the San Francisco 49ers within a play of winning the Super Bowl. That resonates.
McElwain has two national championship rings from his days at Alabama. Impressive, for sure, but you don’t hear anyone saying those 2009 and 2011 national championship teams were Jim McElwain’s do you? As vital as he was to Bama’s success, those were Nick Saban’s teams.
Go back to 2007. Alabama hired Saban to stop the lengthening shadow of Urban Meyer. Meyer won a national championship in his second year at UF (2006) and got a second one in 2008. Saban was hired to stop the Florida momentum and he’s done it by winning three national championships since 2009. He could get a fourth this year.
Following the 2010 season, Florida turned the football program over to Will Muschamp, as qualified a defensive coordinator as you could find but with zero in the way of head coaching experience. Considering it was Urban Meyer who was to be replaced and the momentum that Saban was building at Alabama, the situation called for a better hire. Muschamp’s a great guy and someday he might prove to be someone’s fantastic head coach, but at the time he was hired, this was like giving the keys to the Caddy to the cabana boy and that proved out with a 28-21 record in four years.
The same thing happened in 2002 when Steve Spurrier abruptly resigned following the Gators’ win over Maryland in the Orange Bowl. Florida football was Steve Spurrier and that called for a big time hire. Instead of someone capable of carrying on at the same level Spurrier had for 12 years (122-27-1 record, six SEC titles, one national championship), Ron Zook was given the keys to the Caddy. We know how that went.
In both 2002 and 2010, there was a chance to make the big hire that would keep the momentum going. In both 2002 and 2010, the Gators took the road less traveled and paid a price for it.
So here we are, a day away from 2015 and Jim McElwain is the head coach. His resume looks good and his work as an assistant coach was impeccable. He did a great turnaround job at Colorado State. He’s a good character guy and he just might could prove to be the diamond in the rough hire that Foley hoped he was getting with Zook and with Muschamp. He’s got two advantages: (1) he has the head coaching experience that neither Zooker or Muschamp had and (2) he doesn’t have to fill the shoes of a coaching icon.
But, just like Harbaugh will have to go toe to toe with Urban and Dantonio to elevate Michigan out of the shadows of Ohio State and Michigan State into the sunlight, McElwain has to elevate Florida football out of the shadows of Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Richt. Whether we like to admit or not, Florida football has fallen significantly behind. This is still considered a top tier job, but it’s top tier in reputation only.
In reality, Florida football has become a third tier job. On the field results are the true measuring stick and right now the Gators rank below LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn and the Aggies, which are on the second tier based on results on the field. Unless something is done quickly, Florida could find itself on that second or third tier for a long, long time. Once you’ve sunk a bit, it’s hard to bob your way back to the surface.
Michigan made Jim Harbaugh the splash hire. If Harbaugh can’t turn Michigan football relevant again, no one will look back and wonder what might have been. If Harbaugh doesn’t succeed, at least you go down swinging for the fences.
If McElwain succeeds in a big way, it will go down as a brilliant hire by Foley and will easily remove the tarnish on his legacy left by the hires of Zook and Mushchamp.
But, if McElwain proves he’s at best another Kirk Ferentz – the kind of coach who can occasionally get you to an Outback or Gator Bowl – then this will go down as yet a third chance the Gators had to swing for the fences but elected to bunt the runner over instead. You can win games with bunts just as you can with home runs but nobody questions your strategy when you try to hit it out of the park. Until McElwain proves it on the field, Foley’s strategy will be questioned again and again and again.
As good an athletic director at the University of Florida as Foley has been, he needs this hire to be every bit as good as the one Michigan made today when it hired Jim Harbaugh.
Do you wish Florida had tried to make the home run hire before landing Jim McElwain or are you satisfied with the way this hire went down?
If there is one concert I wish I could have gone to it would have been Paul McCartney’s Red Square concert in Moscow in 2002. Having seen it on documentary, it must have been the ultimate blast. When The Beatles came out with what is simply known as “The White Album” in 1968, “Back in the USSR” was a fun song because the cold war was raging. In 2002 there was no cold war but when McCartney played this song, they went absolutely nuts in Moscow. I would have paid top dollar to be there.