McElwain is all about the players

Jim McElwain was pure vanilla when he took the stage at Florida’s media day on Wednesday, but he had one constant theme that rang through about the individuals that make up his team..

If you were to use the Baskin-Robbins scale – 31 flavors -- for evaluating Jim McElwain’s media day press conference Wednesday afternoon, then you would hand the first year Florida coach two scoops of vanilla on that waffle cone. There was absolutely nothing flavorful or imaginative in what the first year coach had to say on the eve of the Gators’ first football practice of the fall. The closest thing he came to something remotely controversial was when he said, “You’ve got 15 opportunities is all and you’ve got over 300 days of preparation.” You could take that to mean McElwain is predicting the Gators will make it to the national championship game (12 regular season games, SEC Championship Game, 2 College Football Playoff games) but in reality he was simply pointing out that’s the maximum number of games the Gators will be able to play this season and he’s the kind of coach who expects to win every game even if what’s on paper says otherwise.

In many ways, McElwain’s 40-minute segment of media day could be termed much ado about nothing since he offered no bold predictions nor any detailed talk about what the Gators will be doing either on the offensive or defensive sides of the ball. He didn’t even offer so much as hint about whether he’s leaning toward Will Grier or Treon Harris as his starting quarterback.

“You know, I do know this: somebody’s going to take a snap the first play,” McElwain said. “I don’t know who it is yet. As soon as we know we’ll let you know.”

Translation: We’ll know sometime between Monday, August 31 and game time on Saturday, September 5.

Some might choose to interpret McElwain’s lack of candor or willingness to go out on a limb as a deliberate attempt to duck questions or perhaps keep expectations low. Lowering expectations is probably the better possibility of the two.

Consider this: if he sells lowered expectations that have people thinking just getting to 6-6 is an accomplishment, then folks will be happier than warm pigs in cool mud with something like an 8-4 record, which might be difficult but is do-able. When low expectations are exceeded it makes for happy boosters who write big checks and resonates well with recruits who are looking for strong indicators that the Florida Gators are trending upward. As the late Charley Pell could attest (Gators went from 0-10-1 in 1979 to 8-4 in 1980), nothing makes a coach look like a genius better than winning more games than anyone anticipated.

Perhaps the better interpretation about the lack of substance in McElwain’s remarks could be this – it’s far too early to make predictions about Florida’s 2015 football season because the team is way too young. There is always that possibility that McElwain is a history scholar who recalls the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, who paraphrased one of his favorite Bible verses one day and remarked, “Better to remain silent and be though a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Jim McElwain is no fool, but he’s also not talking except to say that (a) the Florida football program is all about the players, (b) the job of the players is to do everything in their power to get better every single day and (c) the job of the coaches is to make sure the program remains all about the players and that the players concentrate on getting better.

When it comes to the players, McElwain said, “The only reason any of us [coaches] exist is because of these players.”

That is 100% correct. If there are no players then there is certainly no need for coaches.

Nugget number two regarding McElwain’s players’ first mentality:

“Everything we [coaches] do should be generated towards helping our players be successful, and it doesn’t matter what aspect of it is, it has to be everything. “Everybody that touches the desk of the head football coach has to be zeroed in on helping these young men be successful.”

And just what constitutes success for 2015?

McElwain went plain vanilla here when he said success is the players getting better every day. How many times have we heard that over the years? That might have something to do with a couple of attempts to paint McElwain into a corner regarding his remark about the 15 opportunities. Veiled as a request to clarify the remark about 15 games, it was really a request for some sort of prediction. Rather than take the bait, McElwain sidestepped, in all likelihood because he sees the exact same problem Phil Steele sees when he looks at the Gators.

There is talent. Will Muschamp was right when he said he left some talented football players in the locker. Talent isn’t the issue.

Experience is.

Phil Steele says the Gators are last in the SEC in terms of experience top to bottom of the roster and places the Gators #125 nationally (out of 128 teams). When you coach a team that inexperienced, you better be all about the players and the focus better be about getting everybody better in a hurry.

Sophomore David Sharpe likely starts at left tackle, his first time as a starter.

McElwain didn’t have to say it because it’s a well-known fact that the Southeastern Conference is a league where big, bad kin eat their young on a regular basis. Mac used to work for Nick Saban at Alabama where he coordinated the offense for two national championship teams. He knows all about how the Crimson Tide devour their SEC brethren.

Now that he’s at Florida, it’s McElwain’s job to figure out how the Gators can avoid being devoured this year as he builds for the future.

While carefully avoiding any words that might sound critical of the football coach he replaced at Florida, McElwain made it clear that while he’s got the Gators making progress no one should expect a miracle season of changing the water into wine proportions. Not this year at least.

“We’ve had some great change already, and yet we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re getting there,” McElwain said. “And those are not overnight fixes. Those are things that happen over time.”

That is not a prediction of a lousy or under-achieving season. It is a statement of reality but while McElwain does live in the real world, he has first hand knowledge about how championship organizations function from his days at Alabama and the real life experience of taking over a downtrodden Colorado State team and in three years turning it one that was an inch short on a fourth and two with 38 seconds left of an 11-1 season in 2014.

It will take time for Florida football to transform but while he’s chipping away every day to sculpt the program into what he wants, McElwain has to deal with a 12-game schedule that includes a 4-game stretch in October that has murderer’s row written all over it – a home game with Ole Miss, roadies with Missouri and LSU and Georgia and Jacksonville. There is also that matter of Florida State coming to Gainesville on the last weekend of the regular season.

It’s not an easy schedule and while McElwain wasn’t offering much detail about his offense or defense or the progress his players have made in picking up brand new schemes on both sides of the ball, he did let it be known that the Gators won’t be backing down from anybody.

“There isn’t a game; there isn’t an event; there isn’t a thing that we would do that we go in expecting a participation ribbon,” McElwain said. “You go in expecting to win. It doesn’t matter the opponent. I mean, when you go in with a defeatist attitude, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to get your tail kicked. So that’s just not how I was brought up. We’ve got 15 opportunities. Let’s take advantage of them now to make the 15 a reality.”

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