COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Maybe we should have seen this coming.
Laughter filled the room when Jim McElwain said at Florida’s media day before the opening of fall camp that the Gators had 15 opportunities to play this season, taking the schedule through the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and two potential College Football Playoff games.
That came weeks after Florida was picked fifth in the SEC East by the media. The holes on the Gators’ roster were tough to overlook for most, but McElwain saw a group that was starting to grasp what he wanted.
His plan showed up again on Saturday in Columbia. The Gators weren’t perfect on either side of the ball, but they were in complete control for over three quarters and fought off a late push from the Gamecocks to finish off a 24-14 win. McElwain saw in fall camp that there was enough talent on his team for a successful season, but they’re starting to win consistently during his first year because of the belief in themselves McElwain helped build.
“I think part of it is they see the investment that not only they make individually, but what the guy next to them makes,” McElwain said. “When you go into a competitive situation, you know by focusing and straining in on your job, you don’t have to do anything else because you’re doing it for the guy next to you. When you’re in this locker room, guys, this is a team that really cares about each other. This is a team that the older guys collected the younger guys that came in and said, ‘This is how we’re going to do this. We’re not going to let whatever went on go on anymore.’
“You’ve got some guys playing with a sense of purpose and a sense of pride. They refuse to be denied. Let’s give that football team the credit that they deserve. They’re Eastern conference champions. They’ve beaten everybody on that side. They’ve got a lot more to do.
Ask the players about McElwain, and they struggle to find enough compliments. They’ve been through mediocre seasons in the past and came into this year off back-to-back disappointing years by Florida’s standard. The players swear the talent was always in the Florida locker room. They just didn’t know how to translate it into one group that worked together on the field.
It’s showing up now behind a coaching staff, and especially a head coach, that they truly believe in and follow.
“Don't let him be quite as modest about the coaching job he's done,” said Florida tight end Jake McGee, who McElwain called ‘Jake from State Farm’ as soon as the tight end entered the media room. “What he's preached to us and what he's been able to get all of us to buy into is really unbelievable. He's a guy all the guys on this team love and love playing for.
“He's a guy who understands people really well. He understands what gets guys going, what guys need. He doesn't treat every player the same. He's got 105 different relationships with the guys on the team and knows how each guy sort of operates. The way he's been able to sort of put what he needs to in each player and to get their confidence and ability at the highest level is pretty remarkable."
The accolades for McElwain continue to build. He’s a strong candidate -- if not the heavy favorite -- for SEC Coach of the Year. He continues to build a resume for National Coach of the Year when the season ends. Florida is in the thick of the College Football Playoff race this season despite an offense that has been putrid for five seasons before this one. The offense still needs work, and the first-year defensive staff has helped their side of the ball become one of the best in the country.
When told that Steve Spurrier said he would vote McElwain as National Coach of the Year, Florida’s first-year coach grinned and shrugged it off. He credited the entire Florida program and the changes that have been made since he took over in December.
“It's very humbling No. 1 that someone would put you in that category because guys, there's a bunch of better coaches than me out there,” McElwain said. “What it does do is it speaks to the organization. It speaks to the players, the coaches, all the people that have kind of figured out that the difficult lies not in the new ideas but in escaping the old ones.
"We've got a whole organization that's moving in a new direction. We aren't sitting still. We're continuing to build, create and not just sit there and say 'we're Florida and you're not.' That's what I love about it. We've energized a whole organization to move forward, and it starts with those players."