When the Gators go through their final practice of the week on Friday at the Georgia Dome, it will mark the one-year anniversary of Jim McElwain’s plane landing in Gainesville after he accepted the job.
Standing at the podium of the press box inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the following day last year, McElwain was embarking on a long schedule that included hiring a coaching staff and trying to close strong with the recruiting class. He made that happen, landing a pair of five-star prospects and helping build relationships with high school coaches and prospects around the state that are already benefitting the program.
But the biggest challenge would be on the field where McElwain was inheriting a team that won 11 games combined during the final two years under Will Muschamp. If the Gators upset Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta or win their bowl game, they’ll match that number in the first year with McElwain at the helm.
In one season under their new head coach, the Gators feel like they’ve made a statement to the rest of the conference and the country. They are back.
“When you talk about the Gators you’re used to the SEC Champions and SEC Championship year in and year out,” Florida safety Marcus Maye said. “We are just getting back to that tradition. To have that is definitely back to what it used to be.”
From even before spring practice began last season, McElwain preached to his team about ‘restoring the order.’ For the previous 25 years, the first-year coach watched from the outside as Florida was one of the most recognizable brands in college football. That started to slip in the two years before McElwain came to Gainesville.
He wanted the players to take pride in bringing the program back to the top. No one saw it coming this quickly, but the Florida coaching staff knows the Gators belong in Atlanta. They have more appearances in the SEC Championship Game than any other program and will add to it on Saturday.
“The Florida Gators, this football team playing in the SEC Championship and going to Atlanta with the opportunity to win a football game that means so much in a place the Gators belong, a place they've been,” McElwain said. “To get back this quickly -- we've got a long ways to go as an organization and a program, and yet the momentum this team has built is something everybody should be proud of. What they've committed to is a higher standard, a higher level, and a commitment not only to each other, but to themselves to be the best they can be.”
It didn’t take long for a team of players that was recruited by a different coaching staff to buy into McElwain and the new staff. The players all rave about his ability to relate to them. Florida tight end Jake McGee said recently that McElwain has a different relationship with every player on the team because he understands that all people are different and are motivated differently.
But most of it boils down to McElwain’s optimism. Even with an offense that has struggled to move the football and find the end zone in the last four weeks, the first-year coach hasn’t blown up on the players or lost his temper. His optimism and belief in his players goes a long way to letting them perform on the field.
“He is a really good players coach,” Florida right tackle Mason Halter said. “He comes to us and lets us decide things as a unit, as a team. That’s something that he has grown to trust us, obviously, which is one thing. To have the ability to trust us as a football team, it’s unbelievable. It gives us a lot of confidence as a unit, as a team and as an offense and defense. Having that kind of capability and that quality as a coach is really good.”
“He’s fully confident in you. There’s nothing better than that. You could go out there and have coaches doubting you or not give you the options to do some full stuff fully opened. He doesn’t do that. I’m glad he’s my coach.”
Saturday acknowledges that Florida is on the right track, but heading into the game as a 17-point underdog after a 25-point home loss to Florida State, McElwain knows there’s still a long way to go. Much of that has to do with an offense that has struggled since Will Grier was suspended, but there’s still a long way to go off the field, too.
The first-year coach continues to push for changes to the program, whether to facilities or the structure of the Florida program.
“We’re going to get there, and we’re getting there in a hurry,” McElwain said. “It’s still going to take time. We’ve got a long ways to go, but I think the thing that celebrated is how quickly these guys have changed the way they think and how proud we should be for where we’re at.
“Now let’s go take the next step and go play in it and see what it’s like. That’s pretty exciting. And at the end of the day, the Florida Gators belong, and these Florida Gators belong in these game.”