Trust me when I say this. I am as excited as anyone for these Gators to get their chance to play in the SEC Championship game on Saturday. A six year MIA from the contest is what nobody envisioned in the last year or two of the Urban Meyer era at Florida.
The fact that the Gators have been to the SEC Championship more than any other team and haven’t been there in the previous five seasons says a lot about the expectations at Florida, and what should be the expectations at Florida.
But, we all know the limitations of this team. And those limitations are likely to be exposed more than they have been lately by this Alabama squad more than any other they have faced this season.
And you know what, it will hurt for a while, but it will be okay.
Now I am not throwing in the towel, and goodness has this team shown this season they can overcome a great many odds. But, if the Las Vegas odds makers are even half correct on this game, Florida is in for a long 60 minute contest.
That won’t deter, whatsoever, my feeling that the Gators have the right guy in place and that future is oh so much brighter than anything that could have happened in this season and with this current roster.
The Gators just have too many holes in different spots on the roster for it to be a true championship team of the caliber we have seen around here in the past. That they have played over their heads is a true testament to McElwain and his staff’s ability to coach them up.
But things are going to be so much better and this week we heard a little more about why I believe this way.
Florida goes into the SEC Championship against Alabama and head coach Nick Saban, like him or not, he is now legend of the game and one of the best to ever coach the game. He has built a program that is at the pinnacle of the college football world and has done so from the clutches of several underachieving coaches before him at the school.
Jim McElwain was there in the early stages of Saban at the helm of Alabama as Saban’s offensive coordinator and so he knows very well a lot of the things that need to be done to get to the point where a program annually contends for a title or is close to doing so.
“I was able to learn from him in a lot of different things that were valuable,” McElwain said earlier this week speaking of his time with Saban. “Whether he believed it or not, I sat there and soaked every second and word he had. I took notes. I tried to learn as much as I could.
Not every coach does this kind of thing, but as we have found out very early in his tenure at Florida, McElwain is not ‘every coach’. He’s a guy that constantly on the look for something to make him better. He brings this attitude wherever he goes.
“I do the same thing here,” he said. “I look forward with my business with (athletic director) Jeremy Foley and when I get a chance to go in there and visit with guys on our staff. I get a chance to visit with a lot of people. It’s all an opportunity to learn and (Saban) gave me that opportunity. The guy is really good now. Sometimes the public perception doesn’t do justice for what a good guy he is.”
So McElwain is a guy that takes notes and was in on the building of the Alabama Empire under Saban. He understands what it takes and he has made some power moves to emulate the program from the first month, strike that, the first week of his arrival as the head coach at Florida.
A huge sour point in Florida’s recruiting efforts over the years has been the dorm rooms of the athletes at Florida. Old, outdated, worn, even undersized in a lot of ways, the dorms were embarrassing enough that they wouldn’t show them to prospects on visits. In just weeks on the job McElwain had a two million dollar upgrade to the dorms that hadn’t been done in decades.
The next step was assembling a staff. But rather than just settle with the nine guys that are allowed to coach with him on the sideline, he was able to assemble about a 20 member staff of college coaches, some of which are on a secondary unit that do background stuff for the team, but were full blown college coaches a year ago.
This kind of thing you only see at Alabama… until now.
Of course there was the construction of the Indoor Practice Facility. Now, there is a notion out there that this was a thing that McElwain was completely responsible for. That is not the case. The bidding for an IPF went out in October last year for construction to be done in the offseason and be completed for the start of the 2016 season.
What he had his hands totally on was the change in the plans from only a 70-yard facility to one that was actually functional if the full team had to practice inside it. The building went from 70-yards to 120-yards as a concept shortly after McElwain was on it.
He doesn’t seem to miss a step.
Signing day came in February and the Gators pulled several rabbits out of the hat. There is a lot to still see from that group, so we won’t misrepresent them with unwarranted accolades at this point. Still, a class that nationally was being mocked just a week before signing day went on a tear with two days left and was basically the talk of the nation when the ink went to paper.
Spring practice came and a reality set in with the staff and the Gator faithful that follow things closely. An offensive line that looked like possibly the worst unit in college football in a long, long time was working as hard as they could to get things done, but because of a gross lack of numbers was living up to their reputation in the spring.
Then another thing that has set McElwain apart from his previous peers at the helm of the program. He went on the usual spring banquet tour to meet and greet the boosters and get whatever message he could out to them. Honestly, the speaking was a bit awkward at times, something different than we have seen from a coach at Florida. There was a bit of uneasiness it seemed in front of the people.
That was okay, because it was after these meetings that the real story will someday be told. He held impromptu get together with some of the high flying Gator boosters out there. He let them know that things have got to change at Florida and it is going to have to take them to do it and push the right buttons and fork over the right amount of dollars to make it happen.
We have yet to see the dividends here, but it is coming in a big way.
Back to the team and as the summer and fall started creeping closer, the aforementioned recruiting class added six players, and then they took in two transfers that could play right away. True freshman T.J. McCoy is red-shirting this year, but right tackle Mason Halter has done an admiral job starting at the position all year.
Then the season came. Expectations were low. The offense offered most of the reasons for an expected blood bath of a season. The fact that a young quarterback would have to lead the team didn’t help. But, the overall talent of the offense was in question from the start.
The funny thing is McElwain would draw from experiences to start the season. He could have publicly prepared everyone for a miserable season, but he didn’t. He talked up his team. “We aren’t here for a participation ribbon” was a mantra he often used to say “we are here to win the game.”
That is straight out of the Saban handbook, a guy that knows how to get the best out of his players on almost every night they hit the field. It worked… to the tune of 10 regular season wins and a start to the season that had people feeling a lot better with this team.
Some road blocks occurred in the season and much can be attributed to roster deficiencies or what have you. Without lamenting on the players that we all root for, let’s just say that we all understand the talent level needs to increase on this squad, especially on offense.
It needs to catch up with Alabama.
“You got to remember that didn’t happen overnight either,” McElwain said this week when talking about the talent of his foe this weekend in Atlanta. “Part of the maturation of the organization is you have to go through some things to learn from, and keep moving forward along with some of those bumps. I don’t know what they were the first year, but they made a heckuva run that second year and learned some things that second season that really propelled us the next three seasons I was there.”
He credits Saban with being the mastermind behind it all, even with McElwain running things on offense during those first years of the program. The players have to match what the program intends to be.
“Obviously, he’s the reason,” he said of Saban. “It had nothing to do with me. He’s the reason. But the level of consistency and expectation and knowing the type of guys you want in your program I think is as much as not getting caught up in a 40 time and this guy is great —but do they fit what your expectations are? For as many things, I think one of the greatest things he does is recognizes what fatal flaws are. Rather than say ‘oh I can coach that out of them,’ let’s just eliminate that by not taking it and getting something that fits what you want to do. Obviously I think there isn’t a program in the country… look… if you look at the consistent success, for the last eight-year stretch, is there anybody that can match that? I don’t think there is. For that, I was more than grateful to have had the opportunity to be there and see how it was built.”
With note pad in hand, McElwain will attack the next phase of building his program. Some will start right after Saturday’s big game is over. But a large part of the future will come on signing day in February, when he adds a group of guys that will help build the program he is trying to put together.
This guy has never been more excited about covering this program than I am right now and for the long haul.