McElwain starts process to revamp Florida football
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Thirty-two days later, the Jim McElwain who arrived at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium dressed in a suit and tie and accompanied by his wife and three kids has vanished.
That McElwain, the one introduced as Florida’s new head football coach Dec. 6, has primarily worked in the shadows over the past month as the Gators closed out the Will Muschamp era.
The McElwain who stepped to the forefront Wednesday during his first press conference since the introductory one was dressed more casually and addressed the media from a chair instead of behind a podium.
But he spoke more authoritatively about the program.
He started by saluting the Gators for the way they played in Saturday’s 28-20 victory over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
"I just love the way our team played in that bowl game and the guys that held that thing together, just the kind of character they played with, the energy they played with," McElwain said. "They made plays when they needed against a very, very good football team."
In his first month on the job the program was essentially divided into two parts — McElwain working behind the scenes to recruit, hire coaches and getting acclimated to his new surroundings, and interim head coach D.J. Durkin leading the team on a day-to-day basis in preparation for a bowl game.
McElwain officially took charge this week and on Monday night gathered the players for a team meeting. The players got to meet their new coaches while McElwain and his staff — he has yet to hire a receivers coach — began to get a feel for their new team.
It was a fresh start following a transition period that is naturally awkward when one group of coaches is moving out as another group is moving in.
"There’s a lot of unknowns," McElwain said. "And yet there is a real excitement."
The son of a pair of educators, McElwain doled out a task for the Gators like a teacher might on the first day of class.
"The first assignment is get to know us," he said. "It’s their responsibility to get down to the weight room, not to work out, but to get to know the guys who are going to be part of that component."
McElwain wants the players to feel comfortable stopping by his office and visiting the other coaches to get his tenure off to a positive start.
He plans to begin individual meetings with players on Thursday and said he welcomes input from them about the organization as a whole.
"The last thing I want is a bunch of dead trout hanging around. It’s about energy and affecting the people around you in a positive way," he said. "There are days I’ll come to the office, even after I’ve had a bunch of cups of coffee, I may still look like that dead trout.
"As I explained to our team, I need them to come up and say, ‘Coach Mac, how are you doing today? Is there anything I can do to help?’ So those are the things that we’re doing right now."
McElwain remains short on specifics when it comes to the kind of football team he expects the Gators to be in his first season.
Those answers take time he said. Plus, he is currently evaluating much more than the roster, reviewing every detail from the program’s organizational structure to its facilities.
The Gators did receive good news this week when linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard both announced they would return for their senior seasons.
He inherits a team that should have a solid defense in 2015. Offensively, there are more questions than answers, starting with young quarterbacks Treon Harris and Will Grier.
"Our offense is going to fit to the personnel that we have," McElwain said. "Now, I don’t know about the personnel we have. I saw practice; I saw a game. I haven’t been with them in the offseason workouts to see how they are wired. So until we do that, we’ll fit whatever we need to do."
Besides hiring offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who followed McElwain as offensive coordinator at both Fresno State and Alabama, one of McElwain’s biggest moves on offense was retaining offensive line coach Mike Summers.
The offensive line is being hit hard by attrition and Summers adds much-needed leadership at the position.
"I had a great comfort level there and, you know, another thing is, shoot, that’s a position that’s been rolled over it seems like a little bit, too," he said. "Those guys are such a unique deal that, having some continuity and a great ball coach and a guy who’s been through a lot of different things and a lot of different systems [adds stability]."
The next major step for McElwain is to assemble the best recruiting class possible under difficult circumstances. The Gators have a lot of ground to make up between now and National Signing Day.
But McElwain’s calendar projects way beyond Feb. 4. And the work has barely begun.
"The total evolution might not be done until next fall because there’s a lot of those pieces that great organizations — it doesn’t matter whether it’s football, whether it’s in the corporate world, or whether it’s at the local doughnut shop — there’s certain things within the infrastructure, pillars, fundamentals and foundations that help you be successful," McElwain said. "And this is no different. So you’re going to see a lot of things integrated as we move forward. Yet there’s some great things here that there’s no need to touch or adjust or anything like that as we kind of move on down the road."
Where that road leads is to be determined.
But after a month of transition, it’s clear McElwain is now behind the steering wheel.