Looking to put a forgetful two-year stretch behind them, the Florida Gators are ready to get started under the direction of Jim McElwain.
HOOVER, Ala. — As the Alabama sun began its descent low in the mid-summer sky, Jim McElwain stopped to indulge about 50 autograph seekers in the lobby of the Hyatt Wynfrey hotel while making his getaway at the end of a long-but-meaningful day in his first official league function as Florida’s football coach.
The McElwain Era had begun. Day One was over. The Florida Gator continent had acquitted itself sufficiently at SEC Media Days, although you can't really count these things in the victory column.
Say this, though: Mac fought the Media Monster to a draw. He had worked his way down the epic Radio Row and in all the proper media rooms — through the semi-private press sessions with local media and then the national media, the ESPN one-on-one exclusives, a 30-minute stint in the Big Room of writers, then another 10 each in the smaller TV group interviews and radio/website rooms.
That routine, of course, is standard procedure for all 14 coaches this week. I guess the difference I saw was a little more perkiness in Coach Mac’s responses than usual and it felt more like he had assumed the orange and blue mantle. I can’t swear it, but I think I might have even detected a hint of optimism in his remarks about the offense. He even threw a little bouquet to his predecessor.
“Coach (Will) Muschamp and his staff did some really good things, obviously set the table,” said McElwain. “And we need to just pick up from that and move forward.”
Moving on seemed to be the theme of the day.
Not saying either coach should be nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, but I seem to recall some snide exchanges in the media earlier this year between Muschamp and McElwain over empty cupboards and players being compared to pet dogs. But perhaps that has passed now and maybe that’s what Coach Mac meant by “move forward.”
Before the day was over and all his thousands of words were used, McElwain deployed a little spin with phrases like “great expectations” and even declared “I’m excited about that group” regarding some offensive players.
McElwain also paid homage to the Head Ball Coach. When asked about his relationship with Steve Spurrier, he commented:
“I drive to work every day and pass his statue,” said McElwain. “That’s pretty cool. There’s a Heisman Trophy winner, right there. I look forward to someday being able to sit down and pick his brain because he’s one of the true guys that knows how to get it done.”
There was also some convoluted answer about how he’d compensate for a lack of depth in the offensive line, but I’m still looking for an interpreter on this:
“I think, when you look at the bells and whistles, we’re a multiple shift, multiple motion, try-to-create-as much-confusion, some unbalance, create an edge here and there to give us an opportunity.”
Mostly, though, it was plain talk. In his private session with regular beat writers, McElwain spoke generally about personnel and leadership but mostly danced around specific issues. Then he zeroed in on his spring and summer booster club speeches. I asked him now many times he has sung “The Boys From Old Florida.”
One occasion was at the Ray Graves Memorial, because the former Florida coach had made singing “We Are The Boys” part of his last will and testament. And in that moment, Mac had been embraced by some blueblood Gator alums as he swayed to and fro singing, “Where the girls are the fairest and the boys are the squaresssssttttt...”
“That was really something special right there,” McElwain recalled of the moment in June. “I got goose bumps right now. The traditions are what makes college football so great. And that’s one of them. (Singing “We The Boys” at the end of the third quarter.) I look forward to seeing that. Hopefully we’ve got the lead when they’re doing it.”
As far as making news, McElwain didn’t.
And no, he did not — and won’t yet — name a starting quarterback.
It was a good start for a rookie SEC coach and for a guy who was once called “a used car salesman” by a Florida reporter for his non-answers. His players also held up their end. Two of the three Florida brought along made a strong impression on other media.
All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, stud defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and promising slot receiver Brandon Powell came off impressively in their interviews, although some wondered why Powell, a sophomore, was included in the group.
While Hargreaves does his thing on the back end, Bullard has evolved as a leader in the front four, having learned to lead from the departed Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd — if only because he had to.
“I have gotten better at talking. And I take that on me,” said Bullard. “I do say stuff now as the vocal leader of the defensive line. But I’m not the rah-rah guy.”
At his second SEC Media Days appearance, Hargreaves was smart, honest and direct with his answers. Just like he plays, sometimes he hit hard. Hargreaves even admitted to thinking and talking about playing in the NFL and says he’s looking forward to it. “I like thinking about the NFL. What’s wrong with that?” he said. The important thing is he keeps his focus on the game at hand at all times.
This is a transitional year for Hargreaves, who may have been Muschamp’s favorite player and was taught by him to play at a high level. Naturally it was a tough moment for Vernon when Muschamp was canned.
Vernon was asked what Muschamp’s firing felt like.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Hargreaves admitted. “However, I understand how coaching works. Growing up in a football family, my dad has been fired before. I didn’t like it when I was younger and I still don’t like it now. You get used to it and you move on. That is as simple as that. I think he will do excellent at Auburn. And I’m excited about seeing him coach in the NFL one day.”
It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Muschamp would coach in the NFL someday. And for that matter, that his former Gator cornerback would be playing for him — or for somebody. He’s going to be a first-round draft choice.
Somebody asked Hargreaves if the Gator offense had been as strong as the Gator defense the last two seasons how things might have turned out differently.
“We’d have won two national championships,” said the feisty 198-pound junior defensive back, delivering yet another shot.
That sort of sums up the Muschamp era — what might have been.
For the McElwain era, it’s what might or might not be. Though he has yet to win or lose a game, there is a little more blue — as in blue collar effort — visible in the orange and blue color scheme these days. Public relations does seem to matter a bit more as well. By necessity. And it is badly needed.