Memo to Gator Nation: McElwain deserves two years of leeway

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Being the head coach of the Florida Gators’ football team is quite a unique job. In the program’s 110 year history, 24 different men held that title before Jim McElwain; three of them held it on only an interim basis. It’s a coveted job to hold, particularly in the last few decades, and the Gators’ fairly recent arrival to the national stage instantly equips each new coach with a heavy set of expectations.

But it may be time to temper them. At least to start.

At this point, we all know what Jim McElwain thinks of the roster Will Muschamp left him. In short, nothing good. And he’s right. Muschamp can defend himself and the job he did at Florida all he wants, but leaving his successor with eight scholarship offensive linemen- two of whom got injured, and one of them permanently- is probably not grounds for hitting back with a sarcastic quip about McElwain’s dog. We all know exactly why he claimed to have left McElwain a great team, too- if McElwain wins big, it’s only to be expected, and Muschamp gets tons of praise, and if McElwain stumbles and goes 5-7 in his first season, Muschamp gets to accuse of him of being an even worse coach than he is because he failed to win with what’s supposed to be a loaded roster. It’s like he’s saying, “I did all the hard work and gave you a roster stockpiled with talent, a ten year old girl could at least coach that team to a Capital One Bowl.”

Don’t let him fool you. This is merely the latest use of a tactic we’ve grown quite familiar with- twisting the truth/exaggerating/simply lying to salvage his own image. He may have left Florida with a good defense, but as we saw in 2013, a good defense on its own isn’t worth more than four wins. Leaving Florida with a good defense compared to leaving Florida with a good team is a difference of night and day, and Muschamp left Florida in a metaphorical night- and quite a dark one, at that.

But while I never try to hide my disdain for Muschamp, that’s not what this is about. It’s about McElwain, and how the depleted roster he now takes command of is not to be blamed on him. Therefore, we as fans need to give McElwain two full years before we start to judge him.

The first step needed to fix a problem is admitting that you have one. McElwain has done that by saying that the roster Muschamp left him with is insufficient. That’s good, now onto the next step: crafting a plan to fix it. McElwain did that by identifying top offensive recruits such as Martez Ivey and Jordan Scarlett and making it his top priority to land them. The third step would be to put that plan into action and see it succeed, and by receiving LOIs from both Martez Ivey and Jordan Scarlett, he certainly accomplished that. He also landed several other quality recruits, such as OLs Tyler Jordan and Brandon Sandifer and running back Jordan Cronkrite. So it’s time to give credit where it’s due: McElwain came in, took over what wasn’t even a top 70 class and turned it into a top 20 class by landing several big offensive players. The lack of competent pieces to a championship team on Florida’s offense has turned into a roster loaded with more than competent pieces because of McElwain.

Unfortunately, those “more than competent pieces” are freshmen- college football’s ultimate double edged sword.

Freshmen can’t really be counted on to be extremely useful, particularly when you rely on a bunch of them to produce at once. If they turn out to be All-Americans, then great, but you can’t bank on it. Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are exceptions, not the norm. Therefore, it isn’t fair to ask McElwain and his staff to turn Ivey/Jordan/Sandifer into Outland Trophy winners, or Scarlett and Cronkrite into Doak Walker Award winners, in 2015.

And what I’ve written so far doesn’t even take into account the fact that the rest of the Gators’ offense is similarly raw. With three exceptions (Trip Thurman, DeMarcus Robinson and Kelvin Taylor) every single offensive player who will see field this year is vastly inexperienced, including Will Grier at QB. McElwain and his assistants did great work in acquiring more talent, but asking a team that will start so many inexperienced players on offense, talented as they may be, to guide Florida to national prominence is asking for too much. It’s not fair to McElwain to demand a trip to Atlanta from him with a new QB, four new starters on the offensive line and only two dependable skill position players.

So whatever happens in 2015, we as Florida fans need to understand that McElwain is working with a seriously depleted roster, one that Muschamp is responsible for. If Florida loses six games, the finger of blame goes right at Muschamp. He’s the guy who left Florida with barely enough offensive linemen to fill a first team line, let alone a second string line. He’s also the guy who ended his tenure 10-14, and then claimed that he left his successor with a great team in a last ditch attempt to save face. The fact that he’s simply a hated figure in Gainesville is going to make it easier to sling more verbal abuse on him, and while that’s fine with me- he deserves it- we have to understand one big thing. Objectively speaking, he left the Gators with a mess and it really will be his fault if Florida struggles this year, unless the Gators are really bad, like 2-10 or something unimaginable like that. Just realize that no coach in the country would look at Florida’s roster and say, “ooh, yeah, I can win a national championship with that.” And that’s on Muschamp.

Then there’s 2016, a year in which we have the right to expect a fair amount of improvement from 2015 but still not one in which we can really judge McElwain. The thought process is similar, albeit with slightly less patience; McElwain will still be getting settled in, making adjustments based on what happened in 2015, and will still be rather new at being an SEC head coach. And whatever roster problems on offense Florida has can still be fairly attributed to Muschamp, although I tend to expect more from sophomores who saw a good amount of reps as freshmen.

But while it’s totally acceptable for fans to start getting antsy if Florida struggles in 2016, it still doesn’t give any of us the right to want a new coach. Hiring a new coach is just about guaranteed to set the program back a year or two, unless it’s a case like FSU or Oregon with an established veteran assistant that gets promoted from within (or Ohio State with, you know, Urban Meyer). Giving McElwain two years only to fire him and start over puts Florida right back where they are now, if with a slightly more competent roster. Recruits will decommit. Players will transfer. Assistant coaches will leave. It’s a mess. Now sometimes you have to grit your teeth and fight through that mess when you’ve got an even bigger mess like Muschamp, who gradually crippled the Gator program, but barring heavy sanctions or a pair of two win seasons, it’s impossible to think that ordering a new coach- a side effect of which you know will be that mess- will get the program back to where it’s supposed to be any sooner.

So there you have it. McElwain needs two years of criticism free leeway to do what he feels he needs to do to get the program back on top. After that, it’s on him. Although I like Muschamp even less than Brock Berlin, I can’t objectively see any possible way that a poor season in 2017 would be his fault. But since it’s not 2017 yet, we’ve got to fully support McElwain through the ups and downs, good times and bad, and successes and failures alike.

In other words, in all kinds of weather.

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