Soon after Jim McElwain was hired last December, our Nick Joost wrote this fantastic piece on how it was up to McElwain to restore the culture at the University of Florida. By that, he meant building an aura of invincibility that made the Gators THE GAME for their opponents. It’s obviously way too early to declare that McElwain has done that, given that his only result as Head Gator is a 61-13 pasting of a New Mexico State team the UAA paid big bucks in exchange for a beating, but there is a sign that he’s off to the right start.
One of the main problems our previous coach had was that his teams were always self destructing and making it easier for the other team to win. The two ways to do that: turning the ball over and committing stupid penalties (which doesn’t mean hustle penalties like grabbing a face mask on a flying tackle or hitting a guy a split second after he steps out bounds, but rather pre and post snap penalties like false starts or unsportsmanlike conduct). Will Muschamp teams did so much of both of those things that I eventually got to the point where I didn’t even bother calling him out for it. What’s the point? It’s Sisyphean. It would just happen again and again, and worse yet, the greater the magnitude of the game, the greater the quantity of the self inflicted wounds his team would be responsible for.
Muschamp had other problems, of course. His offenses always sucked. He made one awful assistant coaching hire after another. He compounded that last error by poking his nose into their business and trying to put his stamp on some facets of the game where he has little to no knowledge (special teams and every offensive position). And so on. We’ve been through them before.
McElwain’s job, in a sense, is to completely undo everything Muschamp started with the exception of the foundation of his defense. Literally everything else you can think of that relates to Florida’s football program was made worse by Muschamp, and now McElwain has to fix it all. No more thousands of empty seats at home games. No more getting pasted by unranked teams in the Swamp at night. No more being our rivals’ whipping boy. And most importantly, no more of this attitude that Florida is a losing program. Muschamp’s last two seasons at Florida resulted in a sorry 10-13 record- losers by any definition of the word. So to rephrase the first sentence of this paragraph, McElwain’s long term goal is tasked with proving that Muschamp is the loser as opposed to the Florida football team as a whole.
Now, again, that’s impossible to do in one game, especially against a cupcake. The way to complete a Herculean task like this is to break it down into segments, and take small steps toward the larger goal. Or in other words, fix one problem at a time. You can’t fix the attendance issues nor the idea that the Swamp is where only Tigers, Commodores, Gamecocks and FCS teams get out alive in one game, or even one season. That will come years down the road. So McElwain is starting with one of the smaller scale issues that Muschamp was too busy drawing up creative ways for his linemen to block each other to bother fixing: eliminating the self inflicted damage. Or at least noticeably decreasing its frequency.
And through one game- yes, just one game- McElwain has done it. The Gators had just one penalty marched off against them against New Mexico State, and committed just one turnover. I won’t put too much stock into the turnover problem being fixed given that it was against an Aggie defense that was one of the worst in 2014 at creating them, but foolish penalties have little to nothing to do with the quality of the opponent. Of course it remains to be seen whether Florida as a team can keep this pace up of just one penalty per game as the season progresses and things get tougher, but it’s a good start. It’s certainly better than the insane amount of penalties that Florida racked up in Muschamp’s debut against Florida Atlantic, and of course it’s more encouraging to start off on the right foot rather than the wrong one.
From the get go, McElwain has made it clear that he will not stand for any foolishness. He takes no bullshit. You do something wrong, you pay for it. For example, DeMarcus Robinson missed Sunday’s team dinner and was promptly scratched from the starting lineup against East Carolina this weekend and dropped all the way down to third string. That’s a minute offense, but McElwain doesn’t care. You will do things the right way for him, or you will receive a response- and an action- that you will not like.
“Our players have freedom of choice, but not freedom of consequences,” McElwain said on ESPN’s car wash show in July. Defensive lineman Bryan Cox echoed that statement, adding, “He’s not mad, but obviously you made that decision or whatever decision you had, if it was wrong, you don’t have the choice of what the punishment is going to be.”
Even more encouraging was McElwain’s statement on Monday about Robinson missing the meal: “In our case, it’s about continually taking a path and understanding the details to help you be successful, and that means don’t overlook missing a meal. That’s important. And yet, sometimes we enable people. ‘Oh, that’s OK. Don’t worry about it. That’s just him.’ Well as soon as we enable that act, then what happens 10, 20, 30 years down the road? So there are lessons to learn in everything we do.”
But that statement doesn’t just apply to Robinson, or anybody else missing a team meal. That applies to anyone and everything doing something they know they’re not supposed to do, between federal and state laws, the rules of the game of football and anything McElwain says. Doing something wrong as defined by anybody in some position of authority or a pre-existing rule you are told to follow will result in punishment.
The truth is, I do not know exactly what the punishment is for committing a foolish penalty (I’m told that it varies depending on the severity and timeliness of it, but it’s usually an excruciating amount of calisthenics the ensuing week in practice). But whatever it is- through one game, at least- it seems to be working.
The big picture regarding the state of the Gators’ program is not a pretty one. Muschamp basically dropped a bomb that reduced the Gators to rubble. But instead of freaking out over the extent of clean-up he has to do, McElwain has gotten to work fixing the first of many issues that need fixing. The penalty problem has not been solved, but it’s in the process of being solved, and there’s real promise that it will be solved soon enough.
In the meantime, having gotten a good head start on one problem, McElwain can focus on fixing other, more large scale issues that Muschamp left for him. Like the offense (construction of which already seems to be underway, though again, it’s hard to judge against New Mexico State). And if he’s anywhere near as successful as he seems to be eliminating the culture that seemed to encourage timely self destruction that Muschamp built, he has a real chance to restore the old culture that Nick Joost wrote about- the aura of invincibility built by Steve Spurrier. It’s a long road to get there, but McElwain has gotten started in the right direction.