GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Neither Florida coach Jim McElwain nor Georgia coach Kirby Smart had much interest this week in indulging the storyline about two former colleagues now on opposing sides of one of college football’s premier rivalries.
But it’s going to be there nonetheless Saturday as the Gators and Bulldogs square off in Jacksonville.
“It’s more perspective now looking at it coming up than it is actually during the game. I think during the game we’re focused on what each one of us has to do,” Smart said this week. “And we understand the players are going to determine the outcome of this game and what they do and how they play and the intensity they play with and the execution. It comes down to those guys.
“But for me looking at it now, it’s a situation where it’s a good friend of mine who I know and have respect for and spent a lot of time with and won a lot of games alongside. … It’s just now we’re against each other.”
After spending four seasons together at Alabama working under Nick Saban from 2008-11, with McElwain coordinating the offense and Smart running the defense, the two friends now head into their first showdown as head coaches in one of the biggest games on the schedule for both schools.
Asked about he and Smart kicking off a new era of the storied rivalry, McElwain deflected the question and talked instead of about the atmosphere and build-up for every Florida-Georgia game.
While he didn’t want to make any part of that build-up about him and Smart, he did talk about how close the two became during their time together in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier also spent two seasons at Alabama, following McElwain in the same role.
“Well, we sat next to each other in the staff room for four years and obviously spent time together, and as did Nuss,” McElwain said. “You know, (Smart’s) ability to see the game and put a plan together is really, really good. Not only that but he’s got a great family. Got a wife and some great kids, and he’s a lot of fun to be around. I’m happy for him to have this opportunity, especially at a place that means so much to him, you know, being (that) he played there.
“I mean, you get a chance to grow up and do that, that’s pretty awesome — and well deserved and long overdue.”
Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, meanwhile, spent three years working under Smart at Alabama while overlapping that 2011 season with McElwain.
He said there’s not all that much difference between the two coaches in terms of personality.
“Nah, both of them (are) fiery. Both of them go zero to 100 like that,” Rumph said.
And from what he observed during his time working with McElwain and Smart, Rumph felt there was a genuine bond between them.
“They had a really good working relationship. I think they respected each other. I think they truly liked each other,” he said. “You know, sometimes you can just be working buddies or whatever, but I think they truly like each other and I think they respect each other for what each one brings to the table. Kirby is great to work with.”
Said McElwain: “He was one of the first guys to welcome me in the door, which tells you what kind of guy he is. And like I said, when you work together like that in an environment like that, you get to know each other pretty well. You know, our wives know each other. I mean, it becomes a family.”
McElwain left Alabama after that 2011 season and spent three years as the head coach at Colorado State before taking the Florida job prior to last season.
His 14th-ranked Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) are in control of the SEC East and on track for a second-straight division title if they can win their remaining games.
Smart, meanwhile, has not found the same immediate success at Georgia with his Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3) off to an up-and-down start.
McElwain said he always knew Smart would end up with a premier head coaching job, though.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. He had a bunch of opportunities along the way, obviously, and yet I think he did a great job of being patient and, you know, taking the one that he had his eyes on, I guess,” he said Monday. “We never talked about it, you know what I mean, but there was no doubt about it.”
Smart took his turn on the SEC teleconference Wednesday, praising McElwain’s game planning abilities and how he connects with his players.
“He’s a funny guy, dry sense of humor. Very family-oriented, great man to be around,” Smart said. “I’ve always thought he does a great job offensively, and the players when I was around him really liked him a lot and played hard for him.”
It may not be where they want the focus, but if McElwain can build on his strong start at Florida and if Smart proves to be the coach that the Bulldogs and many others think he can be, well, this storyline could add an extra layer to the Florida-Georgia rivalry for years to come.