GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Saturday is a crossroads for both the Florida football program and its former coach.
Will Muschamp returns to The Swamp for the first time since he was fired following a 2014 loss to South Carolina, the team he now coaches. His successor, Jim McElwain, will be measured against Muschamp when No. 22 Florida (6-2, 4-2) hosts the Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4) at noon on CBS.
“Both of these guys have a big incentive to play for,” SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears told SEC Country. “It’s Muschamp and that whole storyline of, ‘They wanted me out of here and couldn’t wait for me leave.’
“Then Florida goes to the SEC Championship last year, so to everybody it looked like the best decision and the right decision. And if he comes in here and gets a win, it’s a little vindication for him.”
Muschamp went 28-21 in his four years at UF, but he lost 14 of his last 24 games, including a 4-8 season in 2013. He recruited well and turned the Gators into an elite defense, but his inability to win games and field a productive offense cost him his job.
“Will is a really good football coach,” McElwain said. “Sometimes things don’t work and that’s no fault of his. There’s good players. You’re going to see them go out there on this senior week that he brought into this organization.
“He means a lot to them, and vice versa. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the sign of a good coach. I’m sure there’s things going through his mind. And yet, I’m also sure he’s worried about his team just as I am about our team.”
For McElwain, making Florida’s program better went beyond just improving the offense. The football facilities needed major upgrades and the support staff had to expand. But McElwain also inherited a mentally fragile group, and changing their mindset was a challenge.
“Coach Mac, I’ll tell you he’s a little more outspoken and confident,” wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. “Not saying Muschamp wasn’t, but it was just apparent (McElwain) was really, really buying into what we were and he was giving it his all. Once he got us to come around to his level of confidence, we were just unstoppable.”
McElwain won SEC Coach of the Year in 2015 after leading the Gators to a 10-win season and their first SEC East title since 2009. It took time for the team to buy into his message, but it’s hard to have a winning mentality after two consecutive years of losing.
“Any time you come in, the embracing of the guys that were here in knowing they have an opportunity to change a course,” McElwain said. “These guys who’ve been here, have been through a lot. But like I’ve said and maintained, I really like this football team.
“I like being around them, I like the way they interact. Sometimes I don’t like the way we play all the time, but you know what, I’ve got to get that better, too.”
Those interactions are another way the program has changed. Players used to do everything in position groups or with teammates they were close with. That’s no longer case at team dinners and road trips.
“The chemistry, 100 percent, has changed,” defensive tackle Joey Ivie. “From my freshman year to now, we’re a completely different team. From the kicker to the quarterback to the offensive linemen, I can call them for anything.
“I think that’s how everybody feels about everybody. We’re all friends. Freshman year, it was very different. There were a lot more individuals. It just didn’t feel like a team.”
Said linebacker Daniel McMillian: “We’ve come more together. I see myself hanging with players that I never hung with before, such as offensive linemen. Special teams, they so funny. The funniest people on the team.”
Whether that leads to better long-term results remains to be seen. McElwain only has one more win than Muschamp through his first 22 games, but that includes a trip to Atlanta. To return there this year, the Gators need a win Saturday over their former coach.
“Coach Mac has done a great job,” Maye said. “He came in with his plan and since last season we’ve stuck with it. He brought the team together, really. The environment around here is just different.”