JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain was as candid as he’s been all season while speaking after Florida’s 42-7 blowout loss to Georgia on Saturday night.
He looked like a man resigned to his fate who felt no need to hide it or try to change the narrative.
“Nothing in this world surprises me,” he said when asked to consider the possibility he is no longer be Florida’s football coach come Sunday. “I know what I was brought here to do. Look, we haven’t been good on offense, I get it. We’ve won a few games, but we haven’t won enough, haven’t won a championship. That’s real, that’s life, that is this business. And I take full responsibility for all of it. There’s no doubt.”
McElwain’s future became the story of the day even before the Gators’ one-sided, uncompetitive loss to the rival Bulldogs at EverBank Field.
It started with a report from a sports agent with ties to Florida who tweeted early Saturday that Florida was already negotiating a buyout of McElwain’s contract with his representatives. Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin soon followed with a statement saying no such discussions had taken place, but he also expressed no public support for McElwain either.
ESPN then reported during the game that Florida is looking to fire McElwain for cause, stemming from his Monday comments of death threats to those within or connected to the program. McElwain declined to offer details of the threats to reporters or Stricklin, allowing the matter to mushroom out of control this week.
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Which helps explain how this happened, how something that seemed far-fetched when the week began, that McElwain wouldn’t last through the season, suddenly looked more and more probable as Saturday progressed.
For his part, McElwain said he wasn’t aware of any uncertainty on that front himself until the first reports surfaced prior to the game.
“Obviously, I was made aware of the stuff right before we walked into pregame meal. Was the first time I heard anything of that nature,” he said. “I talked to [the team] immediately right there that, you know, we’ll see. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
He said he and Stricklin talked Thursday about the latest legal update on Florida’s nine players suspended in the credit card fraud saga. They discussed how the Gators’ statement should read to make sure they were on the same page, and that was it. Nothing about his job status.
“I haven’t been told anything. The first I was made aware of the stuff that was out there was going into the pregame meal. I visited with our guys in that meal about whatever was popping up. There have been no conversations about that [with Stricklin],” he said. “I mean, I talked to him on Thursday. Talked to him on the phone. We had just normal talk about what was going on [with legal matters of suspended players]. But no, nothing along those lines.”
And yet, McElwain didn’t seem surprised Saturday night. He wasn’t as defensive or dismissive with reporters as usual when faced with tough questions — not like he was on Monday when everybody wanted to know more about the death threats he mentioned.
No, this time he took all the questions calmly and gave full answers. He seemed genuinely disappointed and resigned to the notion that his time as Florida football coach is on the brink of a sudden ending.
Asked about his gut feeling for his future, he said he hadn’t had time to really ponder it, having just finished talking to his team. But, he reiterated, he wasn’t so much concerned for himself but everyone else around him in the program.
If Florida was unable to fire him for cause and forced to pay his full buyout, it would be on the hook for more than $12.5 million, with $2.5 million due per remaining year on his contract plus a prorated portion for the rest of this season.
“At the end of the day, we all, we were brought here to win and we haven’t done it. My concern isn’t about my job,” he had said. “My concern is about these players, our staff. We’ve got a fantastic staff, support staff, their families. That’s the concern. It isn’t about me.”
McElwain was a success story in his first season in Gainesville, going 10-4 and winning the SEC East despite losing starting quarterback Will Grier to a PED suspension midway through the campaign.
His Gators went 9-4 last fall, again winning the SEC East, only to drop another lopsided game to Alabama in the conference championship game.
A 3-4 start this season has tested the fan base’s patience, though. For the third year in a row with this coaching staff, the Gators rank in the 100s nationally in total offense and have yet to find an answer at QB since Grier’s suspension and transfer to West Virginia.
Still, McElwain said that before Saturday he had never felt reason to doubt the support he had from Florida officials. He mentioned Stricklin, who took the job during McElwain’s second season, new executive associate AD for internal affairs Laird Veatch and UF president Kent Fuchs, saying, “They’ve all been great. Never doubted any of it.”
He also mentioned how well he feels he and his wife have been treated in their nearly three years in Gainesville.
Ultimately, he was asked if he still wanted to be Florida’s coach.
“Yeah, this is one of those deals, and I’m glad you asked. Because this is a dream job. It’s a great place, great fans, great support. The resources are there to win,” McElwain said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to deliver in the time I’ve been here. But you know what, it’s an opportunity, this is one of those places I said from the start that you should have an opportunity.”
McElwain has had two-and-a-half seasons to steer Florida toward his and the program’s goals, going 22-12 with those two SEC East titles and this frustrating third season. Now, that looks like it may be all the opportunity he receives.
While nothing had been officially announced Saturday night, McElwain looked like a man who knew what was coming next.