Muschamp or McElwain? Who left the Gators in better/worse shape? It's complicated
GAINESVILLE — Will Muschamp or Jim McElwain?
Who was worse as Gators head coach?
Which coach left the Florida program in better — or worse — shape?
It’s a popular discussion among Gators fans as Florida prepares to close the book on both eras and hire its fourth head football coach in eight years this winter.
It’s a topical discussion too, as the reeling Gators prepare to visit Muschamp’s new team, South Carolina, this Saturday (noon, CBS).
And it’s an expensive discussion, as both McElwain and Muschamp are getting paid handsomely not to coach the Gators.
Whatever the sum of the buyout settlement was with Jim McElwain two weeks ago, there’s little question Florida will pay him somewhere north of $4 million over the next few seasons to not do a job that, in the end, he didn’t seem to want.
Meanwhile, Florida still owes Muschamp, fired in 2014, the remainder of his buyout.
Florida’s next payment to Muschamp? It comes, ironically, this month, as the last of the players Muschamp recruited prepare to play against their old coach this weekend.
Framed differently, a rudderless Gators team under an interim coach will travel to play a Gamecocks program that appears to be ascendant under Muschamp, and the University of Florida will have to write Muschamp a check for more than $750,000 though his new team might take the Gators to the woodshed.
$1,575,000: What Florida still owes Will Muschamp, who was fired in Nov. 2014. Next payment of $787,500 comes next month. pic.twitter.com/x393QN4h1e
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 29, 2017
That possibility, which some might call likely, has to be a bitter pill for Florida fans to swallow.
Another tough reality to swallow?
Florida is paying a ton of money to two individuals who don’t coach the Gators, all while looking for the next head football coach. And given the importance of the hire, he is likely to cost a fortune.
But which coach left the Gators in a tougher spot? And was the University of Florida unfair to either?
The debate is complicated.
Each coach has their strengths and their fair share of weaknesses.
Both coaches were 22-12 through 34 games (when McElwain was let go), but there were plenty of differences in the way they got there.
McElwain won at home, losing only three games in Gainesville in his tenure (two this season). Mostly that’s how McElwain did twice what Muschamp never could: Win a subpar SEC East.
Muschamp’s inability to win at home cost him his job in 2014, despite visible signs of progress. In just under four years, Muschamp lost a stunning eight home games in The Swamp, the low-water mark of course being the defeat to then-FCS program Georgia Southern in 2013.
For perspective on just how bad this was, in 18 years under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Florida lost only 10 times at home (Ron Zook lost six between those two).
Their personalities differed as well.
Muschamp was amicable, fiery and passionate; McElwain was ornery, withdrawn and at times aloof. By the time McElwain talked about “death threats,” pushing a precarious, sour relationship between himself and the University Athletic Association past the point of no return, McElwain perhaps didn’t really want the job anymore. His laid-back temperament seemed ill-suited for the pressure cooker of one of the SEC’s blueblood programs.
Will Muschamp, on the other hand, always seemed to want the Florida job.
He played football at Georgia, but Muschamp grew up in Gainesville and was a favorite inside the Gators athletic building, even at the end. In fact, his passion for the job and relationships with school administrators probably earned him a reprieve after Florida’s awful 4-8 season in 2013. But like McElwain, Muschamp was fired after almost four years of inept offense.
Still, for all Muschamp’s goodwill with the university, McElwain succeeded with the administration where Muschamp didn’t, securing vital facilities upgrades like an indoor practice facility, weight room improvements and a commitment to a state-of-the-art football building. Florida absolutely needs those things to compete with high-spending rivals like Georgia and Florida State.
But there were also similarities.
A revisionist element says McElwain couldn’t recruit and Muschamp could. That’s simply inaccurate. Both had issues on the recruiting trail.
Muschamp recruited like a madman defensively, but his classes were rarely balanced, and he left such a bare cupboard on offense that McElwain couldn’t even hold a spring game his first season in charge because Florida didn’t have enough offensive lineman.
And for all the NFL talent Muschamp left McElwain on defense, the offense when McElwain showed up was essentially unproven and undeveloped with Will Grier, Brandon Powell and Kelvin Taylor.
McElwain flipped the offensive roster in less than two years, inking Antonio Callaway and developing him and adding playmakers like Tyrie Cleveland, Jordan Scarlett, Malik Davis, Joshua Hammond and Lamical Perine. But McElwain struggled to recruit elite defensive talent, signing only six players with a 4- or 5-star rating in his first two classes. For perspective, FSU signed 19 such players in that span.
If you put a great amount of weight in advanced analytics — and you should — Muschamp’s teams were slightly more consistent. His worst team was not nearly as bad; his best team was better. They ranked 33rd, third, 33rd and 24th in S&P+ overall ranking. And it’s surprising they fared this well, given the team was 7-6 and 6-5 in two years and the 2013 team went 4-8. The main reason for this, of course, is that Muschamp’s defenses were consistently elite — even the 2013 defense finished fourth nationally!
McElwain’s teams, on the other hand, finished 30th, 15th and currently sit 103rd in S&P+, and his worst defense ranks 83rd at present. One can, and should, wonder what would have happened to McElwain’s first team if quarterback Will Grier hadn’t tested positive for PEDs. But we’ll never know, and now Grier is thriving at West Virginia.
Which leads us to the final conclusion.
Both coaches failed because they never found “the guy” at quarterback.
Treon Harris was never anywhere near the player he needed to be for either coach, and McElwain wouldn’t meet Grier somewhere closer to the middle because he believed in the cerebral Luke Del Rio. Del Rio couldn’t stay healthy, and Austin Appleby wasn’t good enough. This season, Feleipe Franks was erratic to poor, then Del Rio came in but was injured, then Franks entered again — all of this undid UF.
But compare that to Muschamp.
Muschamp held Urban Meyer’s guy, Jeff Driskel, after taking the job, and stuck with him even when the offensive coordinator he hired, Charlie Weis, told him point blank Jacoby Brissett was a better player.
Two years into his tenure, Brissett transferred to North Carolina State. So when Driskel broke a leg against Tennessee the following season, Florida was left with Tyler Murphy (who transferred) and Skyler Mornhinweg (who wasn’t even a very good Ivy League quarterback).
Brissett now plays on Sundays, and it’s fair to wonder what might have been for Muschamp if he had selected him over Driskel, as Weis suggested. Would he still be patrolling the sidelines at Florida? Perhaps.
But he didn’t choose Brissett, and that proves the painful point.
Muschamp never chose the right quarterback. Beyond half a season with Grier, McElwain never developed one.
The failure eventually cost both their jobs.