First and 10: Jim McElwain's comments merely latest reason to start the clock on exit
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
A week ago on First and 10 The Podcast, I discussed the idea that Florida coach Jim McElwain might just leave Gainesville after this season and find a soft landing spot anywhere other than the white hot reality of coaching in the SEC.
A week later, that plan looks like it’s already be in motion. The only question: How does McElwain leave?
On his own, or fired by the university?
It’s a bad situation, one Florida staffer told me Monday night, hours after McElwain claimed he and his family and his players had received death threats.
A few hours later, the University Athletic Association at Florida released a statement that said McElwain, “offered no additional details” to his claims when asked by school officials.
Translation: The university — because it legally must protect its coaches, students and employees from harm — asked for evidence. McElwain declined.
I’m actually shocked Florida hasn’t already fired McElwain.
If you can’t trust the man you’re paying nearly $5 million a year to run your football program, it’s time to move on to someone else. Here’s the irony in this bizarre ordeal: Whether or not McElwain wants to leave, he might have just given Florida the ammunition to make it happen – and not pay a $12 million buyout.
If he doesn’t have additional details or evidence to his claims, or refuses to share what he has, he allows himself to be fired for cause by the university.
If McElwain truly did receive death threats, those threats should not only be forwarded to his boss at the university, but also to federal authorities. In this day of heightened awareness on intense public scrutiny of public figures, no threat can go ignored.
If McElwain did receive death threats, he is willfully ignoring them by not forwarding information to his superiors and law enforcement. That’s a big problem.
This is the latest wedge between McElwain and the Gators’ administration, one that began after the end of the 2016 regular season when McElwain was asked about criticism of his team. He said, “we were brought here to win the SEC East, and we’ve done it twice” — knowing full well the expectations from a program that has won three national championships isn’t winning a division title and getting blown out in the SEC Championship Game.
A few weeks later, after a victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl, McElwain was asked in the post-game press conference about the state of the program moving forward, he said, “We’ll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that’s at.”
That comment didn’t sit well with the Florida administration, which has done everything McElwain has asked, including millions in facilities upgrades (and more on the way) after McElwain publicly complained about the state of the facilities and embarrassed the university.
Scott Stricklin, one of the nation’s sharpest athletic directors, replaced the retiring Jeremy Foley in October of 2016 and was all of three months into his job before being called out by McElwain.
Since the end of last season, McElwain has had to deal with a fake social media story run amuck (the naked guy on a shark who looked like McElwain), and nine of his players charged with credit card fraud and indefinitely suspended. Those suspensions – which included the team’s two best offensive players (Antonio Callaway, Jordan Scarlett) — severely damaged this season and left Florida fans livid about the state of the program heading into this weekend’s game against bitter rival Georgia.
Throw all of that on top of the reality that McElwain’s offenses have been among the worst in the nation, and the program is in no better shape than it was when Florida fired Will Muschamp after the 2014 season.
In fact, it could be argued that it’s in worse shape: off the field incidents have significantly increased, and the Gators aren’t recruiting nearly at the level they were under Muschamp. Then there’s McElwan’s odd decision to choose a career walk-on (Luke Del Rio) over the best offensive player on his roster (Will Grier) after Grier was suspended for a year by the NCAA for taking a performance-enhancing drug.
When Grier (above) spoke with McElwain after the 2015 season, McElwain told him it would be best if both sides started anew. Grier told me he believes McElwain forced him out so he could win with his own player (Grier was recruited by Muschamp).
The Gators were 6-0 with Grier at quarterback, and are 16-11 since – and Grier currently leads the nation in touchdown passes (26), and is fourth in yards per game (352.4) at West Virginia.
Another Florida staffer told me that McElwain has done some good things that get overlooked, but the Grier decision was the worst he’s made. And because it involved quarterbacks, there was no talking McElwain out of it.
Now McElwain might have just talked himself out of a job.
2. The end is nigh, Part II
When it all goes wrong for a coach in a job, the inevitable arrives: what happens off the field becomes a bigger issue for what happens on it – if for no other reason, to give universities cover during coaching changes.
It isn’t all about football, you know.
That’s why the narrative with McElwain will begin to change if the Gators lose as badly as expected this weekend in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Once that happens, Florida falls under .500, and the idea of not qualifying for a bowl becomes very real.
In fact, Florida might not be favored in another game against a Power 5 opponent (at Missouri, at South Carolina, Florida State), and the UAB game in mid-November might be its last chance to win in 2017.
3. The Big Orange question
Forget about Tennessee winning out against the weaker portion of the schedule and finishing 8-4. That’s not going to happen – and more important, it’s not going to help Butch Jones keep his job.
So where does Tennessee turn? It’s best to look at these things with clear eyes and focus – not pipe dreams.
Jon Gruden is not leaving his cushy gig analyzing NFL games to get thrown in to the meatgrinder that is fall Saturdays in the SEC, and SEC recruiting. Bob Stoops isn’t coming out of retirement. Peyton Manning isn’t coaching, and Tee Martin isn’t the obvious choice because he’s the last coaching link to the glory years.
Here’s a look at the top five replacements for Jones (in no particular order):
1. Jim Bob Cooter, offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions: A former player at Tennessee and a graduate assistant under Phillip Fulmer, Cooter is one of the hot young coaches in the NFL. He has been a critical factor in the development of star Lions quarterback Matt Stafford. He may soon have a choice: coach his alma mater, or stay and land a head-coaching job in the NFL.
2. Bobby Petrino, Louisville: He just lost his athletic director (Tom Jurich) and staunchest supporter, and will likely lose star QB Lamar Jackson at the end of the season. Petrino has a history of moving from job to job. Forget about Louisville’s regression this fall. If you can handle the giant personality, Petrino is as good as any option for the Vols.
3. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: He has worked miracles (that’s plural) in Stillwater, and should be a working legend. Only there’s one problem: He and the administration (and the school’s biggest donor, T. Boone Pickens) aren’t exactly chummy. He has been at his alma mater for 13 seasons, and nearly took the Tennessee job in 2012. It might be the perfect time to leave and find a new challenge.
4. Chip Kelly, former college and NFL coach: Kelly’s heart might still be with the NFL. He loves the “all football, all the time” job description. He’s not exactly a coach who enjoys recruiting (he abhorred it at Oregon), and would have to hire a staff of elite recruiters to make it work at Tennessee.
5. Mike Leach, Washington State: Why not? His offenses would be prolific, his press conferences would be majestic. After years of clichés and corny and contrived ideals, Leach would be a fresh wind blowing through Knoxville. His elite defense this season at Washington State shows he values the idea of stopping the other guy – not simply outscoring him.
4. Same Ole disappointment
It’s never easy seeing players deal with season-ending injuries. It’s especially tough watching Shea Patterson go through it.
One of the SEC top young stars, Patterson last week added another level of adversity he has dealt with since signing with Ole Miss two years ago, sustaining a season-ending injury in a loss to LSU. The injury unfortunately fits perfectly with the remainder of his star-crossed time in Oxford.
When Patterson signed with the Rebels, he was assured by the coaching staff that lingering NCAA issues wouldn’t be a problem moving forward and there wouldn’t be major ramifications. A few months later, it was clear there would be.
In November of his freshman season last year, then-coach Hugh Freeze came to him after Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury and asked him to burn his redshirt season and play three games to try and get the Rebels into a bowl game.
Freeze told Patterson that “the seniors deserved the opportunity” and that Patterson could help them earn it. Patterson told me earlier this spring that the decision wasn’t as easy as it looked, and he eventually agreed. He went 1-2 in the final three games and Ole Miss didn’t qualify for a bowl.
Last week, he torn the PCL in his right knee and will miss the remainder of the season. Two years, 10 total games, an NCAA bowl ban, his head coach fired, and a career full of crazy.
Here’s hoping his final season in 2018 (of course he’s leaving early for the NFL) is drama-free.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Tennessee at Kentucky (-5.5)
- Vanderbilt at South Carolina (-7)
- Florida vs. Georgia (-14.5)
- Arkansas (+4) at Ole Miss
- Mississippi State at Texas A&M (-1.5)
Last week: 4-1
Season: 24-16 (.600)
6. The ties the bond
The more the season progresses, the more it appears Georgia and Notre Dame will help each other in the race for the College Football Playoff.
That is, if both can win out through the end of the regular season.
One-loss Notre Dame needs Georgia to keep winning to make the Irish resume look that much better. Wins over Michigan State, USC, N.C. State, Miami and Stanford are a strong argument – and a one-point loss to an unbeaten Georgia is the perfect topper.
Georgia, meanwhile, needs the Irish to win out to make its one-point win on the road the clincher just in case the Bulldogs lose a tight game to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. If that happens, a resume with wins over Notre Dame, Auburn and Georgia Tech – and a close loss to Alabama – might be enough to get the ‘Dawgs in the CFP over another one- or two-loss conference champion.
Then again, if it’s Georgia vs. Notre Dame for the final spot, the Irish might get it on a better strength of schedule. The CFP already has proven twice that head to head means nothing (see: Baylor over TCU in 2014; Penn State over Ohio State in 2016).
7. More than a game
The idea isn’t that far-fetched: Dan Mullen might just be auditioning this weekend for the Florida job.
As ridiculous as that statement sounds, don’t think it won’t hold weight if Mullen’s Mississippi State team goes into College Station and beats Texas A&M. Many Florida fans wanted Mullen when the university hired both Muschamp (2011) and McElwain (2015).
Mullen rubbed some in the administration the wrong way, and wasn’t ever a serious candidate. But with Sticklin running the show in Gainesville, the odds of Mullen landing the Florida job (if it’s open) have significantly increased.
Although Stricklin didn’t hire Mullen (Greg Byrne did), he and Mullen had a close relationship and Mullen often talks fondly of his time with Stricklin.
Meanwhile, a loss to Mississippi State would drop Texas A&M to 5-3 and set up a must-win home game against Auburn for Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. As crazy as it looks, all of the coaching hire/fire moves are seemingly connected in one way or another.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: Do you ever see a point when the SEC East will again be as competitive as the SEC West?
Henry Patterson, Atlanta
Henry: The first step to that equation happened last year when Georgia hired Kirby Smart, and Smart began the process of changing the way the Bulldogs recruit and play. Now the East needs Florida and Tennessee, stale programs that have underachieved for years, to make a move back to the national elite, too.
You’re talking about two blueblood programs in the SEC, two teams that have consistently missed on coaching hires and have paid for it. Each miss compounds the problems from the previous miss, especially in the case of Tennessee.
Florida and Tennessee need recruiters who can go head-to-head with Georgia and Alabama and LSU and win in December and February. It all begins with player procurement, and finishes with development and coaching.
Tennessee hasn’t had that combination since the late years of Fulmer. Florida had the recruiting and development with Muschamp, but couldn’t get a quarterback to put it all together. The Gators have been uneven in recruiting under McElwain, but he has proven to be a fantastic coach in close games (the last two losses to LSU and Texas A&M notwithstanding).
9. The numbers game
.214. Bret Bielema’s winning percentage in his past 14 games (3-11) vs. Power 5 teams.
No matter how much he is respected by the Arkansas administration for pulling the program from an academic abyss, those on-field numbers won’t cut it.
Worse yet, if Arkansas can’t find a way this week to beat Ole Miss (without star QB Shea Patterson and with backup Jordan Ta’amu), a 3-9 record this season looks like a strong possibility. And that definitely won’t cut it.
10. Quote of note
Tennessee coach Butch Jones on embattled offensive coordinator Larry Scott: “We’ve seen some improvement, but not on game day yet.”