The Florida-Georgia game, a merciless 42-7 Bulldog rout, lacked drama this year, but before kickoff there was more than enough action, and reaction, to put coach Jim McElwain in sudden danger of losing his job.
Social media was ablaze Saturday morning with a report that McElwain’s agent and Gator officials were working on a negotiated buyout of the coach’s contract.
The denials came swiftly from Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin, but any effort to tamp down trouble for McElwain seems to fall flat in the wake of Saturday’s humiliating failure to put up a fight against a vicious rival.
The coach clearly sensed that postgame, saying “I know what I was brought here to do. We haven’t been good on offense. I get it. We’ve won a few games, but we haven’t won enough.”
How’s that for a measure of Florida’s expectations to dominate in the SEC and everywhere else? McElwain is 22-12 and about to get run out of town. He understands that the pendulum is swinging the wrong way now, with three consecutive losses dropping the Gators to 3-4, and with third-ranked Georgia claiming control of a division that McElwain previously owned.
Even worse, before Saturday’s game was even over, ESPN reported that Florida officials are trying to determine if they can fire the coach with cause in order to reduce any buyout they might owe. That reasoning stems from the first disaster of a thoroughly gruesome Georgia week, an unsubstantiated claim by McElwain that his players and his family had received death threats. He couldn’t back that up when pressed, and his bosses didn’t back him up much, either.
It would cost Florida more than $12 million to buy out his contract unless there are negotiations or legal proceedings to reduce that number.
Can this be remedied, gaining a fourth season for McElwain at Florida and shutting down the runaway rumor train that would have anyone from Dan Mullen to Chip Kelly to Charlie Strong taking over in Gainesville in 2018?
Well, back in 2004, Auburn’s president and athletic director met with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino just 48 hours before the Alabama game to see if he would work for them. Auburn had to take it all back, sticking with Tommy Tuberville instead, once their skullduggery was made public.
Can’t say that such a reversal of momentum seems likely for McElwain here. The Bulldogs just made his team look silly and soft, scoring 21 points in the first quarter alone and rushing so effectively that Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm only had to complete four passes as an accessory to the assault.
Not even Ron Zook and Will Muschamp were treated like chewtoys in the way that McElwain was on Saturday. It’s enough to unravel any theory of relativity in this rivalry, especially with Florida winning 21 of the previous 27 games, and to make McElwain wonder if there is enough money in the world to make staying in Gainesville a win for him.
People keep telling me it’s been a bad fit all along, that McElwain doesn’t quite appreciate the broad disappointment in his record and in his two SEC East titles, that his personality is built for the mild West and not the wild SEC.
None of that makes as much sense as the following. McElwain was brought here because the Florida offense didn’t work and, no matter how many games are won or lost, it still doesn’t work.
If Will Grier hadn’t gotten himself suspended last year, it surely would be better, and if Florida’s top receiver and top running back didn’t get themselves suspended this season, it would be better, but it always comes down to hoping that a new quarterback recruit and another year of McElwain massaging his system will finally break the dam and boost the Gators back into the stratosphere.
There is no certainty on that or anything else now, except that Kirby Smart, McElwain’s old buddy from the Alabama staff, is the coach who might one day catch up to Alabama. Coach Mac is drifting farther from that goal, and if the chatter has any truth to it, he may soon be adrift, period.
Stricklin had no comment Saturday night. McElwain said they last spoke on Thursday but not about parting ways. If there is a firing, it could come as soon as Sunday, and there is no telling how or when this will end. Zook was told seven games into the 2004 season that he would not be coming back the next season, but he was allowed to finish out the regular season as Gators coach.
“We’ve put a lot into this program,” said McElwain, who said he heard at the pregame meal about a tweet from a Fort Lauderdale sports attorney, saying the school was working on a buyout. “People have been great to my wife and I. We’ll see what happens. That’s the stuff that’s out of your control.”
It doesn’t seem completely fair that the bottom should drop out so quickly for a coach whose plans have been dented by the suspensions of key offensive players and the inability of a blue-chip placekicker to pump through an extra point vs. LSU.
It’s a highwire act at this level, however, and McElwain’s safety net was already tattered before the Bulldogs on Saturday ripped away the last few shreds.
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