Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley moved quickly in replacing the fired Will Muschamp, as the Gators announced Jim McElwain as the team’s new coach on Thursday. The Florida’s coaching search was an interesting exploration into hiring a coach, as the program was very public with its pursuit of McElwain and the negotiations for a hefty buyout with Colorado State.
Now that the dust has settled on the hire, it’s time to examine whether or not McElwain makes sense for Florida. Foley struck out on Muschamp and needs to get this hire right to get the Gators back in contention for SEC East titles.
It’s tough to know where a program stands with candidates when a search opens. Florida is one of the top jobs in college football, so there was no shortage of interested candidates. If some were expecting a big name here, they may be disappointed in McElwain’s hire. However, good coaches can come from any program, and McElwain – while it’s unspectacular – is going to work out well for Florida.
Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives for the Gators and grade the hire:
Positives in Florida’s Hire of McElwain
Background on Offense
Offense was the biggest problem under Muschamp. Florida never averaged more than 26 points per game in SEC contests over the last four seasons and struggled mightily in 2013 by recording 19.9 points per game in league matchups. It will take McElwain some time, but he should jumpstart this offense. Under McElwain’s guidance, Colorado State averaged 35.9 points per game in 2014 and recorded a 36.2 mark in 2013. Sure, the competition is tougher in the SEC, but McElwain transformed quarterback Garrett Grayson into an all-conference performer for the Rams and has a track record of success on this side of the ball. McElwain seems to be the right coach to fix some of Florida’s woes on offense, especially after this team struggled to develop a standout quarterback since Tim Tebow left Gainesville.
McElwain has spent a sizeable chunk of his coaching career out West, but he does have a four-year stint under Nick Saban as Alabama’s offensive coordinator (2008-11). Under McElwain’s direction, the Crimson Tide averaged at least 30 points per game in his four seasons as the play-caller. Even though McElwain has never been a head coach in the SEC before, his experience at Alabama will be a huge bonus when he opens the 2014 season. Experience isn’t required to win in the SEC – but it certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Concerns in Florida’s Hire of McElwain:
Recruiting in the SEC
This is being nitpicky but recruiting to Colorado State and Alabama is a different beast. As we mentioned above, it certainly helps McElwain that he has SEC experience. However, it’s one thing to win at the Mountain West level and another to win enough in the SEC to keep the fans quiet. Will McElwain struggle to recruit to Florida? Probably not. After all, the program is one of the best in the nation and should sell itself on the recruiting trail. However, this is one area that opposing coaches could use against him when going head-to-head with recruits. McElwain is an unknown to most prospects, so it’s important for him to sell his vision and blueprint right away to salvage a class that currently ranks at the bottom of the SEC. It’s also critical for McElwain to build a staff that’s familiar with the SEC, perhaps retaining a few of the assistants from the Muschamp regime would be a good place to start. Can McElwain win consistent recruiting battles against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia? We are about to find out.
This is more of a question than a concern for McElwain. Can he meet the high expectations at Florida? As we mentioned above, it’s easier to win at the Mountain West, and there’s certainly less pressure to coach at Colorado State than Florida. Will the Montana native meet the demands of the fanbase by consistently winning the East, recording 10 victories and beating rival Florida State? That remains to be seen, but the pressure on McElwain to win – and win big – is about to increase by a significant margin.
Florida missed on Muschamp – a Saban assistant – in the last hire, so there’s some doubt among the fanbase McElwain will produce at a higher level. However, there’s plenty in McElwain’s track record to suggest he’s done enough outside of his stint at Alabama to produce at a high level. The Montana native has experience in the NFL with the Raiders, worked as an assistant at Louisville, Michigan State and Montana State and has spent the last three seasons turning around the Colorado State program (including a 10-2 mark in 2014).
By no means is McElwain the flashy hire most fans want. However, he’s exactly what the program needs. Florida is going to get its share of talent on the recruiting trail. Now it needs a coach that can develop and put the talent into a position to succeed. McElwain is clearly that type of coach and is inheriting plenty to work with in 2015.