Despite the almost crushing pressure that comes with being a head coach at a school like the University of Florida Jim McElwain has been able to handle it well.
The pressure to win is immense. If you don’t do it enough you’ll be sending out a new résumé in a hurry. As a head coach you’re also responsible for more than 80 kids ages 18-22 — that alone is enough to keep any grown man up worrying at night.
Still, all things considered, McElwain has not only excelled being the head coach of the Florida Gators, he’s taking time to stop and smell the roses. He loved going on the road to Kentucky and Missouri and leaving the home fans going home angry and disappointed. He talked about how much he enjoyed LSU fans who line the path that the visiting team bus takes to the stadium to throw things at the bus and shake it from side to side — something that should be terrifying when you remember that you’re responsible for everyone in those now less than stable buses.
As the Gators head into their annual rivalry against the Georgia Bulldogs McElwain and his team have the opportunity to all but shut the door on the SEC East race and could take a commanding step in the division. “We certainly didn’t start this journey to be not in this position,” McElwain said on Monday.
The SEC Championship game implications are nothing new for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, Florida and Georgia are two of the most storied and successful programs in the east the road to Atlanta almost always goes through Jacksonville. It adds to the rivalry and rivalries are part of what makes college football special.
Growing up in Montana, McElwain was enamored with the home state rivalry game between Montana and Montana State. The game that is known as the “Brawl of the Wild” divided the state of Montana in half.
“That Montana State-Montana game, I’m telling you now, you want to go see a rivalry that a bunch of people don’t really like each other on a given day,” he said. “I mean, there’s a million people in the state and there’s 500 on one side and 500 on the other. When you come home on either side of that one, that one right there.”
After his playing days were done, McElwain’s second job was at Montana State. He coached receivers, special teams and was also an offensive coordinator at different points during his four years there. As a young coach he learned a lot, maybe the biggest thing he learned was what it was like to be on the short end of a rivalry. The Montana State Bobcats were 0-4 when playing Montana for the Great Divide Trophy — a fact that still eats away at Florida’s head coach.
“It did [bother me],” McElwain admitted. “And believe me, in case you can’t tell, that one stings.”
There are several challenges that pop up during a rivalry week. Foremost are managing the emotions that can run high when you have players who know each other from high school. Sophomore running back Brandon Powell grew up in South Florida, far away from knowing what the Florida-Georgia rivalry truly meant, but he does have friend who play for Georgia, kids that grew up in Georgia and there is more than just SEC standings on the line for the players in the game.
“Going from high school, it was always Florida against Georgia. Georgia players were always talking about how they’re better than Florida,” said Powell. “We always go out there and say we’re better than Georgia. That’s how I see this game, just those Georgia athletes against us. What state is better?”
There’s also the familiarity between the two teams and two coaching staffs. The Florida Gators changed all of their hand signals on offense and defense in preparation for this game. Not only has Georgia been able to watch film on what Florida has done through the first half of the season, but the coaches on both sides of the ball have coached against each other as well as on the same staffs before — most prominently McElwain and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
All of those factors play into the greatness of rivalry games. Each week the Florida players insist that the game they’re preparing for is the biggest of the season because it’s the next one but McElwain knows what this game means to the fans and to each program. When Florida beat Tennessee McElwain said the players understood that when you’re a Gator you simply don’t lose to the Volunteers.
This week brings a new opponent, a new rivalry, another chance for players like Powell to hold bragging rights over their friends that play across the state line and another opportunity to add a new team to the list of teams that “you just don’t lose to” when you’re a Florida Gator.
“Rivalries, man, that’s what this is all about,” McElwain said. “There are certain things you grow up and that’s what part of athletics is so fun about.”