Last week, we looked at how Jim McElwain took the first giant step to winning the off-season by hiring a great coaching staff. Now let’s look at the rest of the job of winning the off-season.
The real winning of spring comes in the weight room, the film room and the practice field, but none of that will be visible or apparent until the fall. Most times we would have gotten at least a glimpse of things to come in the spring game, but the team was so injury-ridden and depth-depleted that there was not much resemblance between the team in the Orange & Blue game and the one that will take the field Saturday against New Mexico State. So winning the spring comes down to winning over the fans.
There are many measures of the pulse of the fans this past spring, most positive, many of them through the roof. Like the roof of the new indoor practice facility. They broke ground in January on the colossus that many thought would never come, and fans were treated to leaks and reports of its progress throughout the spring and into summer. But that’s not what won over the fans in the spring. It was the spring game. You know…the one that they didn’t have enough players to play? That one.
Spring football and the Orange & Blue Game used to be the biggest thrill in Gainesville outside of football season. Even after Florida became the all-sports Mecca it is today, with national title banners hanging from stadiums and arenas all over campus, the spring game was a sacrosanct annual religious event. But as you all know, the last head coach did not revere the game in the same manner, and moreover failed year after year to recruit enough linemen to hold a real game even if he wanted to. The coach before that did not cherish the true spring game format either, but what the fans lost in real game action they made up in spectacle with special features such as foot races between the fastest players and even some speedy fans. So after more than four years of not having a real spring game, with fan interest in the spring dying a little more each year, we finally got one. Without enough inherited linemen to hold a game, it was like Christmas in Whooville: it came just the same. Coach Mac did what he had to do. He flooded the playing rotations with walk-ons and guys from the theater department who play football players on TV. If you had a student I.D. and stayed in a Holiday Inn Express the night before, chances are your phone was ringing. Then he restricted what the defense could do, to facilitate a little offensive show for the people.
And the people dug it. They knew the deal. They knew this was not the team they would see in the fall. They knew these were only a simplistic shadow of the offensive or defensive schemes they would see in the fall. They didn’t care. They got to watch an actual Gator spring football game. Big win, McElwain. Coach Mac won big at his press conference, and the spring game just cemented the high regard and high hopes Gator fans were given that day.
Winning the off-season for any coach always involves winning on the recruiting trail. And with each passing year, more and more of the ground work and even commitments are taken care of – and widely publicized – before the fall season begins. But a new coach has the added pressure of needing to get a strong first class under the belt, too. Few people have any illusions about any coach’s first class being a world beater. History sets the bar. The transition year is always the worst year for any head coach in recruiting, with very rare exception. Spurrier’s first class in 1990 only produced one All-SEC player and only one player drafted by the NFL, both the low mark in his twelve recruiting classes. Zook’s first class only produced one All-American, one SEC All-Freshman honoree and only four players named to any All-SEC team, all worst in his three years. Urban Meyer only produced three players named to any All-SEC team, one All-American, two drafted players and zero SEC All-Freshman honorees, all his worst totals in six years. Muschamp’s first class mirrored Zook’s in number of All-Americans, SEC All-Freshman honorees and All-SEC team members, and was the only Florida coach since the eighties not to have a single drafted player in his first signing class. These were all his worst in four years.
So it is with that history in mind that we evaluate Coach McElwain’s first recruiting effort this past February. But he also had what was beyond doubt the most difficult transition period of any new coach in the modern era. All the previous coaches inherited depth issues of one kind or another, but none as bad as McElwain. He was hired in the first week of December, just ahead of a week-long recruiting dead period with exactly six prospects committed to the Florida Gators. That was the fewest inherited commitments of any new Florida coach in the modern era and the second-fewest of any new coach in the country last year (Jim Harbaugh of Michigan inherited five). So the possibilities for a decent first class were even more microscopic, and fans knew it, resigning themselves to the outlook that if he could just sign one or two of the big names, the rest of the class would likely be a complete waste and fans would live with it and wait for next year. Reaching even half of the annually allotted scholarship limit seemed impossible, and getting that far would probably involve giving scholarships to many players with few if any other Power 5 offers. He had his work cut out for him.
Then something rather amazing happened. He accomplished the number one recruiting priority every year: he filled the roster needs with numbers, signing almost a complete class. If not for a couple unexpected national signing day (NSD) misses, the class would have been full. But despite those misses, NSD was a huge success. In fact, it was the most successful signing day since at least the early nineties when it was commonplace for many if not most of a signing class to announce on NSD. Eight baby Gators committed on NSD this year, more than was managed by the previous coach in all his four signing days combined. What’s more, McElwain did what few Gator coaches could do in the past: he dug into the big three counties of southeast Florida: Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. With seven signees from that area, McElwain secured the second-most since the eighties and the most since Urban Meyer signed nine in 2010 (regarded as perhaps the greatest class on paper in school history). This is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation for elite football players, especially skill players, and Florida has struggled to get or maintain a toe hold in the region. Given that 30% of the current commitments for the class of 2016 hail from this three-county area, it is clear that he has made it a priority and is succeeding in laying down roots. In addition to digging into southeast Florida, McElwain went into the metro Atlanta area to pull four prospects from rival Georgia’s back yard.
And how did he do it? By doing what previous Florida coaches – even the Hall of Fame coaches – have been criticized: closing. The NSD windfall was just part of the story. The new staff landed 16 commits in the last ten days of the recruiting cycle: twelve in February, and four at the end of January. And much of this magic was performed by playing the flipping game: flipping players to Florida who were committed to other schools. McElwain and his staff persuaded ten players to flip to the Gators, and not because they were stealing from the mid-majors of the world. Two of them were flipped from SEC schools, two from the PAC-12, four from the ACC and one from the Big 12. It was the second-most flips in Florida history since commitments have been regularly publicized in the early nineties. The most flips came last year, with just one additional flip over McElwain’s total. But let’s examine that comparison.
The previous Florida head coach earned the nick-name “Flipper” for his ability to persuade players committed to other schools to flip their pledge to Florida. Many of these flips were highly celebrated; some were not as overly heralded. And he increased his flipping frequency throughout his four years at Florida. However, while it is certainly an asset to be able to flip another school’s commit to yours, the reliance on this practice over time signals certain problems with recruiting. Problems that far outweigh the ability to flip a committed player.
Flipping is really a trick that should only be seen in high frequency in a head coach’s first recruiting cycle when he is forced to make up a lot of ground late in the process, and to a lesser extent in his first full cycle leading up to his second signing class. By the third class, the head coach and staff should be well ensconced with the high schools in their recruiting territories and should have long-standing relationships with their target prospects, and should be able to secure initial commitments from most of them if they are doing their jobs correctly. In the case of Florida’s previous head coach, “flipping” was still one of the primary recruiting strategies, which indicated one of two things: either (1) other schools were beating him to the punch, securing the commitments while he was still dragging his feet and/or not able to seal the deal, or (2) he was flat-out missing on most of his primary targets, and had to resort to a large number of Plan B targets who had already by that point been committed to other schools. So in the case of Florida’s former head coach, what appeared to be a strength in the first two years was instead an indicator of major flaws in the rest of the recruiting realm. To wit, though the previous coach flipped eleven players, he also had four committed players flip to other schools in January before NSD. So when we compare net flips, the previous coach only had seven net, while McElwain’s ten flips were not countered by any defections: the only player that flipped away from Florida was Mike Horton, who had committed to Muschamp and then flipped to him when he got the coordinator’s job at Auburn. No player who committed to McElwain defected.
In the case of Florida’s new head coach Jim McElwain, flipping ten committed players, nine of them after the last week of January had begun, it was a sign of an impressive ability to immediately impress and impact top recruits both with relationship building and communicating his vision of the near and far-term future of Florida football.
Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
The last part of winning the off-season has to do with Jeremy Foley and the entire athletics department. Because football doesn’t operate in a bubble – certainly not at Florida. It is an integral part of the machine gears of the premier major sports university in the nation. And the changes going on in the football program are all a part of the bigger changes going on. Just as the excitement of the indoor practice facility dovetails with the new dorms and basketball upgrades and, so blends the movements of football with those all across the athletics department. First and foremost is the replacement of legends. Billy Donovan and Rhonda Faehn. But also Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Because make no mistake: Jim McElwain is not replacing Will Muschamp; he is being tapped to replace the legends of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Coach Mac’s hiring was a long-range vision – both forward and backward. Just as Meyer was hired to replace Spurrier, so is McElwain being brought in to replace Meyer (and Spurrier as well, because every coaching hire into perpetuity will be just a search for the next Spurrier). Zook and Muschamp were merely unpleasant planks to bridge the program between the greats of the game.
And that is the vision for Coach Mac and the mighty Gators. To win big. To win the SEC. To win the national title. To win it all. Many times. And the first step on that path is winning the first off-season. From where I sit, that is now officially the first mark in the McElwain win column. Next up…are you ready for some GATOR FOOTBALL?!