Those of you who read the Gator Country forums in the first couple of hours after news broke that Jim McElwain was going to be the Gators’ next head coach no doubt noticed a fair amount of criticism. Some of it was very strong criticism from many of the members of the community. Mine was one of them. I can blame the 104-degree fever and other debilitating effects of the flu for my immediate myopic reactions, or I can blame Jeremy Foley for setting false expectations, but I would rather just take the hit and give credit where it is due.
Because, as per usual, while most of us were playing checkers, Foley was playing chess. Heck I may very well have been playing Parcheesi. I was after all trying to call the 911 operator on my DVR remote control. Foley is always playing chess, of course but that has not prevented him in the past from capturing his own king in an outsmarting-himself own-goal self-checkmate.
After being laughed out of the Chess Club for his hiring of Will Muschamp and all the torrential fallout that tore apart Gator Nation in the last two years because of it, Foley went back to his roots. Well, back to his last big success in football coaching hires. The last time he hired the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year, Utah’s Urban Meyer torched the SEC for five years before collapsing in an esophageal spasm and setting the Florida barn on fire with that very same torch. Foley will look to Coach Mac to fuel the next Florida resurgence with a cleaner, more sustainable energy source. One that won’t destroy its own power plant.
So while most of us – maybe even all of us – were expecting to see an all-out blitz getting after the most untouchable elite head football coaches in the country, Foley was quietly and sure-handedly sealing the deal on the guy he had been targeting all along; a guy that nobody thought would be a consideration unless a dozen other rock star candidates turned us down.
And we had reason to be upset. We had reason to crinkle our noses when we heard that the first guy on our list was a guy that most of Gator Nation had to Google to identify. Because well, we were told that something else was coming. The words came out of the mouth of Jeremy Foley himself: a proven head coach; a big splash hire; someone who would boost the pride of Gator nation; championship experience; successful on the offensive side of the ball; when asked if the name of a certain elite Power 5 conference head coach was the kind of “Big” Florida was pursuing, Foley said “Bigger”. He also promised there would be punch and pie (no link available). At numerous times he spoke of the search criteria in terms of “what Gator Nation wants.” From those and all other available comments, most fans assumed – perhaps foolishly – that the primary impact (and perhaps even main goal) of this hire would be to put a face on the program that would once again unite all of Gator Nation. This hire was going to be a unifying hire. Some of us also made the mistake in thinking “championship experience” meant as a head coach and not while a coordinator. McElwain was not a proven head coach in the Power 5, had only three years of experience as a head coach that included no championships of any kind, and his name did not turn any heads or carry any immediate cachet. News of his pending hire did not unify, but rather immediately split Gator Nation on the wisdom of not just the hire but the entire process by which all the Chip Kelly/Hugh Freeze/Bob Stoops names of the world were apparently not even seriously considered, or at least not past of any hard-target pursuit. The first blush gave the distinct impression that Foley had for the third time in four football hires decided to roll the dice on a relative unknown and unproven career assistant.
After the Smoke Settled
After the initial shock and disappointment over the realization that Florida would not be offering or garnering the services of any Power 5 coach with national title rings on their fingers, any of the hottest NFL head coaches in the country, or any of the highest-paid glamour boys in the broadcast booth, and more and more research was done on Coach Mac, the method to Foley’s madness began to come into focus. McElwain is in fact exactly what Florida was looking for, and exactly what the program desperately needed. Though his name was just a scratch single in the box score, his actual qualifications are all home runs, and taken together look very much like a grand slam hire. I won’t list all of those qualifications here – we’ve all read them a hundred times by now in every other report on this hire – but suffice it to say that by the time the introductory press conference rolled around, most of Gator Nation had not just warmed to this decision, but were elated by it. Then he took the pitch of the presser – the first real introduction of Coach Mac to Gator Nation – and knocked it out of the entire stadium. On the way out, it tore through the house lights like at the end of The Natural, showering Gator Nation with a downpour of sparks, explosions and celestial orange and blue luminosity.
The Other Guys
A few notes on some of the guys whom Gator fans were expecting to be at the top of our target list, but whom we did not go after (or at least whom we did not make an effort beyond the preliminary gauging of interest)…
Bob Stoops: I had been campaigning NOT to go after Stoops since the Missouri game. The reasons I’ve already shared quite often, from his having gone stale to proving over so many years that he is actually the antithesis of his nickname of “Big Game Bob.” When it looked like he was the odds-on favorite a few weeks ago, I tried to come to peace with it and make myself believe that a change of scenery could reignite his energy and that well…no matter how you slice it, a rare spike now and then aside, from year to year the talent he can recruit to Oklahoma is not on the same level as the talent he could recruit to UF. So he may have been able to surpass the iron-solid ceiling that has been in place in Norman since 2000.
However, now that it is done, I am soooo relieved that it is not going to be Stoops. He is a great coach and I love the guy personally but he was not going to be the Rock Star Coach we wanted and needed. He was going to be the Monsters of Rock Reunion Tour coach.
Gary Patterson & Art Briles: While both would have been outstanding hires, they are the ones who will forever bear the pain of staying put. The college football playoff committee made their statement loud and clear the Sunday following the end of the regular season: the only criteria used to select the four playoff teams each year is going to be RGP: Revenue Generating Potential. TCU was drop kicked from #3 to #6 for one reason only: they are little ol’ TCU. Had they been Texas or Oklahoma with the exact same resume, they’d be in the playoffs this year. This turn of events made it inescapable: Unless the playoffs are expanded to eight or more teams, programs like TCU and Baylor will never – repeat, N-E-V-E-R – be part of the playoff brackets. If Patterson or Briles ever want to compete for national titles, they will have to take a post at a big revenue school. Florida is one of the most elite among them, and neither coach will ever have the opportunity to take over the Gators’ head position again.
The Other Other Guys
Going into the hiring search, Gator Nation was justifiably focused – obsessed, really – on what the search and eventual hire would say about Florida’s place in the football universe. And maybe not just national perspectives, but our own reality as well. And this was no doubt part of the pensive panic that fed the initial outrage among many Gator fans over Mac’s hiring: Aren’t we bigger than this? After all, Alabama can go hire a sitting NFL coach and a coach with a national title at a Power 5 school, but Florida can’t? Auburn can go hire a hot-shot head coach from Ole Miss and Florida can’t? Notre Dame can hire hottest young head coach from a Power 5 conference and Florida cannot? Well it has been a long time since those hires – even the one by Alabama was eight years ago – and much has changed in the football landscape and in the way coaches are vetted and hired. And the success of those hires of Nick Saban, Tommy Tuberville and Ty Willingham certainly span the gamut.
Adding to this stress over how Florida’s place in the college football world would be described by this hiring process, was the fact that Nebraska and Michigan – two fellow members of college football royalty with far longer histories as elite programs than Florida (heck, Michigan has more wins than any other program in the land) – were going to be going shoulder-to-shoulder with Florida to grab top candidates and to take the temperature of their places in the current world.
Well the final results are not all in, but the comparison to the Huskers and the Wolverines have already put UF’s position in the college football universe firmly into perspective. And the news is very nice for the good guys. Nebraska just made complete fools of themselves by hiring a clear downgrade without even trying for anyone good, let alone better; and Michigan has just been publicly turned down (whether a real offer was made or not, it is the perception out there, and it’s the perception that counts) by a guy who should NOT be on anyone’s “Home Run” hire list. David Cutcliffe is a fine coach, but he is a small stage coach, and nothing more. The inevitable public rejection of Michigan from Les Miles is bound to happen any day now, again whether he is actually offered or not. And the inevitable dalliance and ultimate denial from Jim Harbaugh will surely add another layer of sharp coal to that lump in Michigan’s throat. The Wolverines are about to be on their fourth different coach since the last time they won a conference title (2004) – and their conference has been in the dumps the last half a decade or more.
That Florida took exactly two days and change to identify and garner the pledge of what is likely the best young head coach & recruiter in the country (and a couple more days to iron out the buyout) is a pretty strong statement for Florida’s clout in college football right now. And the national media have not stopped praising the selection, hiring process (snatching him up before Nebraska and Michigan even had a chance to call his agent), and most of all praising Coach Mac himself. The Florida brand just got an instantaneous credibility upgrade. The exact thing that most of we fans thought could only be garnered with a rock star name, has already been exceeded by this coach with a garage band name.
Recruiting, Recruiting, Recruiting
As if to put an exclamation point on his winning press conference, Mac has hit the ground running like a bullet train on the recruiting front. With about ten days to go before the next dead period preventing coaches from initiating contact, Mac embarked on a mission to talk to, meet with and set up official visits with every standing Gator commitment, every uncommitted target, every Gator target committed to other schools and apparently some recruits that haven’t even been born yet. And he is already establishing the interest and intrigue that will have those recruits calling him during the dead period (which is allowed) – so crucial during this time, especially for a new coach who needs every minute of relationship building that time can allow before February.
Mac flew out to meet with tenuous UF commitment Derrick Dillon on just his second day in Gainesville. He has since then set the road on fire, and it is far easier to make a list of recruits that he has not spoken to in his first week on the job than it is to form a list of those he has.
And while I am loath to speak ill of the proverbially dead, this strategy stands in stark contrast to the strategic dynamics employed when Muschamp took over.
Muschamp did not immediately hit the recruiting trail like this. He spent what seemed like an eternity putting together his first coaching staff, and only after it was completed did he really pay any attention to recruiting. Hence he pulled in only a couple of new guys and lost more than that from the standing class – which was almost completed already when he was hired.
At the time, I thought it was the right move to secure the best staff first, then shore up the class…however, in retrospect, I was wrong: it was not the right thing, and more importantly it was a reflection of Muschamp’s inability to identify the proper priorities in many aspects of his job as head coach. There should have been only two possible tacks: (1) Hit recruiting full bore from Day 1 and fill in your staff as you can in the recruiting down time, or (2) Hit recruiting full bore from Day 1 while pursuing your new staff full bore from Day 1, and sleep in mid-February when it was all done.
Muschamp is always so hung up on doing things “the right way” that he so often misses the very obvious fact that there are many, many different “right ways” to do things, and there is almost always at least a few options of doing thing the right way without sacrificing crucial elements of the program like an entire recruiting class, or the entire offensive side of the ball.
And the results thus far after barely a week on the recruiting trail speak volumes to Mac’s role as a pied piper – and more importantly, as a sharp evaluator of talent – of the recruiting trail. It is easy to see how he was able to pull super studs Dee Hart and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix out from under Florida’s nose at Orlando Dr. Phillips and all the way to Tuscaloosa.
And think about this: Mac is primed to create an explosion of recruiting hype around the University of Florida. By design of the Gators’ coaching instability this season, many of the few commitments UF had garnered have bolted and the vast majority of recruits interested in Florida have been just waiting all season to see who the new coach would be. If McElwain can lock down that large number of players who have basically been waiting all year for the right excuse to commit to the Gators, and then add to that group any number of the many big time players committed elsewhere that are still reasonably in play, the results will be the most meteoric month-and-a-half recruiting rise in the history of the sport. In addition to the very useful purpose of filling huge needs with great players immediately, this would create an almost mythical halo of recruiting power around McElwain’s new Florida program. The kind of image that changes the game.
Mac “Gets It”
From recruiting to coaching to addressing the media, in just his first few days, Mac has displayed an element that few saw coming. Not that we doubted he possessed it, but because few thought this would even figure into things. But here it is: Mac “gets it”. Will Muschamp had some very good plans for running the program and even the offense – he really did – but when they didn’t fit, he tried to force them. That included his recruiting strategies. Once again, he is so hung up on doing things “the right way” that he doesn’t seem to see the forest for the trees that there is always a lot more than just one way to do things “the right way”.
Mac seems to understand the bottom line urgency for immediate results with everything he does. Muschamp’s mantra was always, “We’re going to do everything the right way, and whenever we get there, we get there”. Conversely, Mac approaches things from the other direction: “We’re going to get where we need to be RIGHT NOW and we’ll figure out the best ‘right way’ to do it so that it happens RIGHT NOW.”
It’s the same way they are so different in offensive philosophy. Muschamp starts with a “right way” (ultra-conservative ball control) and if his players can’t execute the base plays, he keeps dumbing everything down all the way to ground zero and then inches forward. Mac on the other hand starts with the players he has and builds an offense that will play to their strengths and make them succeed at a high level RIGHT NOW, and then he’ll recruit players who can execute his preferred system for later.
A good (or rather, BAD) example of Muschamp’s philosophy is on defense, when rather than tweak his scheme to accommodate safeties with poor coverage ability, he just keeps rolling out the same plan – while they keep getting burned – until they stop getting burned. And on offense, there can be no more perfect example that the use of the tight ends. Muschamp wanted an offense that relied heavily on the ultra conservative passing attack of short throws to the tight ends. He was undaunted by the fact that after Jake McGee was lost for the season on the second series of the year, that he had at his disposal exactly zero tight ends who could catch a football. He just kept throwing to them, waiting for them to magically start to exhibit skills they do not possess. This philosophy single-handedly lost the LSU game, which in turn lost the Missouri game due to the week-long hangover, and then single-handedly lost the FSU game. The difference with Mac is that not only would he have immediately changed his plans to stop featuring pass-catching tight ends as the primary offensive weapon through the air, he never would have featured them in the first place, or even thrown the first pass to them in a real game. Not when he knows for a fact that they cannot catch a football.
When folks say Mac “gets it” and Muschamp doesn’t, I don’t know if this is what they are thinking, but I think this is exactly what it means.
The Mac Offense
Everyone is excited to see the Mac Attack hit the field in Gainesville this spring, and I don’t think anyone will be too disappointed. On the macro level, he is very much like Spurrier in that he approaches offense like a chess game with the defensive coordinators. In game and halftime adjustments are a specialty of his. And his offense is very fluid throughout the season. Plays and personnel groups you see in the beginning of the year will not necessarily be what you see in the middle of the year or the end of the year. He carries on season-long chess matches – like the tri-level chess that Spock used to use on “Star Trek” – wherein he is constantly establishing tendencies, breaking them, and tweaking them at the most opportune times to expose different defenses throughout the year. Opponents cannot scout a McElwain offense by looking at the last few games; they will have to use the entire body of work and still anticipate yet unseen wrinkles, formations and new plays. If this sort of approach conjures up images of out of state media making up names for the Florida head coach like “Evil Genius”, well it should.
As for the specifics, there are some things we can expect and some things we can’t. We should expect the forward pass to be reintroduced into the offensive game plan. However, we should not expect the Gators to start throwing it all around the ball park like Mac often did at Colorado State or like Spurrier did when he introduced the Fun & Gun to the world. There is a reason that Coach Mac has been laying down the mantra of offensive balance since he was hired.
Reason being that the SEC simply will not allow a pass-happy Wild West show. The defenses are too good. The secondaries are too complicated to be duped play after play after play like in the nineties. And the front sevens are too big, too fast and too well coached to allow a quarterback to survive a season throwing 40 passes a game. When Coach Mac first started as the Alabama’s offensive coordinator, in his first spring he threw the ball all over the yard. But when the SEC season started, that philosophy had to be downshifted. But the offense certainly did not suffer from mixing in a downhill running game as the lead weapon; in fact, it made the passing game much more effective.
McElwain is a John L Smith disciple of the west coast brand of spread offense. For those not as familiar with Smith, think along the lines of Don Coryell. Mac primarily features a one-back set, with one- and two-tight end lines, mixing the quarterback under-center and the pistol formation, using the latter to reap the quarterback vision benefits of the shotgun while also being able to get the full impact of play-action. The running game will look like the one he implemented at Alabama and CSU: a mix of zone and power runs, a very physical offensive line, and some stretch plays to get the running back in some space and let him beat the defense to the corner or cut back to the holes – the kind of play that Kelvin Taylor and Brandon Powell were made to excel with.
The Big Mac Air Attack will be music to the eyes of Gator fans who have tired of seeing the only attempts to get the ball airborne (other than tight ends bump-setting the ball for defenders like a volleyball match) either being deep bombs an inch away from the sidelines or backwards passes. Mac uses the entire field – even that real estate long-forgotten by Gator offenses: the turf between the numbers. The older Gator fans among us can remember such things as the short and intermediate passing games, and they are part of Mac’s bread and butter attack. He still holds to some of the concepts that Muschamp preached, such as high percentage throws and limiting interceptions, however Mac facilitates these with creativity and inventiveness rather than stagnating conservatism.
The real wild card to the Gator offense will be the tight end. Mac likes to throw to the tight end a lot, especially to move the chains, and unlike Muschamp and his offensive coordinators, he won’t do that if they can’t catch the ball. If Jake McGee returns and stays healthy, Mac’s job with the tight ends becomes very easy. If McGee leaves for the NFL, Mac has some serious development work to do with the other tight ends on campus. Their pass catching ability is not really the trouble; it’s everything else they have to do at the position that is so severely lacking. Fortunately, Mac is widely heralded as being one of the best developers of offensive talent in the country. And I don’t say that as a polite compliment: he really is.
Like Spurrier and most great offensive minds, Mac’s offense relies more than anything else on great decision making at the quarterback position. Will Grier is the most polished and capable passer the program has had since Rex Grossman, and Treon Harris is a great leader who has innate playmaking ability no matter what he is asked to do. But this quarterback battle will come down to which one of them can consistently make the best decisions under the fire of the SEC pressure defenses. Both of them are students of the game and very smart quarterbacks, so it will be a very competitive battle for the spot. I would also not rule out the possibility of both players seeing a lot of action by design with different packages in different game situations. Whatever those packages are, it is doubtful any will revolve around designed quarterback runs, something McElwain does not like to do. He likes to keep his signal callers in clean jerseys for sixty minutes each week. A clean jersey facilitates a clear mind for making decisions before and after the snap. For being the on-field extension of the offensive genius standing on the sidelines. For executing those critical moves on the 100-yard chess board.