Jeremy Foley’s biggest hires have been booms (Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan won four national championships) or busts (Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, about whom we need say no more). When Foley, widely regarded as the best athletic director in the SEC if the not the nation, hired Jim McElwain to replace Muschamp as Florida’s football coach, it was out of character. It seemed a low-risk, low-reward move.
The word most folks in the industry used to describe McElwain-to-Gainesville was “solid.” Grantland’s Matt Hinton wrote that Gator fans greeted McElwain with “a collective shrug.” Ty Duffy of The Big Lead lumped Foley’s hire under the heading of “Kind Of Underwhelming,” and wrote: “It doesn’t put the rest of the SEC on notice.”
I’d be lying if I said my reaction was any different. Jim McElwain? Good football man, I thought, but no Spurrier (whom Foley didn’t hire) and no Meyer. No Jim Harbaugh, either, to invoke the name of the hottest hire of the past offseason. Florida is often regarded as one of the two best jobs in the country — Texas is the other — and McElwain seemed more like the guy who’d be coaching Colorado State. Which he had been until Foley called.
Today McElwain has the Gators, who were picked fifth — fifth! — in the SEC East, in position to play for the conference title. If Florida beats Georgia in Jacksonville, the Gators will win the division. (They’d have a two-game lead with only Vanderbilt and South Carolina remaining.)
Even if his team loses Saturday, McElwain must be re-categorized as a difference-making hire. Florida is again relevant, not that that in itself is any achievement. With its resources, Florida should never be irrelevant. But McElwain has taken Muschamp’s leftovers — leftovers McElwain characterized as “really insufficient” — and turned them into a functioning team, which is something his predecessor never did. (Even in the 11-2 season of 2012, Florida didn’t have an offense.)
If nothing else, the rest of the SEC East has, er, been put on notice: The Gators are again growling. McElwain has made Foley look smart, not that there was ever much doubt about the AD’s brainpower, and hiring him to coach Florida has had the consequence of lessening the team recently considered the class of the East.
Colorado State hired Mike Bobo, Georgia’s often-unappreciated offensive coordinator, to replace McElwain. Mark Richt hired Brian Schottenheimer to replace Bobo. To date, that has been a win-win for the reptiles.