The most shocking moment of Saturday for the Florida Gators came hours before the football team took the field and was clobbered 42-7 by the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs.
It came courtesy of sports attorney and UF grad Darren Heitner and continued later in the game, when ESPN reported that Florida is exploring firing coach Jim McElwain for cause.
Heitner tweeted three times around 10 a.m., citing “sources,” that Florida’s boosters have been asked to gather money in preparation to buy out McElwain. He also tweeted that Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin had prepared a statement to be released regardless of the outcome against Georgia, and that McElwain’s agent has been working on negotiating the buyout.
These rumors were not confirmed by any other media outlet, but they spread enough that UF issued a statement before the game denying them.
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“No one representing the University of Florida or our athletic department has had any conversations with Coach McElwain or his representatives regarding a buyout of his contract,” Stricklin wrote. “Our focus is on this great Florida-Georgia rivalry today in Jacksonville.”
However, late in the game ESPN cited “multiple sources” saying the school is discussing firing McElwain for alleging death threats against him that were never proven.
It was the latest twist of weirdness to a week full of it. It started on Monday when McElwain, — unprompted — said he’d received death threats.
“There’s a lot of hate in this world and a lot of anger and yet it’s freedom to show it,” he said in response to a question about whether his assistant coaches aren’t getting enough credit.
“The hard part is obviously when the threats against your own players, death threats to your families, the ill will that’s brought upon out there, and yet I think it’s really one of those deals that really is a pretty good testament to what’s going on out there nationally.”
When pressed about the nature of the threats, McElwain didn’t provide further details. When that news went national, Florida’s athletic department was flooded with requests about it and issued what turned into a controversial statement.
“The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously,” spokesman Steve McClain wrote. “Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon and he offered no additional details.”
Those final five words — “he offered no additional details ” — ignited speculation that McElwain made up or exaggerated the death threats. He addressed those allegations on Wednesday.
“It’s just something that came up and obviously was on my mind,” he said. “It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it right to air that laundry, and yet at the same time they’ve got total, total support.”
When asked to clarify if he or his family were threatened directly, he didn’t answer. Instead, he talked about how much he cares about this program and its players. Toward the end of that monologue, he did address part of that question.
“Who even knows who it was, right?” he said. “You don’t know. It’s anonymous. So, that is what it is, and I’m confident we’re all right.”
The spectacle led some Florida fans frustrated with a faltering offense to call for McElwain’s job. There are also reports suggesting McElwain’s relationship with the administration is strained. If UF does decide for fire McElwain with cause, it would mean avoiding his $12.9 million buyout.
McElwain is 22-12 in three-plus seasons at Florida. He advanced to the Southeastern Conference title game in his first two seasons, though with the loss to Georgia, it’s mathematically impossible to do so this year.