It’s not a dream. It’s not his imagination. For Florida coach Jim McElwain, the program he inherited and rebuilt in his image is real. Growing up in Missoula, Montana, and working as an assistant at Eastern Washington, he never thought he would control of one of college football’s most prestigious programs.
But when he was named UF’s coach in December 2014, he made a promise based on confidence.
“I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell,” McElwain said at his introductory news conference. “There are good players here. It’s our responsibility to get that going.”
He relied on those players as much as he could in his first two years, reaching the SEC Championship Game twice with former coach Will Muschamp’s recruits. But entering Year Three, most of those guys are gone. McElwain’s hand-picked players compose a majority of the team. And with them, his goal is to take the fabled “next step.” To reach the SEC title game and win rather than be throttled by Alabama for the third consecutive season. To see UF’s offense — which he was brought to Florida to fix — succeed when it hasn’t since Urban Meyer paced the sidelines. To reach the College Football Playoff instead of being crowned SEC East champions.
In his own words, to be better than above average.
“A lot of times people go through life OK being above average,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing. That means you’re probably maybe winning a little more than you’re losing. You’re probably putting more in your bank account than you are taking out. And there’s a lot of people that live comfortably and really good, long lives being just above average.
“Being a Florida Gator, I don’t expect that. Above average is, hmm, it is what it is.”
His quest for being better than above average starts on Sept. 2, when the Gators play Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. His approach for that game is the classic coaching cliche of “taking it one game at a time,” and focusing on one thing: beating the Wolverines.
But for Florida’s players, long-term goals creep into that mentality. Just ask Vosean Joseph, a sophomore linebacker and Miami Norland alum, what he wants to accomplish in 2017.
“Make it to the natty,” he said of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. “That’s what everybody wants.”
Josh Hammond, a sophomore receiver, agrees.
“I think we know as a team what our goals are and what our standard is,” he said. “So our goal is to go out and win every game.”
Unlike in past years, that no longer has to be a dream. It very well could be if the Gators lose to the Wolverines, but the confidence boost from a win in that game could be a catalyst for that offense McElwain is supposed to be known for. The one that his dog Claire-a-bell could lead to victory. The one that so consumes him that he’s scribbled plays on napkins to avoid forgetting them.
Quarterback Luke Del Rio said based on his experience, McElwain should start getting more credit for his offensive acumen soon.
“Mac is an offensive guy,” he said. “He’s very smart in how he coaches, how he calls plays. … So we have the utmost confidence in him and his offense.”
Notre Dame graduate transfer quarterback Malik Zaire, meanwhile, hasn’t experienced the full complexities of McElwain’s system since arriving on campus in June. He’s still familiar with its struggles.
And in 2017, with sights set on surpassing the SEC Championship Game for the College Football Playoff, he thinks the offense has the tools to transcend those struggles, with him under center or not.
“I definitely think,” he said, “we’re gonna be able to take that step next year. … I think we’re gonna put up a lot more points and really look like the offense we know we can be and that we’re capable of.”
Résumé: Eastern Washington graduate assistant, 1985; Eastern Washington quarterbacks/wide receivers coach, 1987; Montana State offensive coordinator/wide receivers/special teams coach, 1995; Louisville wide receivers/special teams coach, 2000; Michigan State assistant head coach/wide receivers/special teams coach, 2003; Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach, 2006; Fresno State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, 2007; Alabama offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, 2008; Colorado State head coach, 2012; Florida head coach, 2015-present.
Highlights: Took Colorado State from 4-8 in his first year (2012) to 10-3 in his final year (2014). Led Alabama’s offense to national titles in 2009 and 2011. Secured SEC East crowns in his first two seasons at Florida.
What keeps him up at night: Thoughts of whether his quarterbacks will play well enough to fix Florida’s offense.