University of Florida

Florida Gators’ coaching bet is paying off

Florida head coach Jim McElwain reacts in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. LSU won 35-28.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain reacts in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. LSU won 35-28. AP

When Jeremy Foley hired Jim McElwain, Gator Nation let out a collective groan.

Florida bet big ($7.5 million buyout) on a relatively unknown then-52-year-old Montana native with just three years of experience as a head coach.

Sure, McElwain was considered better than the alternative (keeping the much-maligned Will Muschamp), but even the former Colorado State coach’s top accomplishments (winning two titles as the offensive coordinator at Alabama) were met with skepticism given that Muschamp was a Nick Saban disciple, too.

But seven games into McElwain’s tenure, his cynics have converted to believers, as UF’s turnaround has been expedited with SEC-type speed.

“I grew up as an Ohio State fan, so I remember getting beat by Florida in the national championship,” senior transfer right tackle Mason Halter said.

“Florida’s a top-tier team to me, and obviously for the past few years it hasn’t been. So we’re looking to get our names back on the map.”

McElwain is doing just that.

Although the No. 13 Gators’ undefeated record took a hit with a loss at No. 5 LSU last weekend, McElwain’s early returns have been nearly flawless.

After tumbling to a 10-13 record the last two seasons, UF (6-1, 4-1) was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East and win around seven games in 2015.

Instead, Florida is positioned to potentially clinch its division and reach Las Vegas’ projected win-total before trick-or-treaters start knocking on doors next Saturday.

If the Gators get past border-rival Georgia on Halloween (3:30 p.m., CBS), they’re all-but-assured of going to Atlanta for the first time since 2009.

Favorite to win

UF will be favored in all five remaining regular-season games, and McElwain could be become the first coach in school history to win at least 10 games in his inaugural season.

“The day he walked in he always said, ‘We are the Gators. That’s just what it is,’” safety Marcus Maye explained.

“He has that confidence about himself and he just passes it onto his coaching staff and to the players. He instills that confidence in us that we have the ability, we have the talent to do anything we want to do.”

When McElwain arrived in Gainesville, he spent most of the offseason on a calculated campaign, publicly tempering expectations by lamenting the roster’s lack of depth (“you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt”) and the program’s vision and infrastructure (“really insufficient in some areas”).

But behind the scenes, McElwain instilled his team with confidence and hope.

Practice habits changed. Accountability improved.

Then, during UF’s Media Day in early August, Florida’s new coach unleashed his folksy swagger, excitedly explaining the “optimism in the air” and the possibility of “15 opportunities” — 12 regular-season games, a SEC Championship game and the college football playoffs.

“There isn’t a game, there isn’t an event, there isn’t a thing that we got into expecting a participation ribbon,” he said.

“We have 15 opportunities. Let’s take advantage and make 15 a reality.”

Everyone scoffed, but three months later, McElwain’s “reality” shockingly remains a possibility.

“This is where the University of Florida should be,” McElwain said.

“So don’t be surprised, but let’s take advantage of it.”

McElwain’s favorite aphorisms this season are “restore the order” and “create chaos.”

Both mantras have exemplified UF’s auspicious start.

The Gators conjured a stunning comeback over archrival Tennessee and then ambushed then-No. 3 Ole Miss a week later.

Fulfilling potential

Blue-chip recruits are fulfilling their potential, and The Swamp is rocking again. Florida’s passing game is functional, its defense remains fierce and McElwain has molded an offensive line mirroring chicken scraps into coq au vin.

For a coach operating on an 18-month calendar, the Gators are well ahead of schedule.

“This place is really turning around,” senior wideout Valdez Showers said.

“We’re definitely on the come-up. Definitely. I would be excited if I was a recruit to be honest with you. I mean you look at the things we have here — indoor facility — It’s some big changes going around.”

Major turnaround

Meanwhile, Florida is winning despite its turnaround oftentimes clouded by controversy — with most of the “chaos” self-inflicted.

The Gators have overcome the Kelvin Taylor throat-slash incident and McElwain’s subsequent sideline outburst; a team riddled by the flu; two defensive backs booted for separate serious crimes; multiple player suspended — highlighted by last week’s shocking news that quarterback Will Grier tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Yet through it all, McElwain has proven to be a problem solver and a horse-whisperer, using his “us-against-the-world” approach to allow Florida’s locker room to shrug off every hullabaloo.

In just 10 short months, he’s put his stamp on the program.

It’s only seven games, but after Muschamp’s hamfisted tenure, McElwain has had the Midas touch.

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