2018 Best Enterprise: Christopher Walsh, Part 2 of 10

By Christopher Walsh

SEC Country

Second of 10 Parts

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Rece Davis had the right answer to the question.

It was just before Texas A&M visited his alma mater last season, when the host of ESPN College GameDay was asked if the 2016 Alabama football team could already be considered among the best in history.

“Not yet,” he said because the Crimson Tide had only played seven games at that point. “There are categories of teams at Alabama, ones that won championships and ones that didn’t. The ones that didn’t don’t get compared, or should be compared, to the ones that did.

“We have to wait until the end to have that type of conversation. To me, all that talk is premature.”

Because championships represent the pinnacle in major team sports, they’re also the most important measuring stick in terms of gauging coaching greatness.

With five national titles, four at Alabama and one at LSU, Nick Saban is already at the highest of levels. He came within a second of winning another last season and has the Crimson Tide poised to continue challenging for more championships.

The College Football Playoff should just go ahead and name the trophy after him, like the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the Super Bowl winner in the NFL. No one’s been so adept at continually competing for it.

With Bob Stoops recently stepping down at Oklahoma, Saban is one of just four active coaches to have won a national title, including Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher. It takes all three combined to match Saban’s five.

“I find it hard to believe Alabama would have been as dominant as it has been under Saban with some other coach, even Urban Meyer (who I think is No. 2),” said Scott Rabalais, columnist for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. “Clearly, he is the best coach in college football, and no one else is close to that. Even LSU fans who hate him now believe that deep down.”

Paul “Bear” Bryant is recognized as having won the most national titles with six. That includes three split and three when the final polls were conducted before bowl games. Saban’s five were secured during a tougher era.

In addition to scholarship limits and a brighter spotlight, major college football now includes more regular-season games, conference championships and the Bowl Championship Series/College Football Playoff.

Saban is 12-2 in title games — 7-1 SEC and 5-1 BCS/CFP after the loss to Clemson in January. The only SEC Championship Game loss came in 2008 to Tim Tebow’s Florida team that won the national championship.

Bryant also never won more than three national titles during any 10-year period. Saban’s notched four since 2009, which fellow ESPN announcer Todd Blackledge called “the finest display of coaching in college football that we’ve ever seen.”

Most national championships in a decade

TEAM TITLES SEASONS
Alabama 4 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015
Miami (Fla.) 4 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991 (AP)
Notre Dame 4 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949
Nebraska 3 1994, 1995, 1997 (Coaches)
Notre Dame 3 1973 (AP), 1977, 1988
Alabama 3 1973 (Coaches), 1978 (AP), 1979
USC 3 1972, 1974 (Coaches), 1978 (Coaches)
Texas 3 1963, 1969, 1970 (Coaches)
Alabama 3 1961, 1964, 1965 (AP)
Oklahoma 3 1950, 1955, 1956
Minnesota 3 1936, 1940, 1941

 

Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy was the first to win four in a decade during the poll era (1934), but he didn’t coach the Fighting Irish for 10 straight years. After he went into the Navy during World War II, Ed McKeever took over the program in 1944 (8-2), and Hugh Devore filled in for the 1945 season (7-2-1). Leahy returned and won three of the next four national titles while compiling an amazing record of 36-0-2.

The Fighting Irish were voted No. 2 in 1948, and only went 4-4-1 in 1950.

Miami also had three different coaches during its dynasty, but each won a national championship. Howard Schnellenberger did it first, followed by Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson won two.

Meanwhile, Meyer also won national championships at two different schools, and all within a 10-year span: Two at Florida (2006 and 2008), and one at Ohio State in 2014.

Alabama’s ‘greatest era ever’

But Saban’s unparalleled success is reflected in numerous other ways, like Alabama having been ranked No. 1 at some point of the season a record nine consecutive years. Leahy’s teams did it five straight seasons (1946-50), and Miami reached seven (1986-92).

“He’s been obviously the most consistent coach that we’ve had in our profession in a lot of years,” said College Football Hall of Fame coach and former executive director of the American Football Coaches Association Grant Teaff. “Year after year, after year, after year, he’s there.”

Consequently, College GameDay has become a regular fixture around the Crimson Tide. The Texas A&M game was its 37th broadcast before an Alabama kickoff, and 28th since Saban arrived in 2007.

That was seven more than any other team over the past decade (Oregon) even before it followed the Crimson Tide to LSU two weeks later, and then to the College Football Playoff title game. Moreover, ESPN’s GameDay has already announced that it will open the 2017 season in Atlanta for Alabama vs. Florida State.

It might be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, with the Crimson Tide possibly extending the No. 1 streak to an unparalleled 10th year in a row.

“I know with some of the older guard at Alabama this is not particularly popular,” Davis said, “but this is the greatest era of Alabama football ever.”

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10

 

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2018 Best Game Story: John Bohnenkamp, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

Comment by the judge: Writer did an excellent job in pointing out not only was it an upset, but the surprising number of points Iowa scored on Ohio State. Good historical facts on most points Iowa scored in the series and how long it had been since Hawkeyes scored so many points. Also Iowa’s recent history of upsets at Kinnick Stadium. Very good quotes to back up the facts.”

By John Bohnenkamp

The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

IOWA CITY — It was over in eight seconds.

The first offensive play of the game, Iowa safety Amani Hooker roared in front of a pass from Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett for a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown, the first points in the Hawkeyes’ 55-24 win over the third-ranked Buckeyes…

Wait, wait, wait.

Fifty-five points?

Against Ohio State?

Really?

“We were having fun out there,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “You’re doing the right thing when you’re having fun.”

But 55 points, from an team that had scored just 27 in its last two games — 10 in a loss at Northwestern, 17 in a home win over Minnesota?

Really?

Wadley remembered when he was interviewed about the game earlier in the week, when he was confident that something big was coming..

“You guys were looking at me like I was (crazy),” he said. “We believe in this.”

Saturday’s win was another one of those November shockers by the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium, who have knocked off four top-five teams here in their last five tries.

Magic in autumn’s gloom is in the eyes of the ones pulling off the upset.

“What stands out,” said Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who threw for 226 yards and five touchdowns, “is how well we played as a team.”

“When we execute in every phase of the game, we’re going to play a game like this,” linebacker Josey Jewell said.

“It’s got the Kinnick curse, or whatever you want to call it,” Ohio State center Billy Price said.

It was only the fourth win for the Hawkeyes (6-3 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) over the Buckeyes (7-2, 5-1) in the last 30 years — they don’t play each other much, though, this was the first matchup since 2013.

It’s the most points scored by an Iowa team ever in the series, the most points scored by the Hawkeyes against a ranked team since a 55-17 win over Texas in the 1984 Freedom Bowl.

Ohio State was favored by double digits — the line had pushed to 20 in the hours before the game.

“We came into this game heavy underdogs, and for good reason,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Ohio State is a tremendous football team. But the big thing is our guys really believed in themselves all week long. They had a good week of preparation, and then most importantly came out and really played with great energy, great effort, a lot of grit, and played opportunistic football, and that’s important in a game like this.”

“We didn’t care who they were,” said Wadley, who rushed for 118 yards. “From my point of view, if you keep thinking about stuff like that, if you overrespect somebody, you get nervous. I try to think everybody is the same.”

It’s a defeat that will prove fatal to the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes.

It was only the second road loss for coach Urban Meyer since he came to Ohio State.

Someone asked him if there were any signs that a defeat like this was coming.

“No,” he said.

The sign came eight seconds in. The Hooker interception was the first of four for Barrett — he had only one all season coming in — with the other three going to cornerback Josh Jackson.

“I definitely think it set the tone,” Jewell said. “Sometimes you start off slow and you don’t want to do that. But in this game, it started off right.”

“All eyes are on J.T. Barrett,” Wadley said. “He’s the QB, first play, they think it’s supposed to be easy money for Ohio State. Then, boom, Amani Hooker.”

The Hawkeyes and Buckeyes traded scoring drives — it was 17-17 before Iowa finally took control with 31 unanswered points.

Barrett, a Heisman Trophy candidate coming in, was rattled at times, thanks mostly to an ever-changing Iowa defense.

“It was a little bit of everything,” Jackson said.

“They just played very well against us,” Meyer said.

Someone asked Meyer if he was stunned.

“Yeah,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one.

Stanley, a sophomore making his ninth start, was as poised as ever. He threw two touchdown passes each to tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, and added another to fullback Drake Kulick. Eight different Hawkeyes caught at least one pass.

“A lot of big throws for him,” Ferentz said.

On the last touchdown pass to Hockenson, Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard had grabbed Stanley’s foot, but he still made the play.

“I think probably my favorite play is the one where he’s got the guy bringing him down and he finds a way to get the ball in the end zone there for a touchdown,” Ferentz said.

It was a game that, really, was over in eight seconds, but the party lasted for 3 hours, 33 minutes, ending with a field storming by most of the 67,669 in attendance.

The Hawkeyes are bowl-eligible again, the 16th time in the last 17 seasons, with another November victory notched.

Hooker was asked about that first play.

“I couldn’t draw it up any better than that,” he said.

There was no question about it. The same could be said for the whole day.

John Bohnenkamp

John Bohnenkamp

Age: 52

College: Iowa

Background: John Bohnenkamp is sports editor/colleges writer at The Hawk Eye newspaper in Burlington, Iowa. He is a 1988 graduate of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He worked at the Daily Gate City (Keokuk, Iowa) from 1988 to 1991 before moving to The Hawk Eye, where he was a preps reporter for two years before becoming assistant sports editor from 1993 to 1999. He has covered University of Iowa basketball, along with Western Illinois University football and basketball, since 1993. He added the Iowa football beat in 2014 after the death of long-time beat writer Susan Denk. He added the minor-league baseball beat this season, covering the Burlington Bees, the Class A Midwest League affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. He has won 16 APSE top-10 writing awards, along with seven United States Basketball Writers Association top-5 awards. This is his second FWAA honor.

2018 Enterprise Winner: Christopher Walsh, SEC Country

Comment by the judge: “Expansive and thorough story on the current Alabama football dynasty. Extensive research went into the  reporting of this story. Excellent presentation by the writer.”

By Christopher Walsh

SEC Country

First of 10 Parts

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It all goes back to the plane and the day that changed Alabama.

On Jan. 3, 2007, Tuscaloosa’s airport was overrun by giddy football fans who had flocked to welcome their new coach, Nick Saban. They did so with chants of “Roll Tide!” and loud cheers that only began to demonstrate their excitement.

In a part of the country where the word “savior” is frequently used, Saban was immediately viewed as being the football equivalent by University of Alabama followers. After years of mediocrity and a fair dose of humiliation, they longed for adulation again and hoped for greatness.

What they got was a whole lot more.

When Alabama last played on Jan. 9 it came a second short of winning the 2016 national championship, which would have been its fifth under Saban. Regardless, it concluded a decade unlike any in college football history.

The numbers and the accomplishments both on the field and off are staggering, especially for an era in which such sustained success was thought to be impossible. Dynasty was no longer a sufficient description.

Consequently, Crimson Tide football is nothing like it was in 2007. Neither is the university, Tuscaloosa nor the state of Alabama.

“Attitude,” Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox said is the biggest thing Saban brought to Alabama. “It’s a belief that we can win, and sustain it. So every year brings real expectations of success. It’s something that you can feel. It’s something that people want to be a part of.”

Prelude: The decade before Saban

That feeling didn’t exist during the previous 10 years, when the Crimson Tide became just another team on the college football landscape.

From 1997 to 2006, Alabama had more losing records (four) than 10-win seasons (three), one of which had to be vacated. The program endured a major investigation and subsequent NCAA sanctions, the Mike DuBose affair, Dennis Franchione’s stunning departure following the 2002 season, the Mike Price scandal, and numerous other incidents and symbolic black eyes. It was a mere shadow of its glory years under Paul “Bear” Bryant and the other championship coaches.

“It dates back to the Wallace Wade era,” said Steve Townsend, a special assistant and close friend of former athletic director Mal Moore. “That tradition of being considered a premier program in the country, and even when that languished after Gene Stallings left, the expectation level among the fans didn’t diminish.

“Among Alabama fans, a lot of them didn’t understand the impact of the probation. They still expected to win on a level where it probably would have been hard for anyone to have won at a high level.”

It took former university president Dr. Robert Witt and Moore to make football a priority again, and nearly every athletic facility was upgraded, including Bryant-Denny Stadium with the north-end zone expansion for $45 million.

Without that initial undertaking, Alabama never would have lured Saban from the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

“This has been a university commitment,” ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill said. “Not an athletics commitment, not a football commitment. That university has committed to athletics as a whole and as a result everything on the campus, from enrollment to things that have nothing to do with athletics have benefitted.”

The transformation ratcheted up when Saban proclaimed during his first press conference, “We want to be a champion in everything that we do.”

The players started to catch on that something special might be happening when despite being shorthanded they destroyed No. 20 Tennessee 41-17. The fans followed suit after a top-notch recruiting class was signed and a 32-10 win against No. 9 Clemson in the 2008 season-opener. For the national media, it was a jaw-dropping 31-0 first half at No. 3 Georgia.

“That helped a lot,” Townsend said. “That served as a calling card that we weren’t going to sit on our butts. Alabama had sat on its reputation, of ‘We’re Alabama and players will come here.’”

The ripples really started to spread when Saban and Alabama won the 2009 national championship. Some have been so wide-ranging that they simply can’t be adequately measured, even economically.

“It’s so hard to quantify, because the impact is so large,” Maddox said. “I’m fearful that I may underestimate it, the true magnitude.”

Here are three:

1 | The University of Alabama

Before Saban arrived, the school had already begun an enrollment push, topping 20,000 in 2003 (20,333), and reaching a then-record 23,878 for the 2006-07 academic school year. For that fall, it received 15,761 applications.

For the fall of 2016, it received 42,802 applications. Enrollment was 37,665.

Normally when a school significantly expands the quality of its student applications dips. That wasn’t the case at Alabama. The average ACT score went from 24.2 in 2006 to 27.07 a decade later. The average GPA for the incoming freshmen rose from 3.4 to 3.69.

The geographical makeup of the student body also has changed dramatically. In 2004, 72 percent of freshmen came from within the state. Just four years after Saban arrived the university had more students from out-of-state for the first time.

That’s a huge boon in the bottom line. In 2006, tuition was $4,864 in-state, $13,516 for those from somewhere else. Following a steady stream of tuition hikes, the latest announced just last month, it’ll be $11,580 in-state, and $28,900 out-of-state for the 2017-2018 academic year. Room and board is another $13,224.

Alabama’s become more of a national destination for top athletes as well.

“Young people want to be a part of something exciting,” men’s golf coach Jay Seawell said. “When they’re choosing schools, what Coach has done and what he brought to the university is a great attraction to 18-year-old kids. That’s why I believe kids from all over the country are interested in Alabama. There’s a lot energy on our campus because of what Coach has done.”

Pre-Saban, Alabama’s gymnastics team under Sarah and David Patterson was the only program other than football to win a national championship. In the wake of a devastating 2011 tornado, which helped bring numerous Crimson Tide teams and the Tuscaloosa community closer together, gymnastics (2011-12), men’s golf (2013-14), women’s golf (2012) and softball (2012) all won titles.

So many things must go right for a team to win a championship that they’re almost always due to a variety of factors and key decisions. Nevertheless, nearly all of the athletes involved in those triumphs were recruited after Alabama won the 2009 national title in football.

“Winning is infectious,” Seawell said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all our championships all kind of ran there together.”

2 | The City of Tuscaloosa

Saban always comes up when people talk about Tuscaloosa.

“You have to go to Moody’s and S&P in New York and defend the city’s credit rating so people will buy city bonds,” Maddox said. “In those credit analysis meetings, Coach Saban’s always brought up when you start talking about Tuscaloosa. It’s a very positive thing for us because the guy’s a winner and he chooses to live in our community.

“It’s made my task as mayor much easier.”

Before Saban, the Tuscaloosa area enjoyed two obvious growth spikes due to the Mercedes-Benz International assembly plant, which commenced production in 1997 and completed a $600 million expansion in 2005.

In 2000, the population was 77,925 in the city and 164,875 in the county, which in 2006 had grown to 86,158 and 175,339, respectively.

Despite the 2011 tornado, which destroyed 12 percent of the city and forced a lot of people to relocate, the U.S. Census estimated the population to be 99,543, and 206,192, on July 1, 2016.

That obviously translated into growth and development. For example, when Saban’s plane landed in 2007, Tuscaloosa didn’t have a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Starbucks could only be found at a stand in the student union or at Target. Now there are so many coffee shops around town that one can sit and watch many of the fast-rising condominiums being built.

From hotels to the new federal courthouse, the changes have been eye-popping. According to the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, Tuscaloosa has seen more than $3 billion in new construction since 2005. Like with the football team there are no signs of slowing down.

“There have been all kinds of business and opportunities that benefit from success on the field,” said Ken Gaddy, Director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. “Our attendance here reflects that. We can chart it pretty easily, up years and down years.”

3 | The State of Alabama

According to the UA Center for Business and Economic Research, the university had a statewide economic and fiscal impact of $1.8 billion in 2006-07.

In 2015-16, it was $2.597 billion.

The breakdown is as such: 13,217 jobs (up from 9,000), $25.1 million per home football game ($21 million), and $128.3 million in taxes ($71.8 million).

Most of that is specific to the Tuscaloosa area, which gets a financial boost of $19 million for every game at Bryant-Denny Stadium (up from $13.9 million).

The financial windfall was even more extreme considering that Alabama still played some home games at Legion Field in Birmingham until 2003. When the Crimson Tide played only four games at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2000, the economic impact in Tuscaloosa was just $42.2 million ($10.6 million average).

While Crimson Tide football doesn’t rank among the state’s top industries (the Alabama Department of Commerce reports that distinction goes to automakers as for the second straight year more than one million cars and light trucks were produced in 2016), it still stands out:

  • •Alabama football reported $103.9 million in revenue for 2016, with $47.7 million profit — $18.7 million after helping fund nearly all other Crimson Tide sports.
  • • In media rights alone the school made $42.4 million.
  • • In terms of wholesale licensing sales, Alabama went from netting $41 million in 2006-07 to $100 million in 2012-13. It hasn’t been able to match that figure since (it came close with $95 million in 2015-16), and retail sales are usually twice that of their wholesale counterparts.How much of that is a result of Saban?But with Saban in tow Alabama didn’t wait to start construction. Even after bumping capacity from 92,138 to 101,821 when the nation was in a recession, the wait list for season tickets topped 32,000 by the 2014 season with an estimated wait time of 10-12 years.There’s no telling what kind of impact Saban might make by then.“The moment that plane touched down, Tuscaloosa changed.”
  • “I just think the airport scene puts it all into perspective, of who he was and what people thought of him before he even got here,” Seawell said. “But I don’t think they expected like what we’ve had.
  • That’s why Witt told 60 Minutes in 2013 that Saban was the best financial investment the university ever made. Saban received a contract extension in May that will pay him at minimum $7.125 million a year and more than $65 million should he stick around through the 2024 season.
  • Alabama almost certainly would have hired a pretty good coach had Saban turned Moore down. Things like the south end-zone expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium still probably would have happened eventually.
  • Consequently, the Crimson Tide brand has never been stronger.

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10

 

Christopher Walsh

Christopher Walsh

BamaCentral.com (stories appeared on SECCountry.com)

Age: 50

College: New Hampshire

Background: After graduating college I was so determined to be a sports journalist that I rode a 10-speed bike to two part-time jobs, including as the agate clerk of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.  I find myself thinking back to that a lot recently as the last three jobs I’ve had over the past four years the entire staff was let go. So I’ve decided to be my own boss and recently started the first college football site on the Maven platform, BamaCentral.com. Like most things in my life, my career has been somewhat backward as I covered three NFL teams and other pro sports before college football. Since moving to Tuscaloosa in 2004 to cover Alabama I’ve authored 25 books, got married and last season celebrated the birth of our first child, Evelyn. My wife, Megan, also made me have hobbies other than work and hockey, so I started collecting signed first-edition books and record albums (again). What goes around, comes around.

2018 Best Column: Mark Schlabach and Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com

Comment by the judge: “Excellent look in front of the microphone and behind the scenes of the end of the road for Jim McElwain as coach at Florida.”

By Mark Schlabach and Edward Aschoff

ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Florida — On Oct. 23, five days before Florida’s annual rivalry game with Georgia, Gators coach Jim McElwain addressed media members during what was supposed to be a routine Monday press conference.

He began by praising the Bulldogs, addressing injuries and offering his continued support for starting quarterback Feleipe Franks. What he said next took Florida officials completely by surprise. In response to a question about his team’s perseverance during a disappointing 3-3 season, he said players had received threats and members of his family had received death threats.

“There’s a lot of hate in this world, and a lot of anger,” McElwain said. “And yet it’s freedom to show it. The hard part is obviously when the threats [are] against your own players, the death threats to your families, the ill will that’s brought upon out there.”

Florida officials were caught off-guard by the remarks, and after meeting with McElwain following Monday’s practice, the university released a statement that raised eyebrows for how it appeared to distance the university from its coach’s remarks: “The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon, and he offered no additional details.”

The episode was the latest source of tension between McElwain and the administration that multiple sources told ESPN had been brewing since early in his tenure at Florida. Over the course of the past week, ESPN spoke with multiple sources within the Florida administration, as well as those close to McElwain.

They offered details about the sequence of events that led to the third-year head coach and Florida parting ways on Oct. 29, in what UF athletic director Scott Stricklin described as a “mutually agreed-upon decision.” According to these sources, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, what appeared to be a swift resolution to a bizarre week in Gainesville was the culmination of longstanding disputes and disagreements.

Prior to the start of the Georgia game, ESPN reported that Florida officials had begun discussing whether they could fire McElwain for cause as a result of his remarks. Stricklin released a statement addressing reports concerning McElwain’s job status, saying the school had not had any conversations with McElwain or his representatives regarding a buyout of his contract.

Twenty-four hours later, after a 42-7 loss to the Bulldogs, that changed, as the two sides began discussing a mutual separation. The university and McElwain agreed to part ways after school officials asked him to accept less than his $12.76 million buyout and step down as Gators coach. Final terms of the buyout are still being negotiated.

“It was never the right fit,” a Florida source said of McElwain’s head coaching tenure in Gainesville. “It was an odd fit from the beginning. He never embraced being here and being part of a team.”

When UF officials initiated negotiations that Sunday, they advised McElwain’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, that they intended to fire McElwain with cause and believed they did not owe him any part of his buyout because McElwain failed to alert university officials about the alleged threats against players and coaches.

McElwain’s wife was allegedly the recipient of a threatening message on Facebook, and McElwain himself also allegedly received threatening messages but did not provide evidence of them to Florida officials. At least one player allegedly received vulgar and racist messages that resulted in the player’s mother contacting Florida coaches. When pressed by Florida officials to elaborate or provide additional details, McElwain declined. He has told people close to him that he regrets talking about the threats publicly and that he did not want to drag family members, players or staffers into further controversy.

Several days after first making the comments, McElwain met with University of Florida police, according to sources both at Florida and close to McElwain. He informed them that he was fine and did not wish to take further action.

Following the loss to Georgia, McElwain was asked about his comments and said, “When you look back, I’ve made mistakes in my life. And yet I stand by everything that occurred. It is what it is.”

Stricklin addressed the media the following day to explain the decision to part ways with McElwain.

“I appreciate Coach McElwain,” Stricklin said, “the way he has handled this. We had constructive conversations. I like Coach Mac. I think he is a good man. I want to thank him for his time and his effort serving as our football coach.

“This is more than just wins and losses. I’ll leave it at that.”

McElwain ended his tenure as the Gators coach with a 22-12 record and back-to-back SEC East championships. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon was named interim coach.

When McElwain arrived at Florida after three seasons at Colorado State, he expressed displeasure with the state of the Gators’ football facilities, which had fallen behind those of other SEC programs such as Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M. Florida did not have an indoor practice facility for football until its $17-million facility opened in 2015.

“One of the biggest problems at Florida is that [former head coach] [Steve] Spurrier never asked for anything,” a source said. “He told [former athletic director] [Jeremy] Foley he’d just go beat everybody with less.”

McElwain had pushed the administration for a standalone football facility, just as former Gators coaches Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp had done before him. While these comments irked Foley, sources close to McElwain say he was trying to modernize the program in the image of Alabama, where he had been an offensive coordinator under Nick Saban. The school finally announced a $100-million master facility plan in February, which would also include upgrades to the baseball and softball stadiums.

The new 130,000-square-foot football building, which would cost an estimated $60 million, would have all the bells and whistles that other SEC programs enjoyed. It was scheduled to open in June 2019. However, Florida ran into issues locating an area in which to build the facility because there isn’t much vacant land around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and the other athletics facilities. A decision was reached to delay construction of the new football facility by a couple of years.

McElwain had butted heads with Foley in his first season at Florida in 2015, and he hoped to start anew in working with Stricklin, who was hired from Mississippi State in September 2016. After Florida’s 30-3 win over Iowa in last season’s Outback Bowl, McElwain was asked what the bowl win meant for the direction of the program. While he mentioned the consecutive SEC East titles and new facilities, his remarks were not well received by people inside the athletic department.

“We’ll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that’s at,” McElwain said.

At the time, McElwain had recently agreed to a contract extension and a raise with Stricklin, who had been on the job for only two months. Stricklin felt betrayed by McElwain’s comments.

“He was the kind of guy who would pull you close and then rabbit punch you,” a UF source said. “He never let you in and tried to keep you off balance.”

Stricklin believed McElwain had earned a contract extension because he’d guided the Gators to back-to-back SEC East championships, but the administration still had serious concerns about the direction of Florida’s offense and strength and conditioning program.

UF administrators had urged McElwain to turn over the staff in the Gators’ weight room because they believed workouts were unorganized and players weren’t being adequately developed under Mike Kent, the director of strength and conditioning, who had followed McElwain to Florida from Colorado State.

They also wanted McElwain to consider replacing offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who eventually received a contract extension this summer. Nussmeier is one of his closest friends and succeeded McElwain as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2012 and spent two seasons there before leaving for Michigan in 2014.

McElwain hired Nussmeier three weeks after he landed the Florida job, and their partnership has been unsuccessful. The Gators ranked 111th in total offense in the FBS in 2015, 116th in ’16 and 112th this season.

The Gators have struggled mightily at quarterback since McElwain’s arrival. Current West Virginia starter Will Grier, who is tied for fourth nationally with 3,068 passing yards and second with 30 touchdowns, was arguably McElwain’s most talented quarterback at Florida, but he transferred after he was hit with a year-long suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. He went 5-0 as Florida’s starter, throwing for 1,204 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

The inability to develop Franks, a redshirt freshman, has been a major disappointment. ESPN’s No. 65 recruit in the Class of 2016 has struggled all season and has an SEC-low QBR of 48.7, throwing for just 928 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions in eight games.

With the Gators trailing 21-0 at the half in their eventual loss to Georgia, Spurrier walked through the press box and asked a handful of reporters, “What happened to the forward pass?”

Spurrier also lamented Florida’s offensive woes during an interview with The State (South Carolina) newspaper last week.

“The offense has been so bad, everybody knows it,” Spurrier said.

Spurrier, who works as an ambassador and consultant at Florida, offered UF coaches plenty of advice this season. On the morning after Florida’s season-opening 33-17 loss to Michigan, Spurrier walked into a meeting with Nussmeier and the other offensive assistants. He sat down and said, “I have some ideas on how you can throw the ball.”

Spurrier told The State he tried to help as much as he could.

“Oh, yeah, I did that every week or so,” Spurrier said, “just with Nussmeier and his staff, and they look at it. He’s put some of them in. He’s put a few in. I’ll walk through there and give them a play every now [and] then, one or two plays, say, ‘What’d you think about this? This was good for us.’ Sometimes they actually use them, and sometimes it’s foreign to them. Our offense was so much different from what they do here.”

Those close to McElwain insist the coach was not bothered by Spurrier’s presence. But having Foley, his influential and opinionated former boss whom he clashed with at times, still involved as emeritus athletic director was challenging. Multiple sources told ESPN that even though Foley was no longer the AD, it was clear he was still involved in athletic department matters.

Despite the offensive struggles and the internal and external distractions, McElwain still became the first SEC coach to make it to the SEC championship game in each of his first two seasons. He won more games (19) in 2015 and 2016 than any SEC coach not named Nick Saban and tied Spurrier for the second-most victories by a Florida coach in his first two seasons. He was also outscored 58-15 in two games against Florida State and 83-31 in his two SEC title game matchups against Alabama, fueling fan discontent.

McElwain felt underappreciated and bristled at Florida fans’ frustrations about the team’s offense.

“I mean, it’s obviously one of those things that you have to constantly evaluate and get better at,” McElwain said heading into the 2016 SEC title game. “I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta. How many years have I been here? OK.”

Stricklin even came to McElwain’s defense when he sat down with ESPN this spring.

“We’re a Presbyterian game being canceled away from [McElwain] having back-to-back 10-win seasons in his first two years,” Stricklin told ESPN. “I don’t think he gets credit for that. … There’s a lack of appreciation for what he’s done.”

In the end, though, frustration boiled over — a culmination of issues over facilities, on-field performance and, ultimately, McElwain’s recent comments about alleged death threats — and Florida is looking for a new football coach, its fifth since Spurrier retired in 2001.

“There were a lot of issues, and last week was kind of the tipping point of, ‘This was not going to work,'” a UF source said.

Edward Aschoff

Edward Aschoff

Age:  32

College:  University of Florida

Background: Edward grew up in lovely Oxford, Mississippi, with two educators and cooks as parents. His father, the late Peter Aschoff, taught an array of different classes at the University of Mississippi and cooked unbelievable Asian delicacies. His mother, the late Patricia Aschoff, was the director of the Domestic Violence Center in Northeast Mississippi, before becoming a well-respected special education teacher in the Oxford School District. Her fried chicken and mac & cheese were second to none. Edward mostly grew up reading about dinosaurs and stalked around the house imitating his idol — Godzilla. He played soccer and baseball and decided he wanted to become a sports writer after being captivated by the late, great Stuart Scott in middle school. Edward attended the University of Florida from 2004 to 2008. He started covering Florida football, recruiting and UF’s Olympic sports for The Gainesville Sun in 2007. He was hired by ESPN in 2011 to cover SEC football, but has sense been shipped off to Los Angeles to cover college football nationally. You can find some of his work online, but he has taken a new role this season which will plaster his face on TV more, as he joins the immensely talented Marty Smith as a college football reporter for ESPN’s SportsCenter. He chooses to wear suits to every sporting event he covers, even in 95-degree southern heat. Edward lives in the canyon of Echo Park, just north east of downtown LA, and while he doesn’t currently have any children, he thinks his ability to raise an over-stimulated cat for the last nine years has given him all the preparation he needs to eventually welcome a human child into his life. This is the second FWAA writing award he’s received. In 2016, he and Adam Rittenberg won first place for their enterprise story on race in college football, centering on the racist bus incident involving an Oklahoma University fraternity and the powerful, viral response from Sooners linebacker Eric Striker.

Mark Schlabach

Mark Schlabach

AGE: 45

SCHOOL: Georgia

BACKGROUND:  College football columnist and reporter for ESPN.com. He joined ESPN in 2006.  He previously worked nine years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered Georgia, the SEC, the NFL and NASCAR and also at the Washington Post for two years where he covered college football and basketball and boxing. Schlabach has authored numerous books, including several New York Times Best Sellers. One of those is “Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith and Football” with former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. He lives in Madison, Ga., with his family.

 

2018 Best Writing Contest winners announced

DALLAS — Three  former first-place winners — Dennis Dodd, Christopher Walsh and Edward Aschoff — garnered  first-place finishes again in the  26th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest.  John Bohnenkamp was a first-time winner in Game Story to account for the other top award.

Jesse Temple, Chris Vannini, David Teel and Dodd claimed awards in different categories.  Please note, writers are identified by their affiliation (below) at the time they wrote the stories. A few have changed affiliations.

First-place winners will receive game balls, certificates and cash prizes. Second- and third-place winners will get certificates and cash prizes. Honorable mention award recipients will receive certificates. All will be recognized at the annual FWAA Awards Breakfast on Jan. 7, 2019, in San Jose, Calif.

Click on the name of any of the first-place winners to read their winning story.

GAME

FIRST PLACE — John Bohnenkamp, The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

SECOND PLACE —Max Olson, The Athletic

THIRD PLACE Nicole Auerbach, The Athletic

HONORABLE MENTION — Jesse Temple, Land of 10; David Teel, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.; Bill Bender, Sporting News; Chris Vannini, The Athletic

FEATURES

FIRST PLACE — Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports.com

SECOND PLACE — Chris Tomasson, St. Paul Pioneer Press

THIRD PLACE — Jesse Temple, Land of 10
HONORABLE MENTION — Chris Vannini, The Athletic; David Hale, ESPN.com; Mirin Fader, Bleacher Report

COLUMNS

FIRST PLACE Mark Schlabach and Edward Aschoff, ESPN.com

SECOND PLACE David Teel, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.

THIRD PLACE Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports

HONORABLE MENTION J.P. Scott, Athlon Sports; Ron Higgins, NOLA.com/Times-Picayune; Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com; Luke DeCock, Raleigh News & Observer; Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman

ENTERPRISE

FIRST PLACE — Christopher Walsh, SEC Country

SECOND PLACE — Dennis Dodd and Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com

THIRD PLACE — David Ching, Ross Dellenger and Luke Johnson, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

HONORABLE MENTION — Alex Scarborough, ESPN.com; Matt Hayes, Bleacher Report; Jesse Temple, Land of 10

2017 Best Feature: John Crist

By John Crist

Saturday Down South

My phone rings. The caller ID reads “Dak Prescott.” He’s getting back to me shortly after I left him a message. Turns out he was in the middle of a workout. He’s still out of breath.

It’s Monday. I’m in Tampa. He’s in Orlando. But by Wednesday, we’ll both be in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine — the annual meat market for college players ahead of the NFL Draft. I’ll be there as a member of the media. Prescott, of course, is a prospect following a spectacular career at Mississippi State.

He’s the best quarterback ever to play in Starkville, and he may just be the single best player in school history. Prescott elevated a mediocre program in a brutal conference to heights never seen before.

Nevertheless, when the draft experts go through the list of top QBs, his name isn’t mentioned. Jared Goff of California, Carson Wentz of North Dakota State — yes, FCS-level NDSU — and Paxton Lynch of Memphis are considered the first-tier passers. Prescott is a second-tier guy alongside the likes of Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.

He’s currently projected as a mid-round pick. But if Prescott is worried, he hides it well. He sounds authentic and confident without an iota of cockiness.

“(Other quarterbacks) are going to get their hype,” he says. “Just going to camps, even the combine, I don’t know that I’ll make people drop their pen and drop their jaw and say, ‘We’ve got to get this guy first off the board.’ That hasn’t been the player I’ve been all my life.”

More…

2017 Best Enterprise: David Ching

By David Ching
ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When they received word that UAB football was coming back, Lee Dufour and Nick Vogel — best friends and former roommates at the school — could not wait to share the news with each other.

Unfortunately, they heard about it at the exact same time.

“Literally the second that they announced football’s coming back, I called him and at the same time, he called me. The calls didn’t go through,” Dufour said, recalling the moment last June when UAB reversed its decision from December 2014 to drop its football program. “I was like, ‘Yes, we have to go back. Whatever we have to go through, we’re coming back.'”

Added Vogel: “We were both going nuts trying to call each other. We both missed a couple calls in a row until we got ahold of each other. We were overjoyed.”

Both players had found new college football programs after UAB’s implosion: offensive lineman Dufour at South Alabama and kicker Vogel at Southern Miss. And yet they missed the friendships and connections that formed in their short time in Birmingham.

They had promised each other they would return to UAB if it ever reinstated the football program, and this was the opportunity many thought would never come.

“That was my primary plan in life: it’s going to come back and I’m going to leave this place and go back to my home in Birmingham,” Vogel said. “I know that sounds completely insane, but when I made the deal with Lee, I was 100 percent behind it. I genuinely thought it would come back.”

Dufour and Vogel are among 16 players from the 2014 team who were back at UAB in time for its recently completed spring practice. However, many of their 2014 teammates with eligibility remaining did not return.

More…

2017 Best Column: Glenn Guilbeau

By Glenn Guilbeau

USA Today Network/Gannett Louisiana

BATON ROUGE – Close your eyes and imagine it is a year ago when then-LSU coach Les Miles was about to be fired, and someone tells you that the next coach is going to be LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron.

Now, open your eyes.

Orgeron – a career journeyman coach, a failed head coach and a somewhat successful short term head coach at USC and LSU – is LSU’s next football coach.

“I’m the search,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said two months ago after firing Miles.

“I’m worried,” I said.

Well, I’m still worried.

Alleva first started looking for a new head football coach more than a year ago and started thinking about looking for a new head football coach when he came here in 2008. And this is it?

This is an embarrassment.

More…

2017 Best Game Story: Andrea Adelson

By Andrea Adelson
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. — The game clock showed 2:01. Deshaun Watson gathered his teammates and told them simply, “We’re going to get this touchdown. We’re going to win this national championship.”

Nobody on that sideline doubted. Not with Watson under center. Everybody wearing orange and purple firmly believed they had the best player in the country on their side, Heisman or no Heisman. They reminded everybody: Heismans are voted on; championships are won.

This would be it for him, on the last drive, in his last game.

“I’d seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew,” Watson said after Monday’s title game. “I told myself, ‘They left too much time on the clock.'”

First play, pass complete. Second play, pass complete. Down the field they went, a march toward inevitability. When Watson arrived at Clemson in January 2013, he tweeted, “Me. In a National Championship Game. I’m just waiting on that moment.”

It came on first-and-goal at the Alabama 2. The play call came in: Crush. Watson would roll out and go to receiver Hunter Renfrow in the flat.

“We knew that play was going to work,” Clemson receiver Mike Williams said. “When you want it the most, you go out with your best call. We knew that was our best call.”

The play call was brilliant. So was its execution.

“I saw the whole play develop, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, wide open,'” Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “I’m on field goal unit, so I sprinted right onto the field as Deshaun was throwing it. I knew it was game. One second left. It was beautiful timing.” More…

2017 FWAA Best Writing Contest winners announced

DALLAS — Three writers — Alex Scarborough and Jake Trotter of ESPN.com and Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports — each claimed two individual awards and Glenn Guilbeau of USA TODAY Network/Gannett Louisiana repeated as a first-place winner in the 25th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest.

ESPN.com writers collected 10 individual or co-bylined awards, including 1-2-3 sweeps in the Game Story and Enterprise categories.

First-place winners will receive game balls, certificates and cash prizes. Second and third-place winners will get certificates and cash prizes. Honorable mention award recipients will receive certificates. All will be recognized at the annual FWAA Awards Breakfast on Jan. 8, 2018 in Atlanta.

GAME

First Place — Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com

Second Place — Alex Scarborough, ESPN.com

Third Place — Jake Trotter, ESPN.com

Honorable Mention — John Feinstein, Washington Post; Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports; Matt Fortuna, ESPN.com; Rich Scarcella, Reading Eagle

FEATURES

First Place —  John Crist, Saturday Down South

Second Place — Mike Vorel, South Bend (Ind.) Tribune

Third Place —  Nate Mink, The Post-Standard (Syracuse, N.Y.)/Syracuse.com

Honorable Mention —  Alex Scarborough, ESPN.com; Jake Trotter, ESPN.com;  Daniel Uthman, USA TODAY

COLUMNS

First Place — Glenn Guilbeau, USA TODAY Network/Gannett Louisiana

Second Place — J.P. Scott, Athlon Sports

Third Place — Ryan McGee, ESPN.com

Honorable Mention — Matt Hayes, Bleacher Report; Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com

ENTERPRISE

First Place — David Ching, ESPN.com

Second Place — Mark Schlabach and Paula Lavigne, ESPN.com

Third Place — Kyle Bonagura and Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN.com

Honorable Mention — Harry B. Minium Jr., Norfolk Virginian-Pilot; Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports; Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated; Michael Casagrande,  AL.com/Alabama Media Group; Jack Ebling and Joe Rexrode, Dog Ear Publishing; Andrew Greif, The Oregonian