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
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.
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.
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.