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Florida Fired Jim McElwain for Being More Will Muschamp Than Nick Saban

The Gators canned their head coach because … well, look at their offense

John Raoux/AP Images

The University of Florida has fired head football coach Jim McElwain a day after a 42-7 loss to Georgia that dropped the team to 3-4, according to a release put out by the school. The defeat was the Gators’ third in a row, all of which came in SEC play. McElwain leaves Florida with a 22-12 record over two-plus seasons.

Expectations were high when McElwain was hired in December 2014. Florida’s offense had sputtered under predecessor Will Muschamp, never finishing higher than 96th nationally in total offense or 56th in scoring. Muschamp was a defensive guru, and his teams consistently delivered on that side of the ball. But the Gators fan base had grown accustomed to seeing playmakers like Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, and demanded the same kind of highlight-reel moments that were common under former coach Urban Meyer. So Florida turned to McElwain, a supposed offensive guru who—like Muschamp—built his reputation while serving as an assistant under Nick Saban. McElwain also had experience in a top job before arriving in Gainesville; he left his role as Alabama’s offensive coordinator to become Colorado State’s head coach before the 2012 season, and led the Rams to a 10-2 record in 2014.

Florida paid $5 million to buy out McElwain’s contract—the largest school-to-school transfer in college football history. He started strong in his Gators tenure, winning his first six games and 10 of his first 11, including a 38-10 victory over Ole Miss, who was at the time ranked third in the nation. The Gators even made a trip to the 2015 SEC championship game—a stage that Muschamp’s teams never reached—although that resulted in a 29-15 loss to Alabama.

But things plateaued and then turned south. The Gators defense was still great in 2016, but the offense remained anemic: While rival schools Florida State and Georgia trotted out Heisman Trophy candidates in Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb, Florida featured guys like Treon Harris and Feleipe Franks. The Gators backed their way into another SEC title game, losing again to Alabama, 54-16. Despite McElwain’s offensive reputation, Florida’s offenses finished 112th and 116th, respectively, in total yardage during his first two seasons, and ranked 101st in the country in 2017 entering this Saturday. And after piecing together a miraculous stretch of pulling out close games, McElwain’s luck ran out. Before getting stomped by the Bulldogs in Week 9, the Gators lost consecutive games to LSU and Texas A&M by a combined three points.

McElwain also became entangled in a recent off-field controversy: In a press conference last Monday, the coach told reporters that his family had received death threats as a result of the Gators’ disappointing play. University administrators failed to substantiate those claims, and McElwain later said that the death threats had “happened in the past.” This reportedly led the school to explore whether it could fire McElwain for cause, although any financial details regarding a buyout negotiation have yet to emerge.

Since Saban took the Alabama job in 2007, the rest of the SEC has done its best to emulate his model: Tennessee hired former Saban assistant Derek Dooley and Georgia’s current coach is ex-Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. But no program has relied on the approach of hiring Saban disciples more than Florida. After the failed Muschamp and McElwain experiments, though, school officials should know that Alabama is the class of college football because of its head coach. Not the company he keeps.

Before the season, McElwain signed a contract extension that went through 2022 and raised his yearly salary to nearly $4.5 million. The deal signified Florida’s trust in its coach. A little more than four months later, the university has shown him the door. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will serve as the Gators interim head coach in his absence.