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Jim McElwain out as Florida Gators head football coach

By Matt Baker
Jim McElwain walks the sidelines at the start of the fourth quarter of Florida's loss to Georgia Saturday in Jacksonville. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

GAINESVILLE — Although a stunning, six-day spiral ultimately led football coach Jim McElwain and the University of Florida to mutually part ways Sunday, McElwain’s 2?1/2-year tenure was doomed from his first day on the job.

When then-athletic director Jeremy Foley introduced him as the Gators’ head football coach in December 2014, the first thing he mentioned was McElwain’s "special" track record on offense.

Foley knew what the program needed after a change from the low-scoring doldrums of the Will Muschamp era. It needed points. It needed excitement. It needed fun.

McElwain disagreed.

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"It isn’t just offense," McElwain said then. "It isn’t just defense, and it isn’t just special teams. How do those work together cohesively to help you win the ballgame? That’s really what we’re here to do."

McElwain didn’t do enough of that. His 22-12 record includes two double-digit defeats in the SEC title game and an 0-2 record against rival Florida State. It ended after Saturday’s 42-7 embarrassment to Georgia dropped the Gators to 3-4 for the first time since 1986.

But that was only the start of his problems.

"This is more than just wins and losses," athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a news conference Sunday evening.

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This was about fit. McElwain and UF never clicked, which is why defensive coordinator (and former University of Miami head coach) Randy Shannon will be leading the Gators for their final four games, starting Saturday at Missouri.

Before McElwain was the head coach at Colorado State, he was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. The Saban philosophy is simple: Just win. Period.

That works at ’Bama, but it doesn’t work at Florida.

Gators fans are used to points — lots of them. They were spoiled with Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun offense and the high-scoring teams that won two national championships under Urban Meyer. It isn’t enough to win. You have to win with style.

Stricklin hasn’t even been at UF for a year, but he already understands that.

"When Florida has been really good … it has looked really fun," Stricklin said. "And I want it to be really fun. Our fans, they deserve it to be really fun."

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McElwain didn’t care about fun, or style points. He, like Saban, cared only about the final score, and he dismissed anyone who disagreed.

"I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta," McElwain said last November.

He did that twice, becoming the first head coach in SEC history to make it to the league title game in his first two seasons. But for UF, it wasn’t enough — especially with an offense that remained awful.

A program that has produced three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks ranks 81st nationally in yards per play (5.4). It ranks No. 109 in scoring with an average (21.3) that’s on track to be the Gators’ second-worst in the past three decades.

The cultural divide went beyond the scoreboard. McElwain was an outsider in an athletic department that prides itself on unity across sports.

He pushed UF to improve its facilities and got a lot of what he asked for; the indoor practice facility opened before his first game, and construction on a stand-alone football complex is slated to begin after this season. The upgrades were long overdue, but the way McElwain pursued them — publicly and aggressively — created friction between him and his administration.

That tension was the backdrop to the bizarre six-day stretch that ended with UF looking for its third coach since the end of the 2010 season.

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It started Monday when McElwain said at his news conference that people associated with the program received death threats. He wouldn’t elaborate to reporters, or to the administrators who were paying him $4.5 million a year.

When the University Athletic Association released a statement that evening saying he wouldn’t provide any additional information, McElwain’s fate seemed sealed. It was only a matter of time.

That time finally came Sunday, when Stricklin and McElwain’s representatives decided enough was enough. They agreed in principle to a financial settlement — likely reduced from a buyout of more than $12.5 million — but have not yet finalized the deal.

And now the time comes for Stricklin to hire his first football coach as an athletic director, at UF or anywhere else.

Stricklin didn’t offer many details Sunday, but UCF’s Scott Frost, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Syracuse’s Dino Babers are expected to be among the most likely candidates.

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Stricklin would like to have a replacement in place before recruiting’s new early signing period begins Dec. 20. He won’t rule out hiring someone who isn’t a current head coach, and he won’t talk to candidates while their season is ongoing.

Most importantly, he is looking for someone who can mesh with the Gators’ culture and make Florida football fun again.

"I think anytime that you’re starting your relationship," Stricklin said, "you’re looking for something that’s a quote-unquote fit."

That wasn’t McElwain.

And it was clear from Day 1 that it was never going to be.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.