On the relationship between Jim McElwain and Nick Saban
As the Florida Gators prepare to face No. 1 Alabama in Saturday's SEC title game, you might be wondering about the relationship between Jim McElwain and Nick Saban.
Saban hired McElwain at 'Bama. McElwain did well enough there to become a head coach at Colorado State, and now at UF.
I wrote a piece about their relationship last year, as McElwain was preparing to face Saban for the first time in the Georgia Dome. Here it is again, because what I wrote then is still relevant today:
The biggest sign of respect Florida coach Jim McElwain shows his mentor isn't in what he says. It's what he doesn't say.
Occasionally, when McElwain drops a reference to something he picked up from the man he used to work for, McElwain will credit the source with one word: "Coach."
No first name. No last name. Just a title.
The rest is unspoken but understood. Alabama coach Nick Saban.
"He took a flyer on some guy from Montana who was out west and gave him an opportunity to coach at one of the greatest places in all of college football in the best conference in the United States of America," McElwain said. "For that opportunity, I just can't tell you how grateful I am and how lucky I am."
UF fans should be grateful, too, as McElwain's No. 18 Gators prepare to face Saban's No. 2 Crimson Tide in today's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome. Florida's 2015 transformation traces its roots to a call Saban made almost eight years ago.
A mutual friend, then-Fresno State coach Pat Hill, put McElwain on Saban's radar after the 2007 season. When Saban first called to ask about McElwain joining the Crimson Tide as its offensive coordinator, McElwain said he thought it was a joke. It turned into a four-year partnership that produced two national championships and seven first-round draft picks.
"He's innovative in terms of some of the things he does and some of the problems he creates," Saban said. "I think he coaches with discipline and works hard to get his players to execute things the right way."
And he does it while following Saban's 'Bama blueprint known as the "The Process" - the all-encompassing organizational model that covers everything from big-picture mission statements to what socks players wear.
That was obvious during McElwain's introductory news conference a year ago when he borrowed one of Saban's favorite phrases: "Eliminate the clutter." It's the same slogan another successful Saban disciple, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, repeats in Tallahassee to help his Seminoles ignore everything except preparing for Saturdays.
The parallels keep going. Saban is notoriously tight-lipped with the media; when pressed this week about whether defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was becoming Georgia's next head coach, Saban redirected questions to his bottle of soda.
Ask McElwain about some of his new UF traditions, like the "$ down" sideline signs waving before third downs, and you get answers like this: "That's pretty neat, isn't it? Next."
Saban, 64, wants his team to focus on the process, not the outcome. McElwain, 53, is the same way. His most head-turning coaching decision came in the second game of the season when he lit into his team - during and after the game - for an "embarrassing" performance against East Carolina. The tirade, by the way, came during a win.
"It doesn't matter whether you're selling popcorn or calling plays," McElwain said, "everybody has got to be on the same page going in the same direction."
And that direction better be pointed up.
McElwain's offseason overhaul included revamping the infrastructure and the installation of a year-and-a-half long calendar that revolves around the recruiting cycle.
Some of the most telling changes he has made have been the smallest ones. Players wear matching clothing as they enter the stadium to look like a team and promote the Gator brand. When McElwain noticed the practice field's goalposts were missing wind flags during the bye week, he made sure the problem was corrected.
The attention to detail goes all the way down to the sandwiches he makes for players in his office as a way to build relationships and boost energy. McElwain spreads the peanut butter and jelly all the way to the edge - no cutting corners. He knows that freshman receiver Antonio Callaway likes his sandwiches without the edges, but defensive back Brian Poole prefers the crust still attached to his grilled cheese.
"Just the details," defensive back Jalen Tabor said. "Coach Mac preaches the details."
And Saban's influence shows up in almost all of them.
McElwain isn't shy about crediting his previous boss for what he learned - even if he doesn't always mention him by name. He calls Saban "the best ball coach in our era." He credits Saban for showing him how to keep players focused on the present.
On the day he was introduced as UF's head coach in December, McElwain couldn't help but show gratitude for the chance Saban took on him.
"I owe him a lot," McElwain said then. "I hope the next time I see him will probably be in Atlanta around this time of year."
Three hundred sixty-three days later, McElwain was standing in Atlanta in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, with Saban to his right and the SEC championship trophy sitting in the middle.