GAINESVILLE — The friction between Florida’s administration and head coach Jim McElwain bubbled up Monday with five words at the end of a carefully crafted statement.
He offered no additional details.
UF’s administration — legally and morally — had to press McElwain for those details after he said in his weekly news conference that death threats were leveled against people related to his football program. He didn’t share anything else with reporters or, apparently, his bosses.
Which led to those five words.
The University Athletic Association didn’t have to include them; it could have said the school takes threats seriously and that the administration discussed them with McElwain on Monday. Period. That would have defended UF’s actions without calling attention to McElwain’s silence.
But the athletic department chose to say publicly that McElwain declined to elaborate about something this serious. Intentionally or inadvertently, it allowed wiggle room for skeptics to question McElwain’s words or deeds.
And it’s the latest sign that trouble could be brewing behind the scenes between McElwain and the Gators.
There was the time during his first season when he wore a new Gators dress shirt to his weekly Monday news conference. He said it was a gift — but not from then-athletic director Jeremy Foley.
"I wish that tight (expletive) would’ve given me it," McElwain said.
Everyone laughed — including Foley, who was in the corner of the room. McElwain said he meant his words "affectionately." But that doesn’t mean he was really joking.
There was the time in Tampa in January after UF thrashed Iowa in the Outback Bowl. When McElwain was asked about what the win meant for the program’s growth, he started talking about the incoming recruits and back-to-back SEC East titles.
Then he dropped this: "We’ll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that’s at …"
UF’s new athletic director, Scott Stricklin, had been on the job for two months, and McElwain was already publicly questioning his commitment to the program.
Then there was the time in his office this spring.
McElwain and I were chatting about his two decades in the no-frills Big Sky Conference, and I asked him about the Big Sky team (Northern Colorado) on his schedule this season. Was that a way to help out a league that means so much to him and the underpaid coaches who were grinding the same way he used to?
No, McElwain said. If he had a say in things, he wanted to give the big payday to his alma mater, Eastern Washington.
"I wonder sometimes around here if I ever have a say," McElwain said. "I’ll be honest with ya."
McElwain had his say Monday. He chose to bring up death threats while answering an innocuous question about whether his team deserves praise for its effort, in the face of injuries, suspensions and Irma. Then he chose not to give more details about them, even after he was pressed by reporters and administrators.
UF had its say, too. It chose to issue a questionable statement about the first head coach in SEC history to make it to the league title game in his first two seasons.
None of this means that the end is near for McElwain and the Gators. McElwain has yet to comment about UF’s statement, so we don’t know how he took it. He brushed off speculation Monday that he might return to the West Coast by taking the Oregon State job after the season.
But it sure looks like the strained relationship between McElwain and his administration is beginning to appear publicly.
The Gators’ five carefully chosen words are just the latest example.
They might not be the last.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.