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Jim McElwain’s midseason departure catches Florida players by surprise

Gators say reality didn’t set in until athletic director Scott Stricklin addressed the team Sunday evening.

GAINESVILLE — Duke Dawson didn't believe it. One day after a 42-7 loss to Georgia, the Gators cornerback saw reports stating his head coach, Jim McElwain, was fired. A team meeting at 5 p.m. Sunday dismissed any doubts. The McElwain era had come to an end.

Now, with former defensive coordinator Randy Shannon serving as UF's interim head coach, the team is trying to regroup and focus on a road matchup against Missouri (3-5, 0-4 SEC) Saturday at noon. But while the Gators (3-4, 3-3 SEC) are trying not to dwell on the coaching change, the shock behind the switch is still settling in.

Dawson had seen it happen before when his first coach, Will Muschamp, was let go. Florida's younger players, meanwhile, didn't have the same frame of reference.

"It was very surprising for a lot of guys, especially the young guys who just got here," Dawson, a senior, said Monday. "It's eye opening to them."

Even for redshirt senior running back Mark Thompson, who transferred to Florida before McElwain's second season, the news of his coach's firing was unexpected. Like Dawson, Thompson said reality didn't set in until UF athletic director Scott Stricklin addressed the team Sunday evening.

"That's when everyone knew: This is serious. This is for real. This is going to happen," Thompson said.

The fact that the change was made midseason only added to an already somber situation, according to the junior college transfer.

"It's a little sad. That's our coach. He recruited a lot of us," Thompson said. "He's been here with us, for me at least for a year and a half."

With McElwain out, Shannon switched up the scenery and held practice inside the Swamp, something out of the ordinary for a Monday session.

But the end of practice brought a surprising dose of familiarity when the man who led UF to back-to-back SEC Championship games took the field to address players for the first time since his departure.

McElwain was brief. He didn't have a microphone or the attention of the entire team, struggling to hear him in the cavernous, 92,000-seat stadium. Either way, his remarks served as closure. A final memory, like the ones receiver Brandon Powell carries about a coach who, even when the team struggled, could coax a smile out of his players.

"That's just one thing about Coach Mac," Powell said. "He was always serious about football, but some days, you'll see him around the building or you'll see him somewhere and he's ready to crack a joke with you."

"That's one thing I'll always remember about Coach Mac."