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Florida Gators reflect on the weirdness of Jim McElwain’s exit, one year later

"Last year, it was pretty weird knowing that Coach Mac was (going to) get fired after this game because his whole mind-set, his whole demeanor was different."
It's been a year since Jim McElwain made the death-threat comments that made the Georgia game his last as the Florida Gators' coach. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Oct. 22, 2018

GAINESVILLE — As No. 9 Florida prepares for its first top-10 meeting with Georgia in a decade, it's important to remember the innocuous moment that started the Gators' path back to the national stage.

It was a year ago, on the Monday of Georgia week, when the Associated Press' Mark Long asked then-coach Jim McElwain a harmless question about his team's resilience: After Hurricane Irma, the credit card fraud scandal and injuries, don't the Gators deserve some credit for hanging in there?

"Credit in this business is internal. It's never external…" McElwain began.

Midway through his answer, McElwain's tone changed.

"The hard part," he said, "is obviously when the threats against your own players, death threats to your families, the ill will that's brought upon out there."

Death threats? McElwain didn't elaborate then with reporters or later with his administration — a fact his bosses made clear with a curious statement that evening.

As that drama played out, McElwain's team was trying to play the eventual College Football Playoff finalists.

"Definitely a lot of weirdness leading up to it," UF receiver Josh Hammond said.

On Monday, Hammond and linebacker Rayshad Jackson addressed that weirdness with some of the most candid remarks anyone has given since Long's question a year ago.

"Last year, it was pretty weird knowing that Coach Mac was (going to) get fired after this game because his whole mind-set, his whole demeanor was different," Jackson said.

The rumors that started that Monday intensified Saturday morning with a report that UF and McElwain's representatives were starting to negotiate his buyout. UF denied the report, but players saw the speculation on their phones during pre-game meal at the hotel.

"Guys were kind of looking around wondering, like, 'What's really going on?' " Hammond said. "'Is he really getting fired? Is he not?' "

McElwain said after the game that he hadn't heard the rumor until he walked into that meal. Once he found out about it, he addressed his uncertainty directly with the team.

"The way he was talking about it was like he was going to get fired," Jackson said.

If McElwain's goal was to defuse the situation so his Gators could focus on the undefeated Bulldogs, it didn't work.

"It made it worse, actually," Jackson said.

It made it worse because the players knew what was going on but couldn't do anything about it. McElwain's future seemed set, regardless of what would happen at EverBank Field.

"Just seeing stuff on Twitter about your coach being fired is a little awkward," Hammond said. "It just kind of throws your mind a little bit. It kind of gets guys unfocused on what we have to get accomplished."

That showed once the game kicked off.

UF lost 9 yards on its first drive. Georgia scored four plays later. The Gators trailed 21-0 before the first quarter was half over.

"It was like a snap of a finger," Jackson said.

A day after the 42-7 loss, McElwain was gone. UF's problems remained.

Jackson said players were thinking about the rest of the staff, like Randy Shannon (who recruited Jackson to UF). Those coaches were probably on their way out, too.

"We had so much on our mind throughout the whole season after that, we really couldn't bounce back," Jackson said.

That bizarre week and 4-7 season helped put the Gators where they are now, back in the top 10 and one of the favorites in the SEC East. McElwain's exit led to coach Dan Mullen's return and his team's 6-1 start.

Not that the Gators are thinking about it like that.

"Coach Mac getting fired and that weekend was just a hectic weekend mentally for us, so I think a lot of guys kind of forgot about it," Hammond said. "We're just ready to move forward and put that behind us and getting ready to play ball this week."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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