The face of Florida football was tan and as relaxed as his socks dress code. He could lean back in a chair and take questions with a smile because the answers come much easier for Jim McElwain.
This is a coach in his third year heading in the right direction and reaching for the stars. His vision is now being shared because so many of the people around him are no longer myopic.
They see it, too, as if they’ve had Lasik.
“We’ve got really good people around us,” McElwain said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “Even the people that were there (at the beginning) that have now kind of seen a direction and a reason and it just doesn’t happen with sunshine and palm trees.
“You have to really truly sweat the small stuff. People see the vision.”
It wasn’t that way when he first arrived in Gainesville with his folksy banter and scattered resume. Once he got a first-hand look at the facilities, he wondered what he had gotten into and didn’t mind telling anybody who would listen.
But it wasn’t just a football building McElwain was aching for. He needed to build a football team.
That process has been an ongoing one without some of the usual potholes coaches step into when they are trying to rebuild. How many coaches have started basically from scratch at so many positions and still won 13 of 16 SEC games?
That’s not what is fueling the confidence that he carried into the offseason, through recruiting, northwest for a week in Montana and back down south to Alabama on Tuesday.
What has McElwain positively glowing is that he likes this team more than any he’s had as a head coach.
“This season has been built,” said McElwain. “It’s just putting the finishing touches on it now.”
This wasn’t hubris as much as it was confidence. McElwain knows that college football seasons can turn on a turnover, can rise with the helium of a special player and sink with the anchor of a malcontent.
He just feels like walking into the office is a lot more enjoyable now that he doesn’t have to explain the whys and why nots.
“I’ve continually beat my head against the wall at times,” McElwain said. “That’s part of the job. I get it that it’s my responsibility to explain the reason why. Most educated people, when they see the reason why then they kind of get it.”
And as more people around him have grasped the basic concept, the spring in his step has become like Rory McIlroy’s bouncing down a fairway with a lead. No matter how much Florida’s achievements are pooh-poohed as being a product of the SEC Least, he knows what he’s building in that building.
“I enjoy coming to the office,” he said. “I can see the work. There’s not a lot of prodding people. They are doing things when they see it needs to be done. That feels pretty good.”
The rebuilding process has included support staff and facilities (“we finally opened our eyes to the fact that nobody invested less money than Florida in the SEC since 2005”) to recruiting and, most importantly, to the players McElwain wanted to put on the field.
He has built the offensive line from four scholarship players to a two-deep SEC group. Florida hasn’t been this strong at wide receiver since 2008. The defense lost a ton to the NFL and didn’t blink.
“This is a pretty darn good team,” McElwain said.
Go ahead and pick Georgia to win the East.
“We’re loaded,” said left tackle Martez Ivey. “The sky is the limit.”
Go ahead and make McElwain the only coach so far to have the moderator asking the big room in vain for more questions.
“Maybe some day somebody might think we’re OK,” McElwain said. “I don’t know.”
Perhaps too many people know about the Florida jinx. Third-year coaches at UF have not exactly set the world on fire.
Steve Spurrier had his worst UF season in 1992 (although he still won the East).
Ron Zook was fired.
Urban Meyer had a defense that couldn’t stop a wheelbarrow full of puppies and lost twice as many games as it would the next two years.
Will Muschamp went 4-8.
You think any of that fazes this coach?
“I like our team,” McElwain said. “I think we’re pretty good.”
He’d like you to like it, too.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.