He is from far off Montana, where there are no hurricanes, but it’s obvious Florida coach Jim McElwain has his finger on the pulse of his adopted state in this difficult time.
That’s what the head coach was Wednesday. His mood probably could sum up the feelings of an entire state that has been impacted by Hurricane Irma, which carved its path of devastation through Florida on Sunday and Monday.
On the weekly SEC coaches teleconference, McElwain spoke barely above a whisper while talking about the hurricane and how it’s affected many of his players, and how he expects them to respond in Saturday’s big SEC matchup with division rival Tennessee.
A few minutes later, standing at the podium for one of his weekly news conferences on campus, it was more of the same.
At one point, the usually gregarious coach was asked about his somber mood.
“It’s what we do. It’s in our fabric,” he said. “One of the great lessons you learn in athletics, and especially the game of football, is sometimes you get knocked down. The measure of a true man is how he gets back up and that’s what we’re going to do.
“Probably the concern for the people, the families of our players that were my responsibility. It is what it is and yet, you can’t just say it didn’t happen. But what did we learn from it and how do we go about rebuilding?
“That’s what we plan on doing. I think it will be good for our people, our university for us to go out and play, play a game on Saturday. Obviously, one that a lot of people look forward to and I know it’s one our guys look forward to.”
McElwain has clearly been affected by what has happened not only around him and his staff and players, but also by everyone around the state that has been impacted.
He seemed almost uncomfortable talking about football and Saturday’s game out of respect of the difficult time many have gone through and will continue to go through in the coming weeks and months.
Like just about everyone else in the state, McElwain’s players felt the impact of the storm, with many of them having families that were hit hard by the storm.
“Obviously, this last week our concerns, my concerns, have been ultimately with our players’ safety and that they were taken care of. Staying in touch with their families,” he said. “Over 60 guys were affected through their families in one way or another. And you know, what we can do to help them rebuild and move forward? And then to our coaches’ and staff’s families as they went through it, and then ultimately my family.
“We had a good plan and we had good people executing the plan to help our guys, to help our families. And we were very fortunate. So, it’s resilience. It’s time to pick back up and get going and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The decision was made Tuesday to go ahead and play Saturday’s game in The Swamp at the scheduled time, instead of possibly moving the game to another location. That decision came only five days after the Gators learned their Sept. 9 game with Northern Colorado was canceled by the threat of Hurricane Irma.
It’s been a strange and harrowing week that might linger for a long time, McElwain said.
“I don’t think you can ever say that we’re going to get back to normal because of this storm that hit us,” he said. “There is no normal. I know playing this game, our campus officials, our administration, city administrators, people in the government, felt like this can be a go and we’re going to make it happen. I hope that it gives the people of the state of Florida, this area, just a couple hours of something to take their mind off as they recover from what they’ve gone through.”
A football game many seem meaningless compared to what’s happened. Then again, maybe Saturday’s game will prove to be therapeutic.
“Yeah, definitely,” said sophomore wide receiver Josh Hammond, whose family lives in Hallandale. “A lot of things happened in the past couple of days, and I think this game definitely will be able to clear peoples’ minds, just to come out and enjoy a game of football. I think it will be big for a lot of families and Florida fans just to come up and just watch the game and know that they can rest their mind and leave their problems kind of away for a little bit, for a couple hours, and just enjoy a game of football.”
Despite the somber mood at midweek, Hammond said the Gators will be ready to play Saturday.
“You just have to re-shift your focus,” he said. “Definitely devastating to have things like that happen, but it’s out of our control. (McElwain) does a good job letting the players know that it’s out of our control, but we still have a football game to go play. It’s just re-shifting focus and getting mentally prepared to go play a game in The Swamp this Saturday.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.