Jim McElwain did a lot of good in his three seasons as CSU’s football coach.
He turned around a program that had gone 3-9 three consecutive seasons, winning eight games in 2013 and 10 in 2014. He recruited many of the Rams’ top players this season — quarterback Nick Stevens, running backs Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews, receiver Bisi Johnson, and linebackers Josh Watson and Tre Thomas.
But he also displayed the kind of arrogance here that was at least as responsible for his firing at Florida as the Gators’ 3-4 record this season.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said as much at a news conference Sunday evening.
“This (decision) is more than just wins and losses,” Stricklin said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
McElwain has a way of rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. There’s an arrogance about him that overshadows the humble upbringing and Montana roots he so often evokes in an effort to relate to the common man.
It came out right away at Florida, where he openly complained about the school’s outdated facilities. And again last week when, in an apparent effort to get angry fans to sympathize with him, exaggerated or completely fabricated supposed “death threats” against some of his players and his own family.
Threats he hadn’t mentioned to Stricklin or other school officials. Threats that, if real, painted an ugly picture of the Florida fan base.
I doubt McElwain thought it through that far. The Mountain West Coach of the Year in 2014 at CSU and the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 2015 at Florida was simply trying to take some of the pressure off himself and his team during a difficult season.
Instead, he showed a little too much of who he really is.
The guy who sat in his corner office on the second floor of the McGraw Athletic Center at CSU and barked orders at his subordinates, demanding they drop whatever they were doing to attend to whatever his immediate need was at the time.
The man who looked down on the rest of the athletic department staff, making sure they all knew the head football coach, his $1.35 million-a-year-salary and his $12 million-a-year-program were far more important than they were.
He called people by nicknames of his choosing, maybe because it was easier than learning their actual names.
After his first practice in the Rams’ indoor facility — a tremendous source of pride for the university when the $13 million facility opened four years earlier — McElwain complained to reporters about its size. It wasn’t big enough, he said, to accommodate a proper practice.
He saved his biggest insult of all, though, for his own coaching staff. Although he brought strength coach Mike Kent and football administrator Deidre Church with him to Gainesville, none of the nine, on-field assistant coaches who helped him turn around the CSU program were initially offered jobs to join him at Florida.
Linebackers coach Tim Skipper eventually joined McElwain’s staff, but the rest of the assistants were basically told, either directly or indirectly, that they weren’t good enough for the Southeastern Conference.
Only he was.
McElwain talked a good game. He always had one-liners and inspirational stories ready for his weekly news conferences, knowing those clips were what the Denver television stations would use during the week. He joked around often with me and other reporters who covered the team on a regular basis, often with references to popular music and television shows from the 1970s.
He convinced a whole lot of people, including current football coach Mike Bobo, that CSU could win conference championships and play in big-time bowl games.
He got Florida back on track quickly, too, winning back-to-back SEC East Division titles.
But this year, he had to suspend nine players who were accused of using stolen credit card information to purchase a wide range of items. He was unable to find a suitable quarterback to run his offense. And, after a 3-1 start to the season, the Gators lost three straight games — to Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia — to fall to 3-4.
With each loss, the pressure mounted.
And McElwain cracked, unable to continue hiding a side of himself that the public hadn’t previously seen.
The real Jim McElwain came out.
And the University of Florida, at least, didn’t like what it saw.