A Florida Thing: Jim McElwain Gets To Know Steve Spurrier

By  //  July 24, 2015

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Head Coach Jim McElwain and Steve Spurrier on way the up to ESPN. (GatorZone Image)
Head Coach Jim McElwain and Steve Spurrier on way the up to ESPN. (GatorZone Image)

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (Gatorzone.com) – Jim McElwain and Steve Spurrier had met prior to Tuesday morning when they shook hands shortly after sunrise.

When you coach ball long enough – they have more than 65 years of coaching experience between them — you are more than likely to cross paths at some point.

If not for a game, then maybe at a bowl event or coaching clinic or somewhere on the road recruiting.

Prior to Tuesday’s trip to ESPN, McElwain and Spurrier last saw each other in early June at a memorial service for former Gators head coach Ray Graves.

It was an opportunity for the new Florida football coach to pay respect to the program’s past, and the Gators icon to come home and share memories of his beloved college coach with friends and former teammates.

McElwain and Spurrier talked that day, sort of like a homeowner greeting the house’s former owner and listening to some stories about the place.

There wasn’t much time to drift beyond pleasantries considering the circumstances.

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But soon after Florida’s contingent picked Spurrier up in South Carolina on Tuesday for a trip to ESPN headquarters in Connecticut for the network’s annual “Car Wash” media day — a tradition that started by happenstance during Will Muschamp’s tenure — McElwain and Spurrier settled in and started to get to know one another.

They are newly minted rivals by nature of their positions, but different from say, Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn, or Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze, where in Alabama and Mississippi laws might already be in place to prevent such friendly rapport.

McElwain is somewhat of a mystery man, the only first-year coach in the SEC this season. Spurrier is the league’s elder statesman, entering his 23rd season as a head coach in the conference.

While McElwain and Spurrier carved out very different paths to Gainesville, the two have taken several of the same turns in life.

Both played quarterback. Both climbed the coaching ladder as offensive assistants. Both have national championship rings, McElwain as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Spurrier as Florida’s head coach. Both met their wives at their alma maters. Both love the outdoors. McElwain prefers the mountains and lakes of his native Montana, Spurrier the beaches and golf courses of the South.

And since early December when McElwain was hired to recharge the Gators, both know the expectations and demands of being the head coach at Florida.

When the two appeared together Tuesday on the set of “College Football Live” on ESPN, one of the first questions asked of Spurrier was about any advice given to McElwain.

Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier

“He doesn’t need any advice from me,’’ Spurrier said.

“He just needs some ballplayers.”

Twenty-five years ago when Spurrier returned to Florida to take over the program, he was 45 and coming off his first stint as a college head coach, going 20-13-1 in three years at Duke. Likewise, the 53-year-old McElwain is coming off a three-year stint at Colorado State (22-16) in his first stint as a college head coach.

And in 1990, one of the biggest question marks that loomed over the Gators before fall camp was who would play quarterback. Turned out Shane Matthews earned the job and did alright. A quarter century later, McElwain hopes Will Grier or Treon Harris can do the same.

Whatever comparisons are drawn between McElwain and Spurrier from here will be determined by what happens during McElwain’s time roaming the sideline at The Swamp.

McElwain may not know Spurrier well, but he knows the Head Ball Coach’s reputation in Gator Nation like he knows the best spots to anchor his boat on Flathead Lake back in Montana.

Jim McElwain
Jim McElwain

“I always enjoyed watching his teams play,’’ McElwain said at SEC Media Days last week.

“When he was coaching there, the things that he was doing advancing the football through the air, it was a lot of fun to watch. I drive by work every day and pass his statue. That’s pretty cool.”

During Tuesday’s trip together, McElwain and Spurrier spent most of the time telling stories about their families, football and asking a lot of questions of each other like you might expect between two guys who don’t share a common history.

At one point, conversation turned to Spurrier’s time in the NFL. He played for the 49ers in the 1970s and McElwain, in his only season in the NFL, was quarterbacks coach of the Raiders in 2006.

They discovered a shared experience as the conversation bounced around.

It happened on Aug. 28, 1971. It was a preseason NFL game between San Francisco and Denver in Spokane, Wash.

“You played in that game?” McElwain asked. “I was there.”

Spurrier was 26, backup to reigning NFL Player of the Year John Brodie. McElwain was 9, a Montana country boy excited about a trip to Spokane’s Joe Albi Stadium to watch an NFL game in person six years before the Pacific Northwest made its NFL debut with the launch of the Seattle Seahawks franchise.

San Francisco coach Dick Nolan informed the local press about a change of plans prior to the game.

“We’re going to start Steve Spurrier,’’ Nolan told the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

“We know — everybody knows — what John can do. This is an excellent opportunity to see what Steve can do behind a veteran line.”

Unfortunately for Spurrier, it was a night to forget. But his memory won’t allow it. As he recalled the game 44 years later, Spurrier grimaced as he reflected on a bad snap that forced him to scramble to recover the ball as Broncos All-Pro defensive line Rich “Tombstone” Jackson fell on him.

Clutching his right side, Spurrier said he fell hard on the point of the football and missed three weeks due to bruised ribs. An account of San Francisco’s 33-17 victory verifies Spurrier’s memory remains sharp.

As they get to know each other better through their tangles in the SEC East, McElwain seeks more shared experiences to discuss with Spurrier.

A successful career at UF undoubtedly is the one he seeks most.