Unless you’re a fan of one of the two programs, chances are you won’t add Colorado State at Florida to your viewing schedule on Saturday. ESPN slotted the game to a 4 p.m. kickoff on SEC Network, opposite the North Texas-Arkansas game at the same time on the same network. It’s a 1-1 Florida team, fresh off its first loss to Kentucky in 32 years, hosting a 1-2 Colorado State team — that, it should be noted, has a better record in SEC play than Florida. After losing to Hawaii and Colorado to open the year, Colorado State mounted a second half rally to stun Arkansas in Fort Collins last week.
So, no, GameDay won’t be in Gainesville to herald the first Rams-Gators game in history. But it’s a significant game nonetheless.
Then-Florida AD Jeremy Foley fired Gators head coach Will Muschamp on Nov. 16, 2014, the day after a loss to South Carolina that dropped Florida to 5-4 on the year and 9-13 in its past 22 games.
With his second search in four years on his hands, Foley quickly targeted Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain. On the surface, such a move made all kinds of sense. Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun and Urban Meyer’s power spread forever branded Florida as an offensive-oriented program, and the struggles of the defensive-oriented Muschamp era further whetted the Gator Nation’s appetite for yards, points and more points. McElwain wasn’t just an offensive-oriented coach, he was also a former Nick Saban lieutenant.
McElwain helped Alabama win national championships in 2009 and 2011 as Saban’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, then went to Colorado State and quickly turned the Rams’ program around, taking a team that had gone 3-9 every year from 2009-11 into a 10-2 team by 2014, handing McElwain the Mountain West Coach of the Year award. Foley was convinced McElwain was the man for the job. This was going to be The Process: But for Offense.
There was a problem, though. McElwain’s contract at Colorado State called for a $7.5 million buyout to get him out of the job. Foley wanted McElwain, but he wasn’t paying $7.5 million to get him. But Foley also knew McElwain wanted the job, so he concocted a plan to essentially smoke McElwain out of Fort Collins.
The plan wasn’t complicated. It pretty much had one bullet point, and that bullet point was this: Use the media. Foley turned Florida’s pursuit of McElwain into the most highly-publicized coaching search of its time. Most ADs treat coaching search like covert CIA operations to capture a foreign head of state, Foley practically shouted his plans from the top of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Plans of a flight from Gainesville to Fort Collins were leaked across the college football media landscape.
Whereas the typical AD might rather be photographed naked in bed than meeting with a coaching target, Foley allowed himself to be photographed in McElwain’s house.
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 3, 2014
— John Leyba 📸 (@Presto89) December 3, 2014
When Florida officials left the McElwain home without a deal, Florida tweeted from its official account about its negotiations.
We’ve had very productive conversations with Coach McElwain and his wife Karen and those continue.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 3, 2014
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 3, 2014
By allowing his pursuit of McElwain to turn into a dreaded media circus, Foley accomplished his objective. Sure, Florida acknowledged it was pursuing McElwain (and, thus, in theory could be publicly humiliated if McElwain turned them down), but in the process Foley showed that McElwain also wanted the Florida job. At ome point in the process, the idea of McElwain returning to Colorado State became untenable.
By the following day, Florida had hired McElwain.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 4, 2014
“Coach McElwain was someone we targeted from the beginning of the search,’’ Foley said. “The more we worked through the process and did our due diligence, coupled with our meeting and conversations with him and those around him, it was obvious he is the right person to lead the Florida Gator football program.”
Foley got his coach, and he also wiggled out of paying Colorado State $7.5 million. The two sides worked a deal where CSU would still get (most of) its money, but through a variety of channels. Florida agreed to pay $3 million in cash over six years, McElwain himself would cover $2 million, and the school would guarantee a $2 million payment for a game in Gainesville at some point in the future.
Some point in the future is now here.
The McElwain Bowl takes place Saturday, and none of the principals who made it happen are still around. Colorado State was led by an interim AD at the time after firing Jack Graham in August of that year. Foley announced his retirement in June of 2016. And then there’s the man at the center of all this attention.
On the surface, the McElwain hire was an immediate success. Florida indeed won SEC East championships in his first two seasons. The goal, at least in part, was to meet square off with Saban and Alabama for SEC supremacy, and McElwain did that. But those SEC Championships exposed Florida’s SEC East titles to be hollow victories, losing 29-15 in the 2015 SEC Championship an 54-16 a year later.
McElwain was winning, but not enough to overlook behind-the-scenes personality clashes and odd public statements. His complaints about a perceived lack of administrative support after an Outback Bowl win to close the 2016 season rubbed new AD Scott Stricklin the wrong way. The 2017 season got off to a 3-3 start and then, in the midst of a 2-game losing streak in the middle of October, McElwain claimed Florida fans had lobbed death threats at himself, his family and members of his staff.
Florida publicly refused to back up McElwain’s statement:
The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon and he offered no additional details.
Pressed later in the week, McElwain refused to offer additional proof or details. (A Tampa Bay Times investigation found no death threats or threatening messages at all in McElwain’s inbox.)
That Saturday, Florida went to Gainesville to face an undefeated and third-ranked Georgia team. The Gators got crushed, losing 42-7. It was Florida’s biggest Cocktail Party loss since 1982.
The following Sunday, the McElwain era at Florida was over:
Jim McElwain and the University Athletic Association have mutually agreed to part ways, Athletic Director Scott Stricklin announced Sunday.
Without McElwain, Florida cratered down the stretch, dropping its final three games against Power 5 opponents to end the 2017 campaign at 4-7.
After paying nearly $13 million in salary, $3 million to get him out of his contract at Colorado State and scheduling a $2 million guarantee game, the McElwain era was done. Still looking for its first taste of sustained success in the post-Meyer era, Florida hired former Meyer offensive coordinator Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State. McElwain later found work as Michigan’s wide receivers coach.
There was one loose end to tie up in removing McElwain as Florida’s head coach, though. Ahead of the 2017 season, Florida awarded the coach a contract extension that promised $26.9 million through 2022, with a $12.5 million buyout. But Florida wanted to negotiate with McElwain’s representatives, armed with unverified McElwain’s death threat claims as ammunition. As McElwain well knew, Florida doesn’t like paying the full sticker price.
So on Nov. 28, 2017, it was reported Florida and the McElwain camp had reached a plan to pay out their former coach an amended buyout. He would receive an immediate lump sum, then a series of installments, stretching all the way out to July 1, 2021.
McElwain’s final buyout amount: $7.5 million.