He had me at Clarabelle. Hardly an hour into his first news conference at Florida, Jim McElwain already was making absurd references to his poodle playing quarterback. I immediately tweeted that the new Gators coach “won the room in 30 minutes.”
McElwain possessed something that the last coach lacked: a sense of humor. And in a world of sniping tweets, carping fans and nosey reporters, a football coach can find refuge in the whimsical and the absurd by deflecting the slings and arrows of criticism with goofy non-sequiturs and homespun homilies.
I’m not trying to make him Mary Poppins because McElwain has had his mini-meltdowns, as he did with Kelvin Taylor. And he can be feisty and evasive when reporters push for authentic answers. But I’ll take that over a stonewalling coach sans humor any day.
Another version of The Artful Dodger, shall we say? And I don’t mean to imply that he is leading a merry bunch of thieves and pickpockets. He’s just cagey. And funny. Somewhere between Will Rogers and Steven Wright. And he can be disarming.
Sometimes it’s best to approach obliquely. But in a recent interview with McElwain, I decided to take the hard-nosed/Mike Wallace/inquiring-reporter approach when asking about his skills as a peanut butter gourmand.
“Smooth or crunchy?” I asked to open the interview.
Without flinching, McElwain retorted: “Smooth. Everybody knows that crunchy tears up the bread.”
In less-important topics, as for the recent spring game, I applauded the way McElwain had handled a young freshman-to-be down on his luck who could have fallen into a black hole after throwing three interceptions.
Instead of benching Feleipe Franks after his third pick, McElwain pulled him aside, offered some words of encouragement, then put him back in the game for the final drive.
“He’s a talented guy and I’m glad he’s a Gator,” McElwain said, still sending out the positive coaching message.
Franks redeemed himself by throwing a touchdown pass.
“Playing quarterback is a hard thing to do,” McElwain said. “They aren’t out trying to throw it to the other guys. So maybe the best thing you can do is throw it away instead of tacking a sack, not trying to force it.
“When Feleipe came back out there, he took what the defense gave him and eventually it gave him a touchdown.”
Mind you, this is a third- or fourth-string kid and not the starter.
Aside from discussions about presumed starter Luke Del Rio and the other quarterbacks, the biggest buzz was about kicker Eddy Pineiro, a soccer player with a big leg who never has attempted a field goal; his reputation has preceded him because of epic YouTube performances. That Pineiro decommitted from Alabama in favor of Florida already has ingratiated him with Gator Nation.
McElwain said of Pineiro: “I was most excited to see Eddie come out of the locker room with his helmet on and that he was able to button up his chin strap.”
Drum roll, please.
Tricky guy, that Jimmy Mac. Now he’s even engaging us in a little game of possum. After reading a recent quote about this season’s Florida-Tennessee game, I wondered if he had taken a page from the coaching manual of Georgia’s Weeping Wally Butts.
“I kind of have to worry about us,” McElwain said of the September 24 meeting in Knoxville. “I’m sure that they should be favored and they should beat the hell out of us. We’re just going to be lucky to show up.”
Butch Jones realizes McElwain is sticking the shiv in his ribs by reminding him of Tennessee’s painful loss last season. Just when it looked as if the Vols had snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Gators, along came that miraculous fourth-and-14 touchdown. Such a memory creates just a touch more heartburn for Jones, who needs to beat Florida in order to deter the wolves in Coonskin caps from the door. Stay tuned.
In 17 short months, The McElwain File has thickened. He’s no Steve Spurrier, nor will his quotes go down in immortality, but at least he’s got a solid opening Act I.
Check out these gems:
* When asked at a Gator presser if he had been influenced by Evel Knievel because he was from Montana: “I learned not to ride motorcycles and not jump over cars.”
* Showing his displeasure about his offense after a narrow overtime victory over a two-win Florida Atlantic team: “When you guys go to a seafood market or to the grocery store, you see all those dead fish on ice? Stop by Winn-Dixie, go to the dead fish aisle and look at the fish’s eyes. … That’s the energy we are playing with right now. Now think about that visual. How excited are you to hang out with that dead fish?”
* McElwain on his NFL experience: “Some would say I didn’t coach in the NFL. I coached with Oakland.”
* A teacher a heart, McElwain sometimes will go old school. Delivering the weekly injury report before the Tennessee game, he asked a reporter, “Do you watch ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.’ re-runs? That might help you.”
* One day he decided to tell one of his black players about the importance of Olympic champion sprinter Jesse Owens. So he asked the player to Google it on his phone. “You know, it’s amazing you don’t have to go to Britannica encyclopedia anymore,” he said. “I would’ve had to go on my shelf and look at it and now we actually can (Google it). I said, ‘Give me your phone. Here, let me show you how it works.’ “
Yes, coach, and now the folks in Missoula County actually have color TV!
Pretty soon, the media will figure out that there really is no metaphor about spreading peanut butter neatly on the corner of his bread. And that the secret sauce is likely there in the “smooth.” Or that, despite his attempt to turn the image of Montana into Mayberry, McElwain didn’t arrive in Gainesville in his overalls, riding on a John Deere.
The Jim McElwain Show is only just getting started. I can’t wait for Act II.
(You can follow Buddy Martin on Twitter @buddyshow)
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