I feel for (recently fired Florida Gators head football coach) Jim McElwain, I really do. Probably because I can somewhat relate.
I've met McElwain a couple of times; his sister Janie Haight was a terrific part of our athletic department staff while I was athletic director at the University of Montana. McElwain grew up in Missoula and spent the first 37 years of his life in the state or a chip shot away in Spokane, Washington. It's where he formulated his values and his personality. I know he would later take his outstanding coaching career to Louisville, Alabama and Colorado State, but at the core he'll always be a Big Sky guy.
News flash: Gainesville, Florida, is about as far from that as you can get. And I'm not talking about the distance on a map. Having moved from Tallahassee to Missoula in 1995, I feel qualified to attest to the differences.
Now I'm going to get myself in trouble. Down here (Florida) everyone cares about what kind of car we drive, what neighborhood our house is in (and, by damn, it needs to be gated) and what private school our kids attend. Where Jim McElwain grew up, nobody could give 2 cents about that stuff.
Reports are that people down here just didn't understand McElwain. Stories in the papers today describe him as an "outsider," a "loner" with few friends. When your soul is formed under snow-capped mountains, next to magnificent rivers and abundant wilderness, it just takes a while to adjust to a place where it seems everyone is always chasing something. A place where college football reduces grown men to irrational nincompoops most of the time, unless of course their team goes undefeated and wins the National Championship, which they all believe should happen every year. And this is not specific to the University of Florida by any means.
When the Hogans moved from Florida to Montana, it took at least three years — maybe more — to fully become accustomed to this new and different philosophy. More importantly, it took at least that long for most Montanans to accept us as one of their own. Although we were there for nine years, I suppose a few never fully embraced us interlopers. Even after six or seven years there, people would ask us: "How do you guys like living here?"
The point here is, intertwining Jim McElwain's world with Gator Nation was going to take some time on both sides. The poor guy hasn't even gotten the prerequisite three years required for the transformation. Things down here just move way too fast and become far too cut-throat — especially over 18-year-old kids making a play or two on Saturday afternoons.
The big hullabaloo after UF's blowout loss to Georgia last weekend was that McElwain was seen holding hands with his wife and smiling while leaving the field at the end of the game. How could that be, Gator zealots and the media wanted to know. If they only knew the world in which Jim McElwain grew up, they wouldn't have to ask.
There's a classic line in the book by Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It": "The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.”
I suppose that's why McElwain was smiling yesterday. He'll be just fine.