Jim McElwain, Florida, and the art of culture

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In all enterprises, if one doesn’t define the culture one wants, one does not control the culture he gets.

“Culture” in sports and really, in anything, is a buzzword. It’s some all-encompassing catch-all when things go rotten: “Well, they don’t have the right culture” or the “cultural fit isn’t there.” It’s a fairly good way of diagnosing failure without knowing what’s actually going on but sounding like you do.

The reason it becomes so easy to use as the backbone of an argument is that culture is important. It will exist whether you create and define it or not, and it can be infectious to the point where it can carry your success or doom you to failure.

For Jim McElwain and the Florida Gator football team, the culture created has been immediate, bought into, and fruitful.

It’s difficult after five games to really say, “THIS … THIS is working out,” but at some point it’s worth realizing that something good is happening, and the payoff could be great a whole lot quicker than people would have assumed about three months ago.

Think about this juxtaposition: the Texas Longhorns job opens a year later than it did, and Charlie Strong is very possibly the first interview candidate at Florida, maybe to the point where he goes back there. Strong is a perfect example of how difficult it is to change “culture” at a place, whereas McElwain is a representative of how easy it can be.

Of course, to everyone on the outside, the relative ease of culture creation is tethered directly to wins and losses. Wins equal a good culture; losses mean no one’s buying in. Both of those statements are patently false, but both are viewed by most sports fans as gospel.

It is possible to have a crappy culture and win a lot. It’s also possible to have a great culture and lose plenty.

McElwain’s strength seems to be that he understands what he wants his culture to be and implements it. About three weeks ago, McElwain was being introduced to the casual fan as guy that gets really hot under the collar and screams at his players on the sidelines to the point where we were having all of these touchy-feely commentaries on whether or not yelling at players in that vein was acceptable or completely arcane.

McElwain never backed down, other than maybe in a private moment to his admittedly angry mother. He was showing that playing selfishly and committing silly penalties were not going to be accepted, and it didn’t matter if Dr. Phil was going to come down on his coaching methods.

Clearly, he believes in what he’s promoting, and he’s sticking to it, which is imperative if you’re going to have a culture that people respect and buy into. One cannot be cavalier in creating a personal vision and then changing it at the first hint of criticism.

The other thing McElwain has going for him is actual talent, especially on defense. A lot of times, the other lazy argument made to explain lack of success at a place is that “they just don’t recruit well.”

The truth is, Will Muschamp and staff recruited just fine. Once the talent was there, however, most glaringly on offense, the talent wasn’t being developed.

About two months ago, Florida was mostly overlooked from a national perspective because people figured the Gators had no answers at quarterback, a sure-fire way to get people to predict DOOM for you.

They were looking at platooning Will Grier and Treon Harris, and “insert your favorite cliche about having two quarterbacks” here.

Since then, though, McElwain, Doug Nussmeier, and the rest of the Gators’ staff have done what coaches routinely say they’re trying to do when they open the season with two quarterbacks who are set to get time while everyone mocks the idea: they let both guys play, and they let the on-field process dictate who the leader would become.

Sometimes, it’s a bit of a dust-up, as we see up north at Ohio State, where both guys are playing like they’re looking over their shoulders for the hook. In Florida, Grier obviously didn’t mind having to look over his shoulder or flatly didn’t care to, since he was focused on his task.

As a coach, you have to read those cues from your players and know how each guy ticks. McElwain keeps pushing all the right buttons, and so does his staff.

Nussmeier has been instrumental after a failed tour in Ann Arbor last season as Brady Hoke’s final attempt to rescue Michigan’s offense. The Florida offense looks like it’s getting better every week, and it’s night and day from last season around this time.

The truth of why Florida is winning, though, is because the talent is there and the buy-in has been quick and spectacular. You can see in the on-field product that McElwain and staff laid out a vision to their players, have stuck to it, and the players are respecting it. They’re feeling very comfortable in that environment.

Screaming on the sidelines at Kelvin Taylor probably said to the players, “This guy means business, and he doesn’t care who else sees it. He’s strong enough to stand up for what he’s selling us, critics be damned. Let’s go.”

The players have done the same.

Now comes the hard part, with everyone patting you on the back and telling you how great you are. Can the Gators stay focused and hungry enough, knowing the deed isn’t nearly done? Regardless of how the Muschamp era ended, players come to Florida expecting to compete for championships.

While this success is new, it was expected when their signed their letters of intent, no matter who is stalking the sideline.

Florida is rolling right now, but tough on and off-field tests await, above the neck and below. The next one is a visit to left-for-dead (again) Missouri, only the two-time defending SEC East champs, who with a win over the Gators, could put themselves back in the SEC title race.

McElwain and staff have swiftly created a culture that works at Florida. The next test: keeping it up while everyone else tries to knock it down.