Aside from the pressure surrounding a presumed revival of the football program, Florida coach Jim McElwain can’t walk around campus without being constantly reminded of enormous expectations and past success.
"I have to drive by three Heisman Trophy statues every day," McElwain says, his tone conveying daunted admiration. "I never guessed in a million years I would be at a place like this."
National championships, Heisman Trophies and future Hall of Fame coaches weren’t the norm for McElwain growing up.
There are no stadiums, let alone buildings, like Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in McElwain’s hometown of Missoula, Montana.
"You look out and you see that stadium, you think about all the great players, people (and)tradition that has been built at the University of Florida. That’s something that is so exciting," McElwain said at his introductory press conference. "I grew up in Montana. These are things you dream about.
Starting Saturday, when Florida opens its season in the Swamp against New Mexico State at 7:30 p.m. and the Gators run out of the tunnel, McElwain’s journey to leave his mark on UF’s football program will begin.
"What an honor," McElwain said, "to have the opportunity to be a part of something that’s real special."
• • •
It’s 1979, and a 17-year-old rising senior named James Frank McElwain can’t decide whether to focus his budding athletic talents on basketball or football.
So he chooses both.
He’s a natural athlete, and in a town of roughly 33,000 people, he becomes the starting quarterback and team captain at Sentinel High School.
Soon, it’s clear Jim’s future lies in football. But despite earning All-Montana quarterback honors, he receives minimal collegiate interest, with none coming from major NCAA programs.
Meanwhile, Dick Zornes is focused on developing the only football team he’s ever loved: the Eastern Washington Eagles.
"Dick did a great job of mentoring the assistants and teaching them a lot," said Dave Cook, the sports information director at Eastern Washington and a former player under McElwain in 1985.
The Eagles are in a state of transition — the athletic program was moving from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to compete in NCAA Division I-AA.
"Jim came over there with his dad looking for a place to go to school," Zornes said. "We gave him a partial scholarship. ...He kinda worked his way up to where he got to play a little bit, but then we got some better quarterbacks."
In his junior year, McElwain throws for just 70 yards on 6-for-12 passing. A pessimist would think he’s wasting his time, but Jim doesn’t look at it that way.
He’s learning the game, watching the coaches, and receiving crucial guidance from Zornes and the other coaches.
By the end of his junior season, McElwain is reconsidering his playing career but has no intention of giving up the sport.
As a senior, McElwain chooses to leave the team, effectively ending his playing career, and takes a job as a student assistant under Zornes.
"I knew Jim wanted to get into coaching, so we said ‘Jim, we don’t think you’re gonna play, if you wanna keep playing that’s fine,’" Zornes recalled. "‘But I only have three assistants, and I have a spot for you where you can coach at the wide receiver position.’"
McElwain would spend the next 12 seasons developing Eastern Washington’s quarterbacks and receivers while emerging as a coach.
"Nobody’s a natural coach," Zornes said. "They learn how to coach."
• • •
Rob Friese was there in the beginning, observing McElwain’s first season as a student assistant in 1983.
As a freshman at Eastern Washington, Friese admired Zornes, yet it was McElwain who would become not only his mentor, but also a friend for the rest of his life.
"He was at the tail-end of his playing career and I was at the start, so I knew him as more of a coach and a friend," Friese said.
He added McElwain has a way of communicating with people that makes them feel important, even if he’s meeting them for the first time.
"When he’s talking to you, you felt like you’re the only person in the room," Friese said, "and I think he still does that. His ability to communicate with people is a huge attribute for him."
Friese said whether it be on the field or off it, McElwain had an attention to detail.
"He was put in charge of the camp store for the camps Eastern Washington had in the summer, and he took me with him to go shopping at Costco," Friese said, "and he brought his calculator and would make sure he got every good deal. He had it down to a penny what they were going to make on everything they were selling."
Even as their careers have taken them in different directions, McElwain and Friese are still close. They talk on the phone when possible, and Friese said nothing has changed between them.
McElwain is still the personable yet firm Montana native who wants the best for others.
• • •
Like McElwain, Garrett Grayson grew up playing both basketball and football, but eventually realized he had a more promising career on the field.
He was right: Coming out of high school in 2011, Grayson was a three-star recruit according to Rivals.com and his dual quarterback abilities secured him scholarship offers from across the country.
He chose Colorado State over offers from other NCAA Division I programs, including Eastern Washington, and started three of the four games he played in as a true freshman.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, McElwain was coaching Alabama’s offense and helping develop first-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron.
With McCarron at the helm, the Crimson Tide were 11-1 and heading to the 2012 BCS National Championship game, where they’d eventually shut out LSU for the trophy.
But less than a month before the game, McElwain emerged as a leading candidate to become the next coach of the Colorado State Rams.
It was everything he had worked for his entire life and an offer too good to pass up.
So McElwain, with his wife Karen and their three children, packed up their house and moved back west, only this time to Fort Collins.
After 28 years and seven different coaching gigs, the son of James and Marjorie McElwain finally had his long-coveted head coaching gig.
And his first order of business, according to Grayson, was turning the Rams into "an actual team."
"He came in and told us we were very selfish players, we weren’t a team, just a bunch of cliques," Grayson said in an email. "That was something we all took to heart. We knew that.
"Once we opened our eyes to that, everybody started to get to know each other better. Once you get to know them as family, you get to trust them to do the right thing out on the field."
To Grayson, a third-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in the 2015 NFL Draft, this was McElwain’s way of showing he cared about them not just as a team, but individually as well.
"If we didn’t do it right the first time, we had to do it again, right then and there," Grayson said. "He wanted perfection out of everyone and expected it."
All coaches expect and hope for perfection, but McElwain was different from most: He could still remain calm under pressure while commanding respect and establishing expectations.
"He didn’t get on you as much, but still in the film room, weight room, classroom, whatever it was," Grayson said, "he still wanted absolute perfection out of you ... and he demanded it.
• • •
Jeremy Foley walked off a plane in Fort Collins, Colorado, in early December and was immediately greeted with a blast of icy wind.
It wasn’t the most desirable destination, but Foley was on a mission: He was searching for Florida’s new football coach.
He couldn’t make the same mistake he made when hiring Will Muschamp, a defensive-minded coach with no previous head coaching experience.
The Gators needed a coach who had led a program, a coach who understood the importance of developing an offense.
The name Jim McElwain stood out from the rest.
He fit the criteria: a former quarterback, experience coaching in the Southeastern Conference, and a proven winner as a head coach at Colorado State.
Foley said it was "very apparent" McElwain was the next coach for the Gators.
Mutual interest was immediately expressed, and Foley soon consulted UF’s legal department to figure out how to get McElwain out of his $7.5 million buyout at Colorado State.
Less than 48 hours later, the news was out: Florida had hired Jim McElwain as the latest head coach of its football team.
"We talked to a lot of people about Jim, what type of person is he, what type of person will he be inside the building," Foley said as he introduced McElwain as UF’s 25th head coach on Dec. 6.
"Every single box kept getting checked next to Jim’s name."
• • •
McElwain has been in Gainesville just nine months now, but the players he inherited have already noticed a change in culture, an increased sense of optimism and a more family-oriented atmosphere.
"I feel like all of the coaching staff has ... preached about family and they take that very serious," junior linebacker Daniel McMillian said. "I can honestly say these are my brothers."
The quarterbacks are excited about the possibility of a potent offense. McElwain has the team believing.
"The offense is just different from last year," sophomore quarterback Treon Harris said.
The Gators have gained respect for McElwain, not just because he’s their coach, but because of the way he treats them as individuals.
"He’s a guy who you would like to play for. When he talks, you listen," redshirt junior defensive lineman Bryan Cox, Jr. said.
"He knows how to bring everything together. Not just offense or just defense. We’re becoming more of a team now."
While McElwain expects perfection, he accepts human error. He understands he’s there to teach players, to help them develop.
"You don’t get any do-overs in life," McElwain said. "That’s been kind of what we’re trying to stress to them. We’ve got to do it right the first time.
"You have to constantly go because someone is getting better."
• • •
The two don’t spend as much time together as they’d like, but Friese knows McElwain couldn’t change even if he wanted to.
Rather than a football coach at a renowned university, McElwain is just his friend from Montana.
"I remember him coming down between jobs trying to make a decision whether to take the head coaching job at Colorado State, and he’d come down and just want to sit around a campfire for a weekend. I think that’s his comfort zone," Friese said.
"When we were cooking, he would go find the best piece of meat. We even had to go get apple branches because he said the smoke from apple branches makes the meat taste better."
The desire for perfection is why Jim McElwain has accomplished everything he has to this point.
It’s why Jeremy Foley flew to Fort Collins and immediately became enamored with a relatively unknown coach.
It’s why the Gators, yet to play a down of football this season, have a renewed sense of optimism.
Florida’s three Heisman Trophy winners didn’t settle for anything less than the best.
McElwain won’t either.
"Anytime you can be involved in men’s lives, help them understand what it is to be a success both on and off the field and the opportunity to help them move forward with their life," McElwain said, "that’s why we’re in this."
Follow Graham Hall on Twitter @Graham311