At a Monday press conference, Florida coach Jim McElwain suggested that he, his family, and other members of his program have faced death threats during the Gators’ disappointing 2017 season.
On Monday, a reporter had asked McElwain if his coaching staff deserved “some credit for hanging in there” during a difficult year. McElwain said credit in the coaching business was “internal,” then said this, which mentioned death threats:
I think it’s a pretty good kind of lesson for the way things are. There’s a lot of hate in this world and a lot of anger. And yet, it’s freedom to show it. The hard part is, obviously, when the threat’s against your own players, death threats to your families, you know, the ill will that’s brought upon out there. And yet, you know, I think it’s really one of those deals that really is a pretty good testament to what’s going on out there nationally. A lot of angry people. In this business, we’re the ones that you take the shots at. And that’s the way it is.
“Death threats?” a reporter asked McElwain.
He responded in the affirmative but declined to elaborate to the Gainesville press.
To another follow-up about “level of the vitriol” he’s seen, McElwain said, “You’re in the business. That’s all part of it. You get it. It’s when it’s directed toward your players, when it’s directed towards families, wives, you know, that kind of thing. And yet, at the same time, they know what they signed up for as well, and that’s part of the business.”
Florida’s response is where this story starts to get weird.
McElwain didn’t just not expand in public, though. He also didn’t expand in private, according to Florida. In an eye-catching statement Monday night, the Gators said the coach “offered no additional details” about threats facing him, his family, or other Gators.
Senior associate athletic director Steve McClain wrote (our emphasis added):
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.
If you’re facing death threats, mentioning them to a bunch of reporters and then declining to elaborate when approached by your employer seems pretty weird.
It also seems pretty weird that Florida decided to publicly clarify that McElwain didn’t expand at all about what would be felony crimes against him and people close to him.
It could be that Florida’s statement was worded in this way to make clear it had no additional information to report to law enforcement about threats made against students. But a typical statement would still reference supporting the coach’s family, implying this situation might not be typical.
McElwain was asked about what he said again a couple of days later.
He didn’t exactly clarify much.
“I think one of the things for those who know me and people that realize I’m a real passionate guy, there’s obviously letting, exactly what I tell our people not to do, is allow one or two misguided remarks get to you,” McElwain said via SEC Country. “The care I have and the passion for these players, this university and the fact that we have an unbelievable fan base. It’s great. There’s passion. When you go into that Swamp it’s something special and our guys feel it. Yeah, I do, I feel bad for sometimes being open and being honest. And yet at the time same time, you know, I’ve seen this movie, I understand it and if it gets to a point then we’ll go from there.”
Mac said will share details on threats 'when it becomes unmanageable.'— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) October 25, 2017
And late Wednesday evening, McElwain again explained himself.
“It’s exactly what I tell our guys not to do,” McElwain said. “Let something like that, you know, creep into the focus on what you’re here to do. Ultimately, you know, that’s really what it is.”
It’s worth considering exactly what McElwain said.
He didn’t explicitly say he or anyone else at UF had been threatened. He started his answer by talking about “this business,” by which he appeared to mean college football and coaching in particular. He returned to talking about “the business” later on.
Coaches face vile threats and other hateful speech sometimes. A recent example is racist mail sent to Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin in September. It’s possible that McElwain was speaking in generalities and not about any personal threats.
The exchange begins here:
Still, it’s an odd comment to make and then not expand upon.
McElwain deals with media members a lot. He should know how a comment like that’s going to be received, and the tone the reporter takes when pressing him certainly makes it sound like he’s talking about threats on Florida. McElwain didn’t refer to any ongoing investigations, though, and neither did UF’s statement later.
Actually, Florida’s statement didn’t mention anything other than a meeting and how important it is to keep Gators safe. Programs are usually fiercely protective of their head football coaches, who serve as ambassadors for the entire school, make boatloads of money, and run humongous revenue generators.
As Mike Bianchi writes in the Orlando Sentinel:
Question: Why would UF release such a strangely worded statement bringing into question the authenticity of the death threats? Why did UF feel the need to tack on those last five words … “He offered no additional details.”
Most official university statements would say something to the effect of, “The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. We are supporting Coach McElwain and his family in any way we can.”
Instead, UF’s statement said, “He offered no additional details.”
You would not be reading this column if not for those five words; those five suspicious words that make it sound like somebody is hiding something.
McElwain has brought up his family in the past to defend against public comments about him. He said in the summer that a brief saga about whether he’d humped a dead shark while naked “attacked my family.” It turned out McElwain had not.
Some will assume McElwain’s lying for sympathy. Some will assume he’s in grave danger and feel that sympathy in earnest. Some will just be confused.