Colorado State simply the latest program to get the best of Florida

Pat Forde

The private jet landed in Fort Collins, Colo., on Tuesday afternoon, and everything from that point forward was supposed to be a formality.

The big-shot agent and the big-time athletic program were going to roll over the mid-major school. Florida had come for Colorado State coach Jim McElwain. Agent Jimmy Sexton had cleared the path. When the plane arrives, the deal is all but done.

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This was a classic power move, another manifestation of the Darwinian landscape in modern college sports. The strongest take what they want, and those down the food chain are expected to meekly submit.

Except CSU president Tony Frank wasn’t ready to be steamrolled. And now he has a $7 million agreement as a result of showing some bartering backbone.

Florida paid a hefty price to get Jim McElwain from Colorado State. (AP)
Florida paid a hefty price to get Jim McElwain from Colorado State. (AP)

After a confusing, embarrassing and expensive couple of days, Florida has its coach. This was a clumsy week for athletic director Jeremy Foley.

CSU had signed McElwain to a new contract just a few months ago, in June. Part of that contract was a whopping, $7.5 million buyout – a figure that at least in theory made poaching the rising star from the Mountain West Conference much more difficult.

Why would Sexton and McElwain sign a deal with that big of a buyout? The only explanation is arrogance. They never believed CSU would hold firm when the big boys came calling. In a college sports world where commitment is disposable and signed contracts are destined to be shredded, who really expected McElwain to stand by something he signed nearly six whole months ago?

Why would Florida officials believe the buyout was just another minor detail to be brushed aside in sewing up this deal? The only explanation is arrogance. They’re Florida, and CSU is CSU, and all negotiations are supposed to go the way the Floridas of the world want them to go.

Surely, Sexton had given the Gators every indication that this buyout would disappear, or at least be greatly reduced, in no time. Foley and his staff never would have gotten on the plane if they knew they were walking into an ambush of sorts.

But that’s the expectation among the powerful. Sexton, who has built a monster business by strong-arming much bigger schools than CSU into lavish contracts, clearly miscalculated. He’s leveraged interest in his clients (both real and manufactured) into sweetheart deals all over the South.

Then Jimmy Sexton’s renowned clout ran up against Tony Frank’s resolve, and the ensuing standoff was fascinating.

Eventually, the Florida jet left without McElwain. Negotiations dragged on for about 36 hours. In the end, Florida and Sexton and McElwain could get CSU to give in on only $500,000 of the $7.5 million.

The rest of it will be paid, over time, via a variety of sources. Florida will pay $3 million over six years, according to the Gators’ athletic website. McElwain will pay $2 million himself over an undisclosed period of time. And the two schools will play a game in Gainesville sometime between 2017-2020 with a $2 million guarantee that’s well in excess of what even the priciest guarantee games usually command.

Frank was spit-in-your-eye tough at the negotiating table. It earned him some seed money to put toward hiring the next guy.

“CSU athletics has benefited from the three-year association with Jim McElwain,” Frank said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “We wish him well, and are confident and we can recruit a coach who is committed to a sustained program of excellence at Colorado State over the long-term.”

Much is at stake for Florida AD Jeremy Foley. (AP)
Much is at stake for Florida AD Jeremy Foley. (AP)

It’s hard to find a long-term fit at places like CSU – harder now than ever, with the growing chasm between the power-five conferences hogging more of everything and the other five conferences shunted to the side. The school was fortunate to have Sonny Lubick for 15 seasons, from 1993-2007. Don’t expect that to happen again anytime soon.

In the current landscape, CSU generally is the kind of place that hires someone on the way up (like McElwain) or someone who proves to be in over his head (Steve Fairchild). It’s the kind of place that generally has a four-year window – coaches prove they can do the job and move on to something bigger, or prove they can’t do the job and get fired.

The best a school like that can do is hire a gem and then protect itself to the hilt in terms of buyout.

Colorado State did that. Florida tried to trample the Rams anyway, and wound up paying for its arrogance.

I believe the Gators hired a guy who can win in McElwain. He dramatically upgraded CSU and brings a Nick Saban-style organizational approach to Gainesville. Will Muschamp had some Saban in him as well – but McElwain has proven himself as a head coach, and he knows offense. Muschamp did not.

Will it work? I’d guess yes.

It has to. Jeremy Foley can’t afford another football whiff. He’s invested a lot of Florida’s money and all of his reputation in Jim McElwain.

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