GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Just as he was the last time he met with reporters a week ago, with Hurricane Irma looming, Florida coach Jim McElwain was subdued Wednesday in the aftermath of the devastating storm. Somber, as some put it.
It came through in his voice on the SEC coaches teleconference, and again on his face when he arrived later to the stadium press box.
“Probably the concern for the people, the families of our players that are my responsibility,” McElwain said when asked about his mood. “I mean, it is what it is, and yet you can’t just say it didn’t happen.”
He noted that more than 60 of Florida’s players had families impacted by Irma. He did not mention that any incurred significant damage to their homes.
“You know, we’ve reached out. There are some that have been obviously displaced. But as of right now, everything’s good,” he said.
The players weathered the storm, which hit Gainesville as a Category 1 hurricane late Sunday and into Monday. They were in their dorms and apartments as coaches checked in and kept the communication flowing between players and coaches, coaches and families, players and families, etc.
Some players’ parents came to campus and stayed with their sons, McElwain said.
“We had plans for guys in areas that we knew were safe. Obviously the majority that are in the dorms were in the best place because those are set for this,” he said. “We had guys join them, and we also had some extra rooms there. We made sure that the places that they were, if they weren’t with family, we had a lot of families that came up as well and that was good. That was a good thing.
“Some were in the guy’s houses and/or apartments. Some were in the hotel. You know, we knew exactly where everybody was. We had immediate contact from everybody. I think we got the last location check about 8:30 that next morning [Monday].”
Cornerback Duke Dawson, from Cross City, Fla., toward the gulf side of the state, and wide receiver Josh Hammond, from Hallandale in South Florida, both said Wednesday that their families still didn’t have power at their homes but were otherwise OK.
“Everybody [from] South Florida, [their] families got hit. I know some people from South Florida families came up here and they stayed in our team hotel since the game got canceled,” Hammond said. “We had some families stay there. Since the rooms were already booked [for the team], we gave them to them. But everybody’s families came out pretty fine. Besides power going out, I think everybody’s families are pretty much fine.”
Linebacker David Reese, who is from Michigan and did not have family in the path of the storm, said he could sense the concern from many of his teammates. But he and fellow players Hammond, Marcell Harris and Antonio Riles stayed loose, playing board games such as Trouble to pass the time.
Defensive tackle Khairi Clark, from Hollywood, Fla., said he mostly caught up on sleep and passed the time watching TV and listening to music. He noted the coaching staff’s active involvement in making sure everybody was taken care of throughout the process.
“The coaching staff was there 100 percent, man. They even had us come in and get snacks and everything that we needed. And they also provided us with their place to come stay at if we needed it, just in case,” he said.
Now the focus shifts back toward football.
The Gators practiced Friday and Saturday and returned to the field on Tuesday after the storm had passed. Regarding preparations for No. 24 Florida’s SEC opener with No. 23 Tennessee, McElwain said “cramming it in is probably a good way to put it.”
His demeanor and mood conveyed the struggle of jumping right back into preparations for a key conference game after spending days worrying and taking precautions against the much weightier stakes of the hurricane.
While Florida is back in action Saturday, other football programs around the state won’t be. Florida State and Miami pushed back their game in Tallahassee to Oct. 7. Florida International cancelled its game at Indiana. UCF cancelled its game with Georgia Tech. And Florida Atlantic got a delayed departure home after playing at Wisconsin last weekend, but is expected to go forward with its contest against Bethune-Cookman in Boca Raton.
As he focused forward, McElwain also seemed intent on remaining respectful for the areas that were hit far harder than Gainesville, which dealt with power loss, downed tree limbs and flooding in parts of town.
According to the latest Associated Press report, Irma is blamed for a combined 19 deaths in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, with the aftermath of the power outages and damage potentially contributing to more fatalities.
After these last several days, with the families of his players and coaches spread throughout the state, McElwain’s mood Wednesday was that of many people who made it through the storm.
One of perspective.
“Obviously our opportunity to play the ballgame this weekend is something our guys are looking forward to, and yet, you know, it’s one of those things that sometimes you’ve got to sit back and put into perspective,” he said. “I don’t think you can ever say that we’re going to get back to normal because through this storm that hit us here the last week, there is no normal. I know playing this game, our campus officials, our administration, city administrators, people in the government, felt like this can be a go and we’re going to make it happen.
“I hope that it gives the people of the state of Florida, this area, just a couple hours of something to take their mind off as they recover from what they’ve gone through. … So I know our guys are excited to play. And hopefully play with a little bit of passion and desire for the people of the state of Florida.”
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