With Jim McElwain on his way out, the next step for athletic director Scott Stricklin is to find a replacement who is better.
Who might that be? Here’s my short list, in order of who I would place phone calls to from first to last:
1/1a: Chip Kelly (formerly Oregon)
Pros: Think about it: Chip Kelly’s rapid-fire machine gun offense at work in the SEC being run by the top recruits from the talent rich Sunshine State. He guided Oregon to four straight BCS Bowls in his four years in Eugene, and earned a pair of top two finishes with the Ducks in four years. He is one of the few proven winners at the highest level in college football, and is exactly the kind of upper decker home run Florida should be pursuing first. Also, since he isn’t currently coaching, Florida gets to completely bypass the ugly stage of negotiating how much of his buyout at his current school they’d have to pay and skip right to the part where they find out how much he’d cost.
Cons: A popular reason fans against hiring him point to is that he led Oregon to NCAA violations, but then it came out that he had virtually nothing to do with them anyway. The main thing I’d be worried about is him bolting to the NFL, but if he seems serious enough about Florida, a little fancy penmanship in his contract could be engineered to prevent or at least severely discourage that. There have also been knocks against his ability to recruit, although something tells me that his name plus the Gator logo plus on field results will be more than enough for his program to recruit itself.
Verdict: The chances of Kelly taking the Florida job are between slim to none. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the phone call to find out. If he isn’t interested, so be it; then you hang up the phone and try your next guy. But this should absolutely be the first call Scott Stricklin makes.
2/1b: Dan Mullen (Mississippi State)
Pros: Mullen has taken the Maroon and White as far as he possibly can. Now it’s time for him to take the step up to the top, and what better place for him to do so than at Florida, where he served as offensive coordinator from 2005-2008 and won a pair of national championships? He’s a great recruiter and that should only be enhanced by his name and the school he would represent. And he and Stricklin get along great. This is an equally strong hire as Kelly, albeit for different reasons. The biggest difference? He- like the rest of the guys on this list- figure to be set up camp in Gainesville and spend the rest of their careers here if they’re successful enough.
Cons: Maybe it’s an effect of being at an also-ran program for too long, but Mullen has never quite broken through and had that championship caliber season. The closest he came was guiding the Bulldogs to a #1 CFP ranking in November in 2014, but that ended with a loss to Alabama and then back to back double digit beat downs by rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl and then Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. In every other season, his Bulldogs lost four games or more. If nothing else, that’s cause to pump the brakes before proceeding.
Verdict: Although he wasn’t directly hired by Stricklin at Mississippi State, Stricklin had a hand in his hiring and after he took over as AD in 2010, persuaded him to stay as long as he did despite other, bigger programs beckoning. The only reason I didn’t list him first is because of the sheer allure Kelly brings. But Kelly would be a pleasant surprise (read: pleasant absolute shock), and this is Stricklin’s guy. With all factors taken into consideration, he is my pick to be the next head coach at Florida.
3: Scott Frost (Central Florida)
Pros: A Chip Kelly disciple, Frost has UCF, traditionally the fifth or sixth best school in the Sunshine State, ranked in the top 20 and in serious contention for a New Year’s six bowl in his second year. His first year was a 6-7 campaign that ended with a loss in the Cure Bowl… but that was after he took over a program that was 0-12 the previous season and scored a grand total of 167 points in doing so. Two years later, his Knights have scored fewer points than only Arizona and Ohio State… despite playing one game fewer than most other schools in the country due to Hurricane Irma. Conversely, his team’s 51 points a game leads the nation by several light years. Frost has experience with recruiting the state, too, and has built great relationships with high school coaches across the Sunshine State. Simply put, the job he’s done in his first year and a half has been outstanding.
Cons: Frost’s heart may be with Nebraska, where he played and served as a grad assistant. And with the Cornhuskers’ struggles, they may be reaching out to him. Also, his sample size is way too small to be the first guy Stricklin looks at. He may ultimately wind up being a great head coach, but with a resume that’s eerily similar to McElwain’s, Stricklin may want to explore other options first.
Verdict: Frost isn’t the upper decker home run Florida should be looking at first, but he’s a clean line drive four rows into the bleachers. His upside is promising, and he may ultimately be a fantastic coach at the highest level, but he’s too risky to be the Gators’ first choice. Pencil him in as a strong backup plan.
4: Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech, formerly Memphis)
Record: 43-28 (combined)
Pros: Fuente first gained notoriety as a hot young commodity by guiding the Memphis Tigers to a stunning upset win over 13th ranked and eventual Sugar Bowl champs Ole Miss to highlight a 9-3 season while simultaneously developing Paxton Lynch into a star. Since taking over at Virginia Tech, he’s quietly overseen an offense that’s averaged 445 yards a game in his first year and is on pace to duplicate that number through eight games this year. And given the additional recruiting perks that come with recruiting for a school like Florida for a man who’s known as a very good, but not elite recruiter, I have little doubt that he could engineer a turnaround at Florida similarly quickly.
Cons: Similar to Campbell and Frost, his sample size at his current school is too small to be absolutely certain that he can translate his success into success at Florida. He did enjoy a big first year in 2016 that saw him lead VT to the ACC Championship Game before turning the Hokies into a CFP contender this year, but that first year also included Butch Jones making a fool out of him in Bristol. And no, that last part shouldn’t dissuade you from hiring him by itself, but it can’t completely be ignored, either.
Verdict: Fuente is going to be difficult to pry away from what he’s building at a Power Five school so soon- perhaps to such an extent that he’d come at a price that Florida would never even think to offer. But it’s at least worth gauging his interest.
5: Matt Campbell (Iowa State, formerly Toledo)
Record: 44-26 (combined)
Pros: Some of y’all may remember this guy for guiding the Toledo team that gave Florida a panic attack in its 2013 season opener. Campbell has taken the traditional steps up the ladder that are needed to be considered for a job like Florida: a strong stint at Toledo guided him to Iowa State, where he suffered an ugly 3-9 campaign last season to begin his tenure before turning the Cyclones into a dark horse contender to snatch a New Year’s Six bowl berth this year. And of course, no summary of his time at Iowa State can be complete without mentioning that he became the first coach to guide a team, any team, to multiple wins over AP top five ranked teams since Urban Meyer did it in his first year at Florida with seismic upsets over Oklahoma and now Texas Christian. He’s wrung the most wins anybody possibly can out of the first two programs he’s been at, so just imagine what it would be like if he did the same in Gainesville.
Cons: Same as Frost’s con: is Campbell a one trick pony at Iowa State this year, or would the Cyclones replicate this year’s success if he stayed a few more seasons? The fact that we don’t know this makes Campbell a high-risk, high reward candidate. Tack that onto the fact that he’s not from the SEC, his buyout at Iowa State is just shy of $10 million, he isn’t hailed as a great recruiter, and that he’s still got a losing record at Iowa State (9-11), and it’s easy to see why there’s cause for pause.
Verdict: He may ultimately be great, but he’s too big of a gamble to be the first call. Florida should be first going after the moderate-risk, high reward guys first. Put him in the same “clean line drive four rows into the bleachers” category as Frost.
6: Chris Petersen (Washington, formerly Boise State)
Record: 126-27 (combined)
Pros: Petersen, like Kelly, is a proven winner at the highest level. Unlike Kelly, he doesn’t have any intentions of leaping to the NFL- at least not that we know about. He guided a Washington program to the playoffs last year and has them in solid contention to make it back there again this year. Before that, he singlehandedly lifted Boise State off the ground and turned them into one of the most intriguing programs in the country. He’s won everywhere he’s been, but he’s never been at a place with the resources, tradition and potential to succeed as Florida, so it’s worth at least finding out if he’s interested in taking the chance.
Cons: Petersen has precisely zero experience in the SEC, or at any top-tier program for that matter, dating back to his days as a wide receivers coach at Cal-Davis, to Pittsburgh, to Portland State, to Oregon, to Boise State and finally to Washington. He’s a west coast guy through and through. He may adjust to life in the SEC seamlessly, or it could be a major problem for him. Point is, that’s a gigantic question mark. And like Fuente, he figures to command an obscene amount of money.
Verdict: Petersen is the last member of the “potential home run hire” pool that’s even somewhat realistic- that means forget about Steve Spurrier, Bob Stoops or James Franklin- though he figures to be the most difficult to lure away from his current school other than Petersen and likely the most expensive, and that’s why he’s listed below the other five. But before the Gators take a step down from the A level hires down to the B’s, they should at least give Petersen a ring.
7: Mike Norvell (Memphis)
Pros: Norvell has done a solid job at Memphis the last two seasons, not just in the win/loss department but in the stat sheet as well. Under Norvell’s stewardship, the Tigers gained a healthy 464 yards a game last year before averaging an even half a thousand through the first eight games of 2017. And even though a loss to Scott Frost’s Knights knocked his team out of New Year’s Six contention for the time being, he could still easily finish with double digit wins for just the second time in Memphis history.
Cons: Norvell’s biggest career accomplishment has come in large part due to riding the success that Fuente built. His success as a coordinator at Arizona State is impressive, but he has never really enjoyed any success that he can fully claim to be his own. And when Florida has elected to pursue coaches with that knock on their profiles in the past, it hasn’t ended well. See the tenures of Ron Zook and Will Muschamp.
Verdict: Norvell is a clear step down from all the rest on this list, not because he doesn’t bring the same home run capability as the rest, but because the risk of hiring a guy with an extremely limited amount of head coaching experience is simply too great to take. Florida can do worse, but Florida can do better.