The SEC coaching landscape is forever fluid, but few expected the Florida job to open this season.
Even fewer expected it to be the first in-season SEC coaching vacancy.
Jim McElwain is out as Gators coach, ending a bizarre and tension-filled period in Gainesville. Despite winning two SEC East division titles, McElwain was let go after his team dropped to 3-4 after?a 42-7 loss to rival Georgia. He went 22-12 (16-8) with the Gators.
Florida is back in the market for a coach for the third time since two-time national championship winner Urban Meyer moved on after the 2010 season. Where should Florida turn after the McElwain mess?
ESPN.com’s search firm is on the job. Senior staff writer Chris Low and staff writer Alex Scarborough, both of whom have years of experience covering the SEC, join me to break down the Florida job, what the school wants and who should be next to lead a program with three national titles since 1996.
Where the Florida job stands
Alex Scarborough: It’s a good location, and there’s a lot to like about it. But if you’re a coach looking at this job, you have to ask yourself what they want from it. McElwain’s won-loss record speaks for itself, so you have to wonder: Do they want a coach who will?win, or do they want a coach who will?play with style points? Some guys, I wonder how they’ll?respond to something like that. When you look at the footprint, the resources, there’s obviously a lot to like.
Chris Low: It’s still one of the best five to eight jobs in college football. Florida has made more of an investment, but are they totally committed to being one of the best programs in the country? The coaches’ offices are still in the stadium. Look around the country and the SEC. How many coaches are still working out of the stadium? Now, I know they’re building a new operations building, but Florida has always been behind the times when it comes to reinvesting in their football program. They sort of lived on the Steve Spurrier years, and then Urban Meyer had that great run, but they have not reinvested until recently. That’s probably a question a lot of people will have. Are they fully committed across campus to be a football power, the way Alabama is, the way Ohio State is?
Scarborough: Do you want to challenge yourself by being in the SEC and competing with a resurgent Georgia and always having the specter of Alabama? But on top of that, do you really want to go into Florida, where Florida State, with the exception of this year, has really had it rolling? Miami’s getting it going. There’s a lot of talent in that state, but there’s a lot of competition there.
Adam Rittenberg: They have to look a certain way at Florida. That’s what is unique about the Florida fan base, maybe unlike anywhere else in the SEC. They were in many ways spoiled by Spurrier; not just the winning but the exciting offense. And that continued with Meyer. Winning games clearly wasn’t enough with McElwain, who claimed titles in a down division and whose teams didn’t look a certain way. I wonder how much that plays into it, not just for coaching candidates but also for Florida. How much of that aesthetic is attached to this particular job?
Low: I’ve spoken to two Gator guys the past few years and the question is always: When will we?start looking like we used to offensively? That’s sort of interwoven in that fan base. They’ll?be entertaining; they’ll?score points; they’ll?be dynamic offensively. Whoever they get, they better know that you better win the way the Gators want you to win.
Scarborough: They want offense there, but it’s not just that Florida’s offense hasn’t been good. It’s been dreadful. It’s really a lack of creativity, a lack of playmakers, which doesn’t add up when you look at the talent they’ve had and the talent around them in recruiting. So yes, there’s an expectation that they score points, but they haven’t been good or average with McElwain and Will Muschamp. To say they have to get a coach who scores 40 points a game isn’t necessarily true. You just want a competent offense with a quarterback who can throw the ball downfield. I can understand the frustration from the fan base on that.
What Florida wants
Rittenberg: They had a defensive-oriented head coach [Muschamp], and the offense was dreadful. They had an offensive-oriented head coach [McElwain], and it hasn’t looked much better aside from those few games when Will Grier was at quarterback. So, is it 100 percent that the next guy should be an offense guy? I think so. But maybe there is some flexibility there with the candidate pool.
Scarborough: You don’t necessarily have to be a whiz offensively. But you have to show you can recruit and develop quarterbacks and recruit the offensive skill positions. It probably will come down to a former offensive play-caller. But more than anything, the quarterback position is what they’ll have to take a long, hard look at — a guy who not just has the scheme offensively, but can develop that position.
Rittenberg: The quarterback thing has reached an inexcusable level, so it’s important. Knowledge of that fan base and the landscape will help. It will be hard if you’ve never recruited in that area to go in and have success. You mention Florida State, but talking to coaches, they all point to Miami and the talent they’re bringing in. You’re in a state everybody recruits. Clemson recruits there, Georgia recruits there, Florida State and Miami. So it’s hard to go in cold.
Scarborough: They need to pull playmakers out of that state. We all know they’re there, and we know Florida has been lacking them.
Low: They need somebody who can assemble a staff that has relationships in that state and go in and recruit and get the premium talent. You’ve got to know people in that state, who to deal with them and how to deal with them.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen: He makes a lot of sense. He’s been at Florida as an offensive coordinator. He developed elite quarterbacks there, including a Heisman Trophy winner [Tim Tebow]. He knows the SEC. He’s overachieved to a degree at Mississippi State in a tougher division, so there are obvious connections, and he checks many of the boxes. — Rittenberg
He checks a lot of boxes except the “won big games” box. That’s the one knock Mullen has had on him. When the Bulldogs have been ranked and playing a quality ranked team, they’ve failed over and over and over again. We can talk about the disparity in talent, from Mississippi State to an Alabama or an Auburn, but that track record, as it’s built up through the years, has been an issue. And the recruiting aspect of this, Mullen is not a true recruiter. He does not get up for it like a lot of coaches do. If he can assemble a staff to supplement that, he could be fine. But that part of it, in a state that’s so competitive, is important. — Scarborough
UCF coach Scott Frost: He’s had tremendous success in his second year. He’s regarded by many as the top Group of 5 coaching candidate in this cycle. He’s in the state, so he has familiarity. His offense is different than what you see around most of the SEC. The only knock on him is they went the Group of 5 route with McElwain, so will you?do that again? But Scott is a pretty interesting name. — Rittenberg
I really like the idea of calling him and seeing what he has to say about how he would approach the job. I know Florida will want a guy heavy on experience, but Frost is a guy you can build long-term with and see what he can do. Maybe [Georgia coach] Kirby Smart being young influences them. He had even less experience when he walked into Georgia. I wonder if that weighs on them at all. It’s easy to go for a guy with eight, 10, 12 years of experience. But if you get a younger guy and build from the foundation, it can be something special. Frost really fits that. — Scarborough
Frost is a natural. He’s already in that state. He worked in a great offense at Oregon. He would be on my list as well. — Low
Former Oregon and NFL coach Chip Kelly: Because he brings that excitement level on offense, if you hire Kelly, you’ll immediately excite that fan base. And they might not worry as much about the pieces, because he’s always had this exciting offense, even when they had good but not across-the-board elite talent at Oregon. What he does is so different than what you see around the SEC. He would immediately get the Gator fans juiced up. — Rittenberg
Memphis coach Mike Norvell: His offense is a hot commodity right now, and he’s done a great job at Memphis. He should definitely be on their list. — Low
TCU coach Gary Patterson: If Patterson’s ever going to leave, it will be for a job like this, a Georgia, a Florida. He’s proved he can coach, and he’s a great developer of talent. — Low
He’s an example of a guy who has not necessarily made his name on offense but has shown the ability to oversee quality offenses and keep his hands out of it. — Scarborough
Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops: I’d at least call him and make sure he wants to stay retired because he would be a check-every-box guy. He said he’s done, and I believe him, but it’s Florida and it’s potentially a lot of money. You see if he really wants to stay retired. — Scarborough
I think Stoops is done coaching, but it’s worth a call. — Low
USF coach Charlie Strong: Because of Strong’s contacts and ties in that state, he would be one to talk to. He knows all the high school coaches, and he recruits his rear end off. Nobody knows that state as well as he does. He’d clean up with the Florida brand recruiting. He would need to surround himself with a great offensive mind. — Low
Oregon coach Willie Taggart: I know he just left for Oregon, but he’s a Florida guy. He had success at USF. He recruited a great quarterback in Quinton Flowers. Maybe he wants to get back home. He’s doing a pretty nice job with the Ducks and has an offensive background. — Rittenberg
I think after one year, when you’re getting it rolling there, you can see what you can build there. In the Pac-12, you can deal with a little less heat than if he walked into Gainesville. They’ll?expect him to walk in there, win and score points right away. — Scarborough
The Search Firm recommends: UCF coach Scott Frost
There are flashier options like Chip Kelly or pie-in-the-sky ones like Bob Stoops, but Frost makes the most sense for what Florida needs right now. He’s a proven offensive coach with a dynamic scheme that few are running in the region. Frost also has evolved the scheme from his time at Oregon and would attract the playmakers, specifically the quarterbacks, that Florida desperately needs. The Gators could go with an older, more seasoned coach like Mullen, but Frost is a rising star who could get this program back to national prominence. And he would entertain a fan base that cares about how Florida looks when it wins. The firm thinks the time is right for Florida to make a strong push for Frost and bring him to Gainesville.
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