For the second time in his tenure at the helm of the Florida Gators, athletic director Jeremy Foley will be tasked with hiring a new head basketball coach, this after Billy Donovan left for the NBA after a successful 19-year run with the program.
Under Donovan, the Gators won two national titles and a bevy of league crowns, reaching new heights never thought possible for Florida basketball. Foley will be searching for a coach to help Donovan’s legacy endure and keep the Gators running as a prominent national program.
What characteristics will Foley likely be looking for as he makes this hire? Head coaching experience, for one. Most of UF’s successful hires under Foley have held their respective positions before, albeit at less-prestigious programs. Foley may also be looking for youth in order to replicate the Donovan model and bring on an up-and-coming young talent that can remain with the program for the long haul if all works out.
“Like we have with other recent searches, we will have an internal working group that will identify candidates to be our next head coach,” Foley said. “I don’t intend to put a timeline on our hire, but we will work hard to have the right person in place over the coming weeks.”
Here are 11 coaches who could be leading the Florida basketball program in 2015-16.
Head coach, Dayton
Hire him: When it comes to a “no brainer” hire, Miller is the man. Young (36), experienced (four seasons as a head coach) and successful (back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances at Dayton, Elite Eight berth in 2013-14), he checks all the boxes and then some. Miller is a career college coach who worked his way up the ranks, returning to his alma mater (NC State) as an assistant alongside his brother Sean Miller before breaking out on his own for two years at Ohio State only to reunite as an assistant under his sibling at Arizona.
The uber-successful Sean Miller has kept Arizona afloat as a prominent program while Archie Miller has proven to be his brother’s equal, bringing major success to a Dayton team that had not reached the Sweet 16 since 1984. The Millers have the potential to be basketball’s version of the Harbaughs, and Florida has an opportunity to pluck one out of the Atlantic 10 into the SEC, a league suddenly filled with talented coaches.
Hold up: It may not be so easy to pry Archie Miller away from Dayton. The Flyers basketball program, according to The Wall Street Journal, ranks 23rd nationally in valuation ($83.7 million) and adjusted revenues ($16.6 million), placing it 15 spots ahead of the Gators, which come in 38th at $50.2 million and $15.2 million, respectively. While program value may not mean that much to Miller, Dayton recently made a commitment to him with a contract extension through the 2021-22 season (terms not disclosed).
Miller has already recruited his own players with the Flyers and is watching the program rise to prominence as one of six teams with five or more NCAA Tournament wins in the last two seasons. Dayton is also in the middle of numerous facility upgrades (as is Florida). In other words, while the Gators may be a step up for Miller in competition, he may be looking for one of the more highly sought after jobs in the nation. Plus, replacing a program-changer like Donovan is a tough burden to bear for anyone.
Assistant coach, Florida
Hire him: Pelphrey is a known quantity. A longtime Donovan assistant who was not part of either Gators title team, Pelphrey has spent 10 total seasons in Gainesville under Donovan. His success at his first head coaching stop, South Alabama, is unquestioned as he took a sub-.500 program and turned it into one that went 44-19 over his final two seasons. Pelphrey subsequently got hired at Arkansas and went 23-12 in his first season with the Razorbacks; things fell apart in Fayetteville but most believe he ultimately got the short end of the stick and was not put in a position by the athletic department to succeed. Promoting Pelphrey would allow the Florida basketball program to roll along with the least interruption possible as Pelphrey has been on the current version of Donovan’s staff since 2011 and helped recruit nearly every prospect either on the roster or signed with the Gators.
Hold up: While Pelphrey and Donovan have both held that Arkansas did not give the former enough time to turn around the Razorbacks basketball program, he was given four years at the school with records of 23-12, 14-16, 14-18 and 18-13. The Razorbacks have steadily improved since Pelphrey left, though many attribute that to his recruiting and setting the stage for the program’s success. Nevertheless, hiring Pelphrey would be less of a stop-gap move than hiring, say, Anthony Grant, and it would be a safe, comfortable maneuver for Foley. With Florida forced to hire a coach so late in the offseason, it might be Foley’s best bet. He could always make another move in a year or two if it did not work out.
Head coach, Minnesota
Hire him: A Donovan – and yes, Rick Pitino – protégé, the 32-year-old son of the coaching legend has put together an impressive resume. With five years of combined experience as an assistant under his father and Donovan (at Florida), Richard Pitino took over FIU from Isiah Thomas in 2012-13 and immediately saw success in his first year as a head coach. He jumped to Minnesota and led the Golden Gophers to a 25-13 record in 2013-14, a campaign capped by winning the 2014 NIT Championship. He has coaching knowledge, experience and pedigree, and Pitino would return to Gainesville without shaking up the program too much.
Hold up: His early success as a coach notwithstanding, Pitino’s Minnesota team regressed to 18-15 this past season. The once red-hot coaching candidate cooled off a bit, though there were teams inquiring as to his availability this offseason. Perhaps most concerning about Pitino is his plan for the future. Does he want to succeed his 62-year-old father – and will he have the opportunity to do so – at Louisville, potentially ending his tenure at his next stop after five years or so? Does he want to try and find glory where his father failed in the NBA? There are probably more questions than answers with the younger Pitino at this time, though that should not discount him as a legitimate candidate for the position.
Head coach, Villanova
Hire him: A Pennsylvania native coaching the state’s flagship basketball program, Wright would seem like an odd choice to move down to Florida, but he has long been a favorite of Foley. Wright, who has taken Villanova to the NCAA Tournament 10 times in 14 seasons (four Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, one Final Four), has also won five regular-season and three tournament league crowns with the Wildcats. He is 315-151 for his career, which includes seven seasons at Hofstra, and 62-8 over the last two campaigns, both of which ended early in the Round of 32 portion of the NCAA Tournament. Wright may be interested in a change of scenery as Villanova has been unable to advance to the Final Four since 2008-09.
Hold up: Wright is a solid coach and revered in the industry; plus, his style is on point. Nevertheless, his inability to take Villanova to the Promised Land remains a concern, especially considering he’s won 88.6 percent of his games over the last two campaigns but struggled to get out of the third round. Wright earns $2.78 million at Villanova yet turned down an opportunity to leave college and join the Philadelphia 76ers for “a lot more money,” in his own words. Foley could offer Wright $4 million in an income tax-free state, but it will likely take more than that to get him to move on from the favorite team of his childhood, the Wildcats. “I don’t want to leave Villanova. I just love my job so much,” he said during a 2014 interview with Seth Davis.
Head coach, Xavier
Hire him: Though the Musketeers have been a small-school success for quite a while now, it is not by accident, especially when you consider that Skip Prosser, Sean Miller and Thad Matta have led the program in succession this century. The current hot-shot coach leading Xavier is Mack, who has led the team to a 134-71 record and five NCAA Tournament appearances (three Sweet 16 berths) in six seasons. Mack has overseen the Musketeers’ transition from the Atlantic 10 to the new Big East with the program not losing a step along the way.
Hold up: The 45-year-old Mack is not the young gun that Foley may be looking for to replace Donovan but there is no questioning his ability. That said, Mack is also entrenched at Xavier, serving the school as director of basketball operations, an assistant coach and the head coach. He has signed two contract extensions in as many offseasons and is the highest-paid coach in school history. Mack is so beloved by the school and its boosters that the largest donation ever made in program history endowed the head coaching position with Mack being named the Selder Family Men’s Head Basketball Coach. Good luck prying him away.
Hire him: A Florida native who spent four seasons at Jacksonville State only to return to his alma mater as an assistant with Ole Miss (2004-11), White had the requisite experience and success to earn his first head coaching job at Louisiana Tech. Since taking over the program in 2011, he has gone 101-40 with his .716 winning percentage the highest in program history through 100 games. The Bulldogs have not lost a home game since Dec. 2013 and have won three straight conference titles (one Western Athletic, two Conference USA) with as many NIT berths. At 38, he is one of the brightest young coaches in college basketball and has already turned down offers from more prestigious programs to stay at Louisiana Tech. His six-year, $3.6 million contract extension with the Bulldogs is also not a deterrent, making him easy to pluck from a monetary perspective.
Hold up: Florida, by all accounts, tried and failed to hire a coach with Ole Miss ties when Hugh Freeze turned away the Gators during their search for a new head football coach. White has already turned down Tennessee and was believed to be a candidate for the Alabama opening that went to Avery Johnson. White has yet to be tested at the major-conference level and has never taken a team to the NCAA Tournament. He is more ceiling than accomplishment at this point, though that ceiling is certainly a high one if industry experts are to be believed.
Assistant coach, Florida
Hire him: Conventional wisdom suggests that Grant, hired less than two weeks ago to fill the vacancy on Donovan’s Gators staff, will follow him to the NBA as an assistant. Should he not choose that route, he is an intriguing candidate for the job. Foley was on a plane to visit Grant and woo him to Florida during the 2007 offseason when Donovan did an about-face on taking the Orlando Magic job and returned to the Gators. Grant, set to begin his second year with VCU, was a promising coach who led the Rams to a 28-7 record and NCAA Tournament appearance. Like promoting Pelphrey, moving Grant up to the top job would allow Florida basketball to make an easy transition, especially considering the Gators would be left hanging in the wind after so many coaches have already made moves this offseason.
Hold up: Despite Grant’s proliferation of wins at VCU (76-25, two NCAA Tournament appearances), he failed to replicate that success after being handed the reins at Alabama. The Crimson Tide only made the dance once under Grant (2011-12) and posted at least 12 losses in all six of his seasons with the program (117-85 overall record). Donovan – on more than one occasion – has propped up Grant explaining to anyone who will listen that the failures at Bama were not solely his fault. Promoting Grant would either speak to Foley making a stop-gap move or playing it completely safe, falling back on his last truly vetted candidate. UF may actually be in need of a fresh start and Grant is coming off of failure at Bama. Plus, he’s probably following Donovan to Oklahoma City.
Head coach, Wichita State
Hire him: Florida is allowed to dream, right? Plus, is a coaching candidates list for a major job even allowed to exist without Marshall on it? If Miller would earn Foley high praise, Marshall would get the Gators’ AD carried around on the shoulders of the Rowdy Reptiles. It can be argued that Marshall is the nation’s best coach at this very moment, and he has likely been the top candidate for every open job in the nation over the last two offseasons. Foley would have to make an epic pitch to get Marshall to leave his comfort zone at Wichita State, but man, what a coup that would be. As it turns out, Marshall has followed Donovan before, holding an assistant job at Marshall (1996-98) after Donovan left to take the UF post.
Hold up: Marshall has turned away suitor after suitor over the last two seasons, from programs either more prestigious than Florida or offering more money than the Gators likely would … or both. He just recently turned down a full-court press by Alabama and signed a contract extension with the Shockers. At 52, he loves leading the dominant program in the Missouri Valley and has little reason to uproot his life from Wichita to Gainesville.
Hire him: With a 104-29 record in four seasons at Murray State, Prohm has proven that he can coach and recruit with the best of them. He has already turned down Mississippi State and was supposedly a candidate at Tennessee, and Prohm even recently signed an extension … but that does not mean the 40-year-old is tied to the Racers for good. He is a candidate that a lot of programs have on their short list going forward, whether Florida is one of those programs remains to be seen.
Hold up: Prohm’s success notwithstanding, the two-time Ohio Valley Coach of the Year is a candidate with no experience coaching the top levels of college basketball. Murray State has not returned to the NCAA Tournament since earning its second-ever win at the event in 2011-12, though the Racers did finish 29-6 and 16-0 in-conference this past season. There are likely higher-ceiling candidates with more experience and better resumes applying for the job, but Prohm would certainly be an interesting choice.
Head coach, Stephen F. Austin
Hire him: What has Underwood done in his only two seasons as a college head coach? Amassed a 61-8 (.884) record with one loss in Southland Conference play (35-1), won two league titles, earned its Coach of the Year honor twice and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in back seasons. Underwood also has major-college experience, serving under Frank Martin at Kansas State (his alma mater) and South Carolina. Many believe Bruce Weber is not for long at KSU and Underwood has long been seen as his successor if not already poached by another major program.
Hold up: At age 51, Underwood is no spring chicken. His coaching resume is also interesting in its lack of upward progression for nearly two decades. Underwood began as head coach at Dodge City Community College (1988-92) and served as an assistant at Western Illinois for more than a decade (1992-2003) before going back to the community college ranks for three seasons at Daytona Beach. Only then did Martin, a Florida native, add Underwood to his Kansas State staff and give him a shot at developing into a top-level coach. Whether Donovan will go after someone of Underwood’s age with such a traveled road remains to be seen, though he did make a very similar move for his head football coach in hiring Jim McElwain. The difference? McElwain had a championship pedigree as an assistant under Nick Saban and a decade of experience under John L. Smith, too.
Head coach, Northern Iowa
Hire him: Spending his entire career in North Dakota and Iowa, Jacobson has proven to be a bright, relatively-young basketball mind. The 44-year-old has led Northern Iowa to unprecedented success, including two 30+ win seasons and three NCAA Tournament appearances in the last seven seasons. The Panthers were the premier underdog in the 2015 NCAA Tournament despite being ranked in the top 10 nationally entering the event. He is being paid less than $1 million per season at Northern Iowa and is ripe for the taking if Foley sees a bright future for an under-the-radar yet exceedingly successful candidate.
Hold up: Not that it is much of a deterrent for a program like the Gators, but Jacobson recently signed a 10-year contract extension at an average of $900,000 per year with the Panthers … with a $4.5 million buyout. He may be comfortable in his surroundings and not looking for a change, but Florida would be an attractive destination despite the high expectations one would encounter following in Donovan’s shoes. Nevertheless, Foley is not going to pay another extraordinarily large buyout.
Recent hires at other programs who would likely find it tough to leave
Shaka Smart | Head coach, Texas: Long believed to be Donovan’s successor at Florida, Smart turned down more than a half dozen opportunities to leave VCU before finally relenting and taking the gig with the Longhorns. Smart, 38, would have been an ideal fit for the Gators but chose not to wait around and see if Donovan would actually leave this time around. Foley has been known to pull rabbits out of his hat before, so Smart cannot be completely off a potential candidate list, but Foley is also not one to try and scorch the Earth with other programs even when they give him reason to do so. It should certainly be tough for Florida fans to stomach that two former Gators assistants in Smart and Charlie Strong are leading Texas’ top two programs.
Bobby Hurley | Head coach, Arizona State: Seen as one of college basketball’s smartest young (in terms of experience) coaches, Hurley went 42-20 at Buffalo in his first head coaching gig. He was targeted by DePaul but snatched up by ASU this offseason, though the Gators may be able to make a play to pry him away from the Sun Devils with a rich offer. Nevertheless, Hurley is likely staying put at Arizona State, another candidate casualty of Donovan leaving Florida so late in the offseason.
Buzz Williams | Head coach, Virginia Tech: Sure, Williams has already spent a season with the Hokies, but he still makes this portion of the list for having shocked college basketball by moving on from Marquette to Virginia Tech in the first place. Where Florida may have somewhat of an edge if it chooses to recruit Williams is that he was brought down to the reality of the ACC when his 2014-15 VGT squad went 11-22 (2-16 ACC). Williams won 66.8 percent of his games at Marquette, taking the Golden Eagles to five straight NCAA Tournaments with berths to the Sweet 16 (twice) and Elite Eight in consecutive seasons. Taking the Gators job would likely label Williams as a job hopper, a none-too-attractive connotation for coaches to hold.
Will Wade | Head coach, VCU A young up-and-comer whose experience is limited to six years as an assistant and two as a head coach, Wade was hired away from Chatanooga by VCU this offseason (the Mocs brought on Florida assistant Matt McCall to replace Wade). A former VCU assistant, Wade returning to the program was not much of a surprise; he was a favorite of former coach Shaka Smart and proved to be a basketball mind worth keeping tabs on. Wade, 32, led Chatanooga to the best record in school history (22-10, 15-3 Southern) last season, earning the league’s Coach of the Year honor. Prying a coach away from a brand new job is always difficult, but Florida could make it happen if it is truly interested in starting young and handing the program over to a new regime. Though the connections with Smart (another former Gators assistant) are there, Wade is relatively inexperienced and would likely be a better candidate coming off a season or two of seasoning at VCU.