Updated on Monday at 11:13 a.m.
For the third time in his tenure at the helm of the Florida Gators‘ University Athletic Association, athletic director Jeremy Foley will be tasked with hiring a new head football coach, this after dismissing Will Muschamp (27-20, 17-15 SEC) on Sunday.
A Gators program that has reached lows not previously seen since the late 1970s is in need of a major boost, and Foley will be searching for a coach to get Florida back to its position of dominance in the state, Southeastern Conference and nation.
What characteristics will Foley likely be looking for as he makes this hire? Head coaching experience, for one; UF’s most successful football hires have held the position before, albeit at less-prestigious schools. Foley will also want a “name” coach, one that excites boosters, fans and the recruiting base as the Gators look to make up major ground following consecutive seasons of mediocrity. Lastly, Foley may desire an offensive-minded coach, though one that is balanced and successful will certainly do.
Here are 15+ coaches who could be leading the Florida football program in 2015.
Head coach, TCU
Hire him: Patterson, 54, has spent the last 17 years leading the Horned Frogs, serving as defensive coordinator from 1998-2000 and head coach from 2001-present. He has been at the helm of the program as it has progressed into its fourth conference this century but has found a way consistently recruit well and dominate his competition despite being the third- or fourth-most distinguished school in his state. Patterson’s streaks of success have been significant. He went 21-4 from 2002-03 in Conference USA, 22-3 from 2005-06 in the Mountain West and 47-5 during his final four seasons in the MWC (2008-2011), leading TCU to back-to-back BCS bowls (2009-10). After spending two years getting adjusted to the Big 12, Patterson’s Horned Frogs are presently 9-1 and one of the top four teams in the College Football Playoff. He has proven coaching talent and ability to lead a program but has yet to have the opportunity to do so at a major institution.
Hold up: A Kansas State alumnus, many believe Patterson would like to return to his alma mater once Bill Snyder, 75, decides to retire. Past that, Patterson is very much a defensive-minded coach, though he has understood the importance of offense and TCU’s attack is currently ranked fifth nationally, scoring 45.9 points per game in 2014.
Head coach, Oklahoma
Hire him: The top name that comes up when the Gators have a vacancy, Stoops has ties to the program as a former defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier. Since leaving Florida in 1998, Stoops has been head coach at Oklahoma, a position he’s held for 16 seasons and is in no danger of losing. Stoops has racked up a 167-52 record at OU with double-digit wins in 12 seasons; he also has eight Big 12 titles and one national championship, though that was won in 2000. The Sooners have been back to the title game thrice since (2003-04, 2008).
Hold up: Stoops has already turned down Foley on at least one occasion for the opportunity to return to the Gators. His Oklahoma teams are infamous for failing to meet expectations and falling short in big games. Stoops also already has the Sooners program being run his way without the need to teach new systems, recruit his type of players or hire an entire staff. There is also a long-held belief that Stoops would only leave Oklahoma to take a shot at coaching in the NFL, a scenario that could potentially remain in the back of his mind even if he does get offered and accept the Florida job. Also: “All I want to be is a candidate at Oklahoma,” he said Monday. I’m not a candidate anywhere else. I’m finished with that question.”
Head coach, Philadelphia Eagles
Hire him: Salivating yet? Kelly is the ideal hire for the Gators. He’s relatively young (50), extremely innovative and an offensive-minded coach who has done nothing but succeed as a leader in the locker room. Consider this: in six seasons at Oregon (2009-12) and Philadelphia (2013-14), Kelly’s overall record is 63-15, and eight of those losses are at the NFL level where he is coaching for the first time in his career. Kelly never won a national title with the Ducks but is still seen as a better fit for the college game despite his success with the Eagles. He could turn Florida around in a jiffy, and his return to the college ranks would be lauded as a huge coup for Foley and the Gators. Oh, and that show-cause penalty he got while at Oregon? It expires at the end of this season.
Hold up: There are no reservations about Kelly in particular. In fact, the only issues are that he is already leading one of the NFL’s premier franchise and being paid like it, to the tune of $6.5 million per season. Florida could match the take-home pay of that salary by offering Kelly $6 million per year (no state income tax), but the Gators would likely have to go higher and truly shell out the big bucks. Nick Saban is being paid $6.9 million per season; Florida might have to go to $7 million for Kelly. It’s a lot of money but the reward would be high if he actually decided to make the move back to college.
Head coach, Auburn
Hire him: The hottest name in coaching over the last few seasons, Malzahn was a high school head coach as recently as 2005 but has since exploded onto the scene due to his bright offensive mind and ability to lead a program. He went from Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006 to holding the same position at Tulsa (2007-08) and then Auburn (2009-11) before making the tough decision to leave the Tigers for a head coaching gig at Arkansas State. When Gene Chizik was fired, Auburn knew exactly who to call; Malzahn returned and shocked the world by leading the Tigers to a 12-2 record and national title game appearance in his first season with the program in 2013.
Hold up: Auburn’s offense is still explosive but the team has come back down to Earth in 2014 with a 7-3 record and all of those losses coming in AU’s last five games. The Tigers also have major issues on defense, so Foley would have to require Malzahn to hire a supremely talented coordinator to man that side of the ball. All of this, of course, is assuming Malzahn would leave Auburn for Florida. The pros? The Tigers are a second-tier SEC team historically and fighting it out with Alabama (and LSU and others) every season for the SEC West crown is not ideal. The cons? Malzahn is said to be extremely loyal. His family is comfortable at Auburn and despite the program being a second-class citizen in his own state, it is still one of the best in the country. It is more likely that Malzahn hires Muschamp as his defensive coordinator than him leaving the Tigers for the Gators.
Head coach, Arizona State
Hire him: You know who is just as successful in the state of Arizona right now with less baggage than Rodriguez? Graham may only have a 75-40 heading coaching record, but the Texas native is seen as an up-and-coming coach who is making major headway in his third season leading the Sun Devils. While at Tulsa, Graham led the Golden Hurricane to three conference titles. He also went 10-4 at ASU in 2013 and has Arizona State (at 8-2) on pace for another 10-win season, depending on the outcome of its regular-season finale at Arizona and bowl game. He has coached and recruited well at multiple stops and even had the presence of mind to hire Malzahn (as his offensive coordinator at Tulsa) and Mike Norvell (at ASU, who UF apparently tried to poach last offseason).
Hold up: Like others on this list, Graham is a defensive coach first, but his teams’ offensive successes cannot be understated. The biggest black eye on Graham is that he’s a notorious job-hopper as he left Pittsburgh in the lurch following a 6-6 season in 2012 when Arizona State came calling. He has also departed other jobs suddenly and without warning. ESPN.com‘s Marc Schlabach referred to Graham as the “King of Liars,” and numerous Panthers players spoke out in anger following Graham’s departure. Though he was more revered by his players upon leaving, Meyer also had a similar bugaboo attached to him after he went from job to job before landing at Florida.
Head coach, Arizona
Hire him: A dynamic offensive mind who has shown the ability to recruit the state of Florida well throughout his career as a head coach, Rodriguez is having major success in his second season with the Wildcats. Arizona has defeated Pac-12 kingpin Oregon in each of the last two seasons and is currently 8-2 after consecutive 8-5 seasons following his taking over of the program in 2012. Rodriguez led West Virginia to a 32-5 record, with two BCS bowl appearances, in his final three seasons at the school and is itching for the opportunity to take over another top-tier institution and put his talent to the test.
Hold up: Between his stops at WVU and Arizona, Rodriguez failed mightily at Michigan, going 15-22 in three seasons before being canned by the Wolverines. Rodriguez also committed five “major [NCAA] rules violations” for practicing his players more than is allowed. Florida does not look kindly upon rules-violators and props up its compliance as one of the best in the nation following the dismissal of Galen Hall back in 1989, so the concept of bringing Rodriguez on board would likely give Foley major pause. Rodriguez’s falling out with Michigan was about much more than the on-field product, and the last thing UF wants is someone to come in and ruffle feathers among administrators.
Head coach, Ole Miss
Hire him: Freeze is winning…at Ole Miss. Freeze is recruiting…at Ole Miss. Freeze is in just his third head coaching job…at Ole Miss. Though there is not an abundance of high-level success, Freeze, 45, is personable and energetic and seen by many as one of the brightest young coaches in the game. Following the Malzahn model of first succeeding as a high school coach, Freeze took over as a position coach at Ole Miss (2005-07) before accepting his first head coaching job at Lambuth (2008-09), where he went 12-1 in his second season. Freeze joined Arkansas State as an offensive coordinator (2010) before taking over the program in 2011 and leading it to a 10-2 record. That’s when he was hired by the Rebels. After a couple of mediocre seasons, a tremendous 2013 recruiting class (top-five nationally, which is unheard of in Oxford) has helped Freeze and Ole Miss achieve an 8-2 record in the tough-as-nails SEC West this season. He’s offensive-minded, has experience running a program and can obviously recruit, except…
Hold up: …questions have been raised about Freeze’s recruiting methods, though all accusations are completely unsubstantiated at this time. Also, though Southern Mississippi is his alma mater, Freeze was born and raised in Oxford. He is currently the head coach of his hometown team, which is playing well, being built under his vision and competes in the best conference (and division) in all of college football. He has little reason to leave the Rebels outside of pure ambition to lead one of the top programs in the country, though sometimes that is enough for a coach to make a tough decision.
Head coach, Colorado State
Hire him: Bringing on Saban’s former defensive coordinator at LSU did not work, so what about his former offensive coordinator at Alabama? McElwain spent three years under Saban at UA from 2008-11, directing a Crimson Tide offense that won back-to-back national titles and upset the Gators in the 2009 SEC Championship. He has quickly built up a Colorado State team that was at the bottom of the Mountain West when he took over in 2012 into a 9-1 program that is in contention for the Group of 5 bid in a major bowl game. McElwain also has NFL experience, spending the 2006 season as a quarterbacks coach in Oakland.
Hold up: A native of Montana who has no ties to the state of Florida, McElwain would not a “sexy” hire, at least not to the groups that the Gators are looking to satisfy. Though he has experience coaching at Alabama and leading his own program at Colorado State, he is not the “sure thing” that Foley may be looking for with this hire. McElwain also has a $7.5 million buyout at CSU, which may be somewhat of a deterrent for UF. There are workarounds for buyouts, however, so it should not count out McElwain by any means.
Head coach, Marshall
Hire him: A tremendous recruiter who served as Florida’s assistant head coach and safeties coach under Meyer from 2005-07, Holliday was expected to be named the next head coach of West Virginia in 2008 when Rodriguez left WVU for Michigan. Instead, the former Mountaineers linebacker was offered a lateral position at his alma mater and decided to leave Florida anyway. Holliday took over as head coach at Marshall in 2010; after spending three years building the program, Holliday’s Herd went 10-4 in 2013 and is currently 10-0, one of only two still-undefeated FBS teams nationally.
Hold up: Like McElwain, Holliday does not have a sparkling resume with limited head coaching experience and all of it at a lower-tier program.
Hire him: Like Stoops, Shanahan has been offered the Florida job before and turned it down. Like Stoops, Shanahan has a connection to the Gators as Florida’s offensive coordinator from 1980-83. Unlike Stoops, Shanahan is currently unemployed and at 62 could have another decade of coaching left. He also has a pedigree with 18 years served as an NFL head coach and two Super Bowl titles (plus another as an offensive coordinator) to show for it. Shanahan is friends with Foley and was even around the Gators’ program this past offseason as he spoke to the team.
Hold up: Shanahan has not coached in either of the last two seasons and has only worked in four of the last eight years (Washington, 2010-13). He has never been a college head coach and was last employed by a university in 1983. Even if Shanahan wants to return to coaching, what kind of commitment would he have to doing all of the smaller, annoying things that come with a college job, such as recruiting, meeting with boosters, participating in speaking engagements and the like? Does he have the patience to develop players just out of high school? Would he want to move back to Gainesville after spending the last 30 years of his life in major cities? There are more questions than answers when it comes to Shanahan, but his connection to the program and Foley cannot be ignored.
Hire him: Schiano was believed to be on Foley’s short list, behind Muschamp, as he looked to replace Meyer during the 2010 season. Ultimately, Foley got Muschamp and Schiano remained at Rutgers in 2011 before moving on to the NFL and Tampa Bay in 2012. While with the Scarlet Knights, Schiano led the program to unprecedented success (11-2 in 2006) and was seen as a top talent, which is why he got the opportunity to jump to the professional ranks a few years later. A defensive coordinator at Miami for two seasons (1999-2000), Schiano also had plenty of success recruiting the state of Florida, a trait he took with him when he got the Rutgers job and could reclaim with the Gators.
Hold up: During his final five seasons at the state university of New Jersey, Schiano compiled just a 38-26 record. His next two seasons with the Buccaneers, Schiano went 11-21. He is known to be bristly and hot-tempered, and his defensive-minded approach is exactly what Florida is looking to go away from with this hire. Schaino may have been a candidate for the Gators a few years ago, but it would be a surprise if he’s the answer this time around.
Head coach, Duke
Hire him: Though Cutcliffe has never had an opportunity at a top coaching job, he’s certainly flashed at his two stops. He led Ole Miss for six seasons, posting a 10-3 record in 2003 and only left the program one year later when the Rebels demanded he fire his entire staff following a 4-7 finish. He refused. It also took Cutcliffe a while to turn around Duke, but he did in 2013 and is now 18-6 over his last two seasons at a former bottom-feeder in the ACC. He has the offensive chops and head coaching experience but has never had an opportunity to recruit in a hotbed and take over a team like Florida that is already filled with talent. Plus, his friend and former offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is already in Gainesville.
Hold up: No one knocked down Cutcliffe’s door after Duke’s great 2013 campaign, and he is no spring chicken. The 60-year-old Alabama native also turned down an opportunity to take over the Tennessee program in 2010 and has made a commitment to the Blue Devils even as he earns a paltry $1.5 million per season (considering his success). The Gators are not the Vols, however, and if Florida has interest, Cutcliffe may be able to be swayed.
Head coach, Mississippi State
The skinny: Mullen is undoubtedly having success leading the Bulldogs in 2014, but he was 36-28 overall before this season and was 2-21 against top 25 opponents with 15-straight losses to such teams entering 2014. Foley’s disagreements with other coaches are overblown, but he and Mullen did not get along during the latter’s tenure as the Gators’ offensive coordinator under Meyer. Mullen has a relatively good thing going at Mississippi State and is in line for both a raise and increased job security. He is not a serious candidate for the job despite the easy direct line drawn between him and Florida because of his previous position with the team.
Head coach, Oklahoma State
The skinny: He’s a man. He’s forty…seven. He’s also brought the Cowboys to unprecedented success with a combined 23-3 record in 2010-11 with a BCS bowl appearance in the latter season. Gundy has shown an ability to recruit and put together explosive offenses, and his 10 years of head coaching experience are nothing to sneeze at. However, Gundy is an Oklahoma native currently coaching his alma mater. Oklahoma State’s largest booster – T. Boone Pickens – believes in Gundy and will match any salary offered. Gundy flirted with Tennessee and a move to the SEC but ultimately stayed put. There’s also the allegations of serious NCAA violations purported by Sports Illustrated just one year ago. The Cowboys have not been found to have conducted themselves in appropriately by the NCAA but the amount of smoke may be too much for the Gators.
Head coach, Kentucky
The skinny: Stoops was an inspired hire for the Wildcats, and his addition is playing dividends for a program that has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the beasts of the SEC. Stoops is recruiting well and has Kentucky bought in that it can develop and sustain a thriving football program, but it has not happened yet. The Wildcats were 2-10 under Stoops in a throw-out 2013 season but are just 5-6 in 2014 with five-straight losses including three blowouts to LSU (41-3), Georgia (63-31) and Tennessee (50-16). Kentucky played Florida hard in a loss, as well as both South Carolina (45-38 win) and Mississippi State (45-31 loss), but the returns on Stoops are not there yet to determine whether or not he would be a good fit for a team in need of a sure thing.
OTHER NAMES / COORDINATOR POSSIBILITIES
Ruffin McNeill, head coach, East Carolina
Mark Hudspeth, head coach, Louisiana-Lafayette
Justin Fuente, head coach, Memphis
Matt Wells, head coach, Utah State
Head coaching experience should be paramount to Foley’s hire but here are some hot coordinators that could also be considered to replace Muschamp
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama
DOUBTFUL AT BEST
Steve Spurrier, head coach, South Carolina: For all the reasons Spurrier could be convinced to take the Florida job, click here. On Sunday, he said he would not be making the move. “I have already had my run at Florida,” he said. “They need to hire a coach that hopefully will be there 10 years. Spurrier’s right, but you never, ever know with the Head Ball Coach.
Art Briles, head coach, Baylor: The Texas native and Texas Tech alumnus has never played or coached anywhere but in Texas. He has Baylor rolling along and is getting paid nearly $4.2 million per season. Why leave?
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks: Though he succeeded under Muschamp, Quinn has always been an NFL coach. He was a candidate – and the preferred hire – for the Cleveland job last season but was unable to interview due to him taking Seattle to the Super Bowl. He has no head coaching experience and should get that opportunity on a professional level.
Charlie Strong, head coach, Texas: There are a lot of schools you leave for an opportunity to coach at Florida; Texas is not one of them. Strong was passed over by the Gators on two separate occasions and though calling it “bad blood” is vastly overstated, there is some unhappiness there. It’s just not going to happen.
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers: Harbaugh and the 49ers are expected to part ways after this season, and he is a candidate to return to college…but he’s also a candidate to take another NFL job. Miami Dolphins owner and Michigan alumnus Stephen Ross is enthralled with Harbaugh and would push him to either job (though neither is open at this time).
Kliff Kingsbury, head coach, Texas Tech: Fans like Kingsbury because he’s young (35) and they feel he shares some qualities with Meyer. The truth is that Kingsbury is nowhere near as whole of a coach as Meyer, and his Red Raiders are currently 3-7 after going 8-5 during his first season at the helm of the program. Plus, he is a former Texas Tech quarterback from New Braunfels who is making $3.1 million per season in his home state.
Dana Holgorsen, head coach, West Virginia: A long-time friend of Brady Ackerman (who was actually hired by Holgorsen when he took the WVU job before deciding to remain in Gainesville), Hologorsen is lauded for the offenses he led as a coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. When the Mountaineers hired him and they were playing in the Big East, Holgorsen looked like a genius with a 10-3 record and Orange Bowl berth. Since then? WVU is 17-18 while playing in the Big 12.
Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator, Alabama: LOL