Who’s next? 12+ candidates to replace Florida Gators football coach Jim McElwain

By Adam Silverstein
October 29, 2017
Who’s next? 12+ candidates to replace Florida Gators football coach Jim McElwain

Image Credit: ESPN Images

For the third time in the last eight offseasons, the Florida Gators will be seeking a new head football coach. Following in the footsteps of Will Muschamp is Jim McElwain, who was fired seven games into his third season.

With McElwain’s ouster, athletic director Scott Stricklin will be making his first coaching hire at Florida — and the first football coach hire of his career as a lead administrator. With the Gators in complete flux, this is a massive moment in the history of Florida football.

OnlyGators.com takes a look at 11 legitimate candidates for the open job and five others whose names you will see thrown around but are unlikely to be true contenders.

Top candidates

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach

Hire him: The Gators need someone to come in and finally develop quarterbacks again, and Mullen has certainly proven he can do that in stops at Utah, Florida and Mississippi State. The former UF offensive coordinator has also proven to be a solid talent evaluator and appears able to fill out a staff rather nicely. He has won 9+ games in three of his last seven seasons at MSU and appears poised to be headed for that win mark again in 2017. Mullen has likely maximized his ability to succeed with the Bulldogs given the constant adversity faced within his division and recruiting primarily in the state of Mississippi.

Hold up: Mullen already makes nearly $5 million annually. While he’s seen legitimate success at Mississippi State, it has not truly been sustained. Though he faces immense competition in the division, he’s only finished second once (2014) and has lost four games every other season at the helm of MSU. Plus, there were previously not-so-great feelings between Mullen and the Florida administration, though those may have subsided with a new athletic director in charge.

Summary: Not only does Mullen know what he would be getting into coaching Florida, he has a good relationship with Stricklin, his former AD at Mississippi State. One would believe any fences that need mending could be fixed, and Mullen would have an opportunity to lead a top-tier program in the Gators. He knows what it takes to win both in the SEC and nationally. He understands the inherit pressures that come with the job. And while the totality of his tenure may not be guaranteed, he would most certainly bring offensive success back to Gainesville.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech head coach

Hire him: Fuente has been nothing but successful as a head coach. He flipped Memphis from 3-9 in 2013 to 10-3 in 2014 and has since amassed a 36-11 record in his last two years at Memphis and first two as Virginia Tech’s coach. The 41-year-old Oklahoma native and former quarterback is offensive minded and a proven program builder. He laid the foundation for the Tigers’ current success and has the Hokies in position to contend for both the ACC title and potential national titles in years to come.

Hold up: Fuente has not really been coaching that long, only serving as a head coach for 5+ seasons. It’s actually difficult to find reasons to exclude Fuente as a candidate other than his limited experience and the fact that he’s still new at a legitimate program that gets plenty of national attention and has a passionate fan base.

Summary: If Florida zeroes in on Fuente, it may be difficult to pry him from Virginia Tech. There’s no question that the Gators offer a better overall job than the Hokies, but VT already pays Fuente $3.2 million and would likely be willing to up that amount to match whatever Florida offers. If UF were to truly make a play for him, it would have to think of him as a sure thing and a primary target, leaving him no reason to turn it down. Fuente may be the only legitimate “home-run hire” out there right now.

Scott Frost, UCF head coach

Hire him: Less than two hours away in Orlando, the Gators have seen up close exactly what Frost can do. It is UCF — not UF or even Florida State — that is the best team in Florida this season, and it’s not even close. Frost turned UCF around from winless in George O’Leary’s last season to 6-7 in 2016 and now 7-0 in 2017. He has coached under Frank Solich and Chip Kelly, bringing Kelly’s offensive style to Orlando in his first head coaching gig, and was coached by Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden as a player.

Hold up: The former Nebraska starting quarterback and NFL safety did not just play for the Cornhuskers, he’s from Wood River, Nebraska. And with Mike Riley likely on his way out, a return home may be the most attractive destination for him, especially considering Nebraska is desperate to return to relevance and will likely do whatever it can to bring back one of its sons.

Summary: Frost is a more attractive candidate than Norvell but similarly inexperienced in terms of program building and handling pressure situations. There would also be a big risk for the Gators going with him as their leading candidate, though pulling him away from the Cornhuskers may not be that tall of a task in the end. Remember, Urban Meyer turned down Notre Dame to coach at Florida. Frost’s ability to win big at UF is drastically greater than it would be at Nebraska.

Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach

Hire him: The 41-year-old former Western Kentucky quarterback out of Bradenton, Florida, is a local product who took a his winless alma mater to the following win totals from 2010-12 (2, 7, 7). Then, he took over a South Florida program in the dumps following the departure of Jim Leavitt to the following win totals from 2013-16 (2, 4, 8, 10). And this year at his new stop, Oregon has five wins through nine games despite playing its third-string quarterback, one year after going 4-8. The Ducks also have the No. 6-ranked class in the nation entering 2018 with four Florida prospects planning to travel across the country to play for Taggart.

Hold up: Despite all of his success, Taggart went through two controversies at the start of his Oregon career, including one in which his strength and conditioning coach – who followed him from USF and only had a certification from a track and field association — was suspended after football players were hospitalized following workouts. That is a massive question mark for a position tasked with — above all else — protecting young men. But perhaps that can be explained out in the interview process.

Summary: Taggart was left off our initial candidates list because he just took the Oregon job a year ago, and it was believed he would have an extreme buyout that Florida would not be able to match. In fact, it is not actually that punitive at all. The Gators need to hire the strongest recruiter possible for this position, and Taggart certainly fits that bill. Mix that with a tremendous on-field acumen for offense and a guy who is absolutely beloved by his players, and Taggart may wind up being one of the most attractive options out there for UF.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach

Hire him: Arguably the hottest name in coaching right now, Campbell is in his second year at ISU and in the midst of turning around the Cyclones, which are already 6-2 after ending last season 3-9. Campbell previously spent five years at Toledo — going 18-6 his last two years — and most of his young career coaching in the state of Ohio.

Hold up: Though Campbell has impressed with four relatively dominant Big 12 wins, he’s got a long way to go with four more talented teams on the schedule. In other words, 6-2 could quickly turn into 6-6, and the shine Campbell brings may wear off rather fast.

Summary: Campbell is the flavor of the month right now and appears to be one of the top options for Florida as he’s equally capable of coaching both sides of the ball and has proven in two stops that he is able to truly turn around a program. But in hiring their next coach, the Gators may want someone with more experience — particularly in pressure environments. For all of Campbell’s accomplishments he’s only coached two years in the Big 12 and has not faced great adversity yet.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach

Hire him: This may not be the Stoops you were expecting, but it’s the one who is a reasonable option. Coming off successful stints as defensive coordinator at Arizona and Florida State, Stoops took over at Kentucky in 2013 and has seen the team progressively improve in each of his five seasons. Only eight games into 2017, the Wildcats are one win away from matching their 2016 total and may well end the season as a 9-3 team. One way or another, he is not long for Kentucky.

Hold up: Stoops is not the offensive mind that Florida fans want, though with the Gators’ defense in the dumps, perhaps they would be willing to accept a defensive-minded coach who focuses on quality offense. Hiring away from a division rival always proves to be difficult, and it is fair to say that Stoops is not the sexiest name on this list.

Summary: The track record is probably not proven enough to jump aboard the Stoops train, but Florida could certainly do worse. Stoops has made Kentucky into a respectable team. He also has experience recruiting the state of Florida and certainly knows about the SEC and the pressures that come with it.

Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach

Hire him: Norvell is only in his second year coaching Memphis, but he’s 15-6 overall and has the Tigers at 7-1 and flirting with a league title in 2017. He spent most of his career coaching under Todd Grantham and spent the four years prior to joining Memphis — replacing Fuente — as offensive coordinator at Arizona State. There is no question he knows how to identify talent, coordinate offense and call plays.

Hold up: The questions stand with his ability to build a program (he has not done it) and ensure top-notch defense is played (Memphis is one of the worst teams in the nation on that side of the ball this season). Norvell may be the most-talked about name during the coaching cycle as it pertains to UF, but the Texas native has never recruited the state and may not be the best fit for Florida. With Texas A&M and Arkansas both potentially opening, there may be better fits.

Summary: There’s a lot of hype surrounding Norvell but little has been proven about his ability at this time. Florida really needs to hit a home run with this hire, and Norvell stands as a legitimate risk despite his offensive acumen. Fans would get excited to see points scored at will in The Swamp … but not so much when they realize it might come on both sides of the ball.

Other candidates to know

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State head coach

Breakdown: Just like last time Florida had an opening, Gundy’s name has surfaced. And just like last time his name surfaced, Gundy leaving the Pokes for the Gators is an unlikely scenario. The Oklahoma native is finally comfortable in his own skin at OSU, and relations with top booster T. Boone Pickens have reportedly been smoothed over. Oklahoma State is still in contention for the College Football Playoff and is on pace for its sixth season of double-digit wins in the last eight. With Bob Stoops retired at OU, Gundy is the elder statesman of the Big 12 (aside from Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, of course) and now has a window to succeed in a major way for the Pokes.

Charlie Strong, South Florida head coach

Breakdown: One can make a legitimate argument that Florida should have hired Strong back in 2011, after going 7-6 at Louisville in his lone season since leaving UF, but the Gators instead chose another top-tier defensive mind in Muschamp. Strong went 23-3 his final two seasons with Louisville and parlayed that record into the Texas job, but he floundered in the Lone Star State with a 16-21 record in three seasons. In taking over for Willie Taggart, he looks to have USF rolling, but it may take more than one good season for Strong to get another Power Five job. Granted, his comfort level at Florida is way behind what it was in Texas, but the risk may be too great.

Chad Morris, SMU head coach

Breakdown: The long-time Texas high school coach and Texas A&M alumnus made a name for himself as Clemson’s offensive coordinator and has done a good job turning around SMU, which went from 2-10 in his first season to 6-2 this year. Like Frost, who may want to return to Nebraska, Morris likely wants to stay in Texas where he has deep recruiting roots. Plus, that TAMU job may well open up. There are better candidates with similar experience as Morris for Florida to go after.

Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach

Breakdown: Purdue has slowed down after its hot start, but there’s no question Brohm has brought a different attitude to the Boilermakers. After going 22-5 in his last two seasons at Western Kentucky, the long-time assistant and former Louisville, NFL and XFL quarterback took the Purdue job as a method of getting into the Power Five. It would be a stunningly quick rise for him to go from the Boilermakers to the Gators in just one season but stranger things have happened.

Dino Babers, Syracuse head coach

Breakdown: Babers is a tremendous coach who has a knack for two-year turnarounds. He went 10-3 at Eastern Illinois and 10-3 at Bowling Green; Syracuse is presently 4-4 and will surpass its win total from 2016 with one more victory. The long-time assistant from Hawaii is a long-shot for this job. Though it’s clear he’s a hell of a coach, at 56, Babers would the the oldest coach hired in program history. UF just went the pure experience direction with McElwain, and it did not work.

Not-so-real candidates

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach: The ideal pie-in-the-sky hire for Florida, Stoops has made it clear that he is legitimately retired and did not leave OU simply seeking another opportunity. Yes, should Stoops wish to return, he would have his choice of college program and could even get some NFL offers. The former UF defensive coordinator is staying off the sidelines.

Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: After trying and failing at two NFL stops, Kelly’s best bet for another job is back in college. But asking a compliance department such as the one the Gators have to approve the hiring of a man who was sanctioned by the NCAA in 2013 and saw the Oregon program get placed on three years probation is a longshot. Kelly received an 18-month show-cause penalty for “failure to monitor” issues by the NCAA, and Oregon was docked a bevy of scholarships. A new program that hires him could be sanctioned in some manner. UF is not taking that chance.

Les Miles, former LSU head coach: There’s a reason Miles, 63, could not even get a sniff at Purdue this past offseason. His time is done. After an incredible 16 combined years at Oklahoma State and LSU, Miles is simply not at the top of the pack for a big-time job.

Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach: LOL

Steve Spurrier, former Florida head coach: Despite constant fun talk that he might emerge as an offensive analyst at a high school team one day, the 72-year-old Spurrier is done coaching college football. Three years at Duke, 12 years at Florida and 11 at South Carolina is enough. The HBC is perfectly happen in his new role, getting paid to smile and shake the hands of Gator Boosters.


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