Florida coaching search: Gators’ candidates in tiers

By Adam Silverstein
November 1, 2017
Florida coaching search: Gators’ candidates in tiers

Image Credit: ESPN Images

We’ve already taken a look at the 12 most likely candidates for the head football coach opening with the Florida Gators, though as expected, a simple list is not good enough for many of our readers. You want to know who is going to be Florida’s next head coach.

Well, unfortunately, we cannot tell you that at this juncture. But what we can do is break down who should be coaching the Gators in 2018 and beyond. With that, let’s take a look at the available candidates and how solid those hires would be for Florida using baseball terms as — for some reason — those are the most popular when discussing the success rate of potential employees.

Home run hires

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech head coach: Yes, there is only one true name in this category, and it is perhaps the least-discussed candidate for the Gators’ opening. 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 — even though that concept is overrated — 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 for years to come.

The one drawback? Fuente has not really been coaching that long compared to some others with 5+ seasons on the job. It’s actually difficult to find reasons to exclude Fuente as a candidate other than the fact that he’s still new at a legitimate program that gets plenty of national attention and has a passionate fan base. He also comes with a significant buyout of around $6 million and would likely command a salary of over $4 million to make the jump, but UF cannot be worrying about dollars and cents. It has to get this one right. It may be difficult to pry him from the Hokies, but there’s no question that the Gators offer a better overall job. 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. Florida needs to approach Fuente first with a big-money offer and make him tell them no.

Gary Patterson, TCU head coach: Patterson is one of the best coaches in college football. Period. He’s a defensive coach but has led a team that’s had some of the most offensive success in the sport at a Power Five level over the last few years. He’s also a Kansas native and Kansas State alumnus who has never coached East or South outside of three years at the start of his career as a position coach from 1982-84. Patterson is unlikely to leave TCU, but man would it be a coup for UF if he did. He was not even on our initial candidates list for that reason.

Bob Stoops, unemployed: No, Stoops is not returning to coaching. But if he were to change his mind and take the Florida job? That’s an unquestioned home run. It’s just not going to happen. His name is here only for tier purposes and in case he was somehow convinced to perhaps take the job for a couple years while grooming a coach in waiting. Again, not happening.


Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach: Mullen is a “sure thing” in so much as he would not fall flat on his face. 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 already makes nearly $5 million annually, and 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.

Mullen is going to move on this season. The question is whether it’s to Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska or elsewhere. Not only does Mullen know what he would be getting into coaching UF, he has a good relationship with athletic director Scott 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.

Scott Frost, UCF head coach: People can praise Frost all they want, but the truth is that he’s not enough of a known quantity to be a sure-fire “home run hire.” 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. Talk about pedigree. The former Nebraska starting quarterback and NFL safety did not just play for the Cornhuskers, however, 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.

Frost is a more attractive candidate than many you will see below, but he’s quite 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. There’s so much risk here, so this is like a two-out triple with the bases empty.

Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach: 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. 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.

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: 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. 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 may wear off fast. Simply put, 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. He could be the next Urban Meyer … or he could also be someone whose system works at places like Toledo and Iowa State but not on a stage such as Florida. Campbell is a double, but he’s a double down the right-field line that could possibly stretch to a triple or even an inside-the-park home run.

Chip Kelly, former Oregon head coach: My initial evaluation of Kelly was a “not-so-real” candidate, and while I still believe that to be true, there’s no questioning what he accomplished at Oregon bringing the Ducks to a national championship game. 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 Florida has 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. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would also have to approve of the hire. Tennessee is more likely to take that risk than UF, but if the Gators were to pull that lever, there would be a 50/50 chance of it working.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State head coach: Gundy’s name often surfaces when jobs like this are available, but 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 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. It is so doubtful that he would leave his job, so this is basically a ground-rule double. The hire would be better if the ball was actually in play.


Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach: I truly do not get the hype here. Yes, Norvell is only in his second year coaching Memphis and is 15-6 overall with 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, but he has never built a program and coaches one of the worst defensive teams in the nation. The Texas native has never recruited the state and may not be the best fit for Florida, especially with Texas A&M and Arkansas both potentially opening. 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.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M head coach: Sumlin is underrated, but he’s also 49-24 at TAMU and has not finished better than fourth in his own division since his first year in 2012. It was impressive what Sumlin did at Houston from 2008-11, but if the Gators were to hire him, they’d be taking a guy just fired by the Aggies. That would not sit well with anyone, which he was not on our initial candidates list.

Charlie Strong, South Florida head coach: 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 Will 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 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 and reward not enough.

Chad Morris, SMU head coach: 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: 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: 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 Jim McElwain, and it did not work.


Lane Kiffin, FAU head coach: There is no question this guy can coach offense, but he’s a time bomb. It’s not a matter of if but when.

Les Miles, unemployed: There is a reason no one hired him last year. The 63-year-old could take over a smaller program but does not fit the mold of what Florida needs.


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