Florida coaching candidates: Billy Napier, Lane Kiffin lead names to know as Gators replace Dan Mullen

By Adam Silverstein
November 21, 2021
Florida coaching candidates: Billy Napier, Lane Kiffin lead names to know as Gators replace Dan Mullen

Image Credit: ESPN Images

Dan Mullen was fired Sunday before completing his fourth season coaching the Florida Gators. With the program looking to make its fourth coaching change since the end of the 2010 season in what is largely considered a down market of talent, finding the right candidate will be a tough task for Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin.

The Gators hired Mullen, in large part, because of his familiarity with the program and offensive acumen. Florida had been mired in eight years of nearly non-existent offense before Mullen, and fixing that side of the ball was a priority. unfortunately, that offensive success fell off in Year 4 and was matched by a defense that progressively got worse over each of his first three seasons.

There’s no question that the Florida job is a unique one. Any coach who takes over the Gators has to be prepared to deal with immense pressure, a demanding fan base and a difficult — but potentially rewarding — recruiting culture. Florida has proven it can bring in top-ranked classes, but the Sunshine State is a hotbed that is no longer dominated by the in-state powers and rather poached by every top-tier national program. That’s another area in which Mullen fell off significantly.

So with all of that known, let’s take a look at where the Gators may turn to replace Mullen. This may be an extended coaching search due to an immense number of open jobs and shallow candidate pool, but the early signing period beginning in mid-December puts an onus on programs and their athletic directors to act decisively.

Florida coaching candidates

Bob Stoops, Fox analyst, ex-Oklahoma head coach: This is simply a phone call that has to be made. The Gators’ former defensive coordinator was already part of one turnaround at Florida when former coach Steve Spurrier overhauled his defensive staff prior to the 1996 season. Stoops led an incredible defense over his three years at UF before being plucked by Oklahoma, where he went 190-48 over 18 seasons with a national championship in his second season. Stoops, 61, retired from coaching in 2016 for non-medical personal reasons. He is currently enjoying himself as an analyst for Fox as he gets to watch his son, Drake, play at OU.

There is no indication that Stoops is looking to return to coaching, but if he did, there may only be two or three jobs that interest him. Among those are Florida and Notre Dame. Before moving on to the rest of your candidate list, you have to gauge Stoops’ interest. He remains close friends with Spurrier. Even if he’s not the long-term solution, he could get the Gators back on course and set the stage for a replacement, such as he did for Lincoln Riley with the Sooners.

Billy Napier, Louisiana head coach: Napier, 42, is 31-5 over the last three seasons leading the Ragin’ Cajuns. He has long been considered an option for Florida should it move on from Mullen for good reasons. Napier is an offensive coach, tireless recruiter and known program builder. In other words, he checks all of the boxes for this job. Napier was born in Tennessee and has experience both in the South and SEC as an assistant at Alabama (2011, 2013-16) and Clemson (2006-10). He took over Louisiana after one season at Arizona State, which could also be coming open this cycle. LSU, a stone’s throw from his current campus, may also be interested even though it seemingly wants a bigger name.

Napier has already turned down a half dozen Power Five offers waiting for the right opportunity. The Gators should be exactly the job he’s been waiting to get. There is no guarantee that he’s the next Urban Meyer or Lincoln Riley, but in terms of young coaches go, he’s the best one available in a thin market and my pick for Florida.

Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss head coach: Kiffin has almost completely revitalized his image, moving from a silver-spoon wielding offensive guru who got too many opportunities too soon to a matured coach who has mixed having fun with tremendous on-field performances. Kiffin is one of the best recruiters in college football, which he proved as a head coach at Tennessee, USC, FAU and now at Ole Miss. In between, he got glimpses of “The Process” under Nick Saban at Alabama. The Rebels are 9-2 this season under Kiffin with a defense that has been completely transformed from a season ago.

Forgetting his pot shot at Urban Meyer back when he led the Vols, Kiffin may turn off some Gators who realize the program just failed in hiring consecutive quirky coaches in Mullen and Jim McElwain who both wore out their welcomes just as much off the field as on it. Do you really take a chance on a guy who had controversial exits with the then-Oakland Raiders, Tennessee and Alabama already in his career? If Miami opens, that may interest Kiffin, who has a home in Boca Raton, Florida. Kiffin may want Florida more than it wants Kiffin. Ole Miss would have the resources to keep him if he wanted to stay.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach: The most in-demand name this cycle, Fickell is 42-6 over the last four seasons and leading an undefeated Bearcats team that looks to be the first Group of Five program to advance to the College Football Playoff if it can win out. A CFP berth would throw a wrench in the searches of LSU and USC, both of which are believed to be hot on his tail. The Tigers are looking for a splash with a massive contract offer. The Trojans have an in with Fickell as athletic director Mike Bohn hired him at Cincinnati.

It would be a coup if Florida was to land Fickell over those programs, and given he has a relationship with Meyer, he could be convinced that the Gators are his best option. However, Fickell is a native of Ohio who has never coached in any role outside the state. His defensive mindset would be a welcome change given he’s proven that he can hire a successful offensive staff. Fickell may be the best overall candidate, but he’s simultaneously the toughest to acquire.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon head coach: Cristobal is another recruiting savant. He has done a great job bringing the Ducks back to relevance after two failed coaching hires following Chip Kelly. Not counting the COVID-19 season that heavily impacted the Pac-12, Oregon is 30-8 under Cristobal with consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearances. A former Miami player, Cristobal would be the top target of the Hurricanes should their job open. He has extensive experience coaching and recruiting both in the Sunshine State and SEC. Cristobal was an on-field coach at UM from 2004-06, head coach of FIU from 2007-12 and an assistant with the Crimson Tide from 2013-16.

It would take a massive contract to lure him from Oregon or steal him from Miami. Beyond that, though, the Ducks have seemingly lost every big game Cristobal’s coached despite being the top team in the Pac-12. Florida is coming off a coach that was plagued by that exact same issue. That would make Cristobal, like Kiffin, an imperfect hire, but perhaps a chance worth taking depending how the search shakes out.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach: The younger Stoops is the first Wildcats coach to beat the Gators twice in his career since Fran Curci in the 1970s. He has turned Kentucky from a team at the bottom of the SEC East to a winning program. Stoops won 10 games in 2018 and has won eight or more across three of the last four seasons. He also has three straight bowl wins. With experience coaching and recruiting in Florida and now leading another SEC program to success, Stoops is an intriguing prospect. He’s also a gettable candidate. Bob’s brother has a lower ceiling than the options above, but he’s also a steady hand. The Gators could use that about now.

Jeff Hafley, Boston College head coach: What Hafley does not have in SEC experience he makes up for with NFL chops after seven seasons in the league as an assistant. It was considered a coup when Ohio State hired him as co-defensive coordinator in 2019, and he only lasted one season before being scooped up by Boston College. Yes, Hafley is only 12-10 in two seasons with the Eagles, but there’s a massive talent deficit there, and BC was set for a successful season before losing its starting quarterback. Hafley would likely be a fallback option, but he’s widely considered a darkhorse candidate for a better Power Five job in a thin cycle. The concern would be fielding a Florida-level offense with his focus solidly on defense, but there’s a lot to sell when bringing in a connected 42-year-old who was one of the top 10 recruiters in the nation with the Buckeyes.

Names you may hear elsewhere

The coaches listed below are not on OnlyGators.com’s list of candidates but may be on those provided by others. Here’s why they were left out of our consideration.

James Franklin, Penn State head coach: Based on recent comments, it seems like Franklin is about to sign an extension with the Nittany Lions on Tuesday. He was astoundingly good at Vanderbilt (24-15 in three seasons), but while he has three 11-win campaigns at Penn State, he’s only captured one Big Ten title due to Ohio State’s dominance of the Big Ten East. Also, the Nittany Lions are 11-9 over the last two seasons. Franklin is coaching in his home state, and Penn State would likely match any offer he’s given. He would be a fine hire for Florida, but it’s just not at all likely.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach: Campbell has done a respectable job leading the Cyclones, though he cannot get over the hump. In both of his stops at Toledo and Iowa State, he has won enough games to please the fan bases. But neither of those programs are Florida. Campbell does not have a single season with double-digit wins in his 10-year head coaching career. He is 2-2 in bowl games at Iowa State and has no coaching or recruiting experience in the South. It was once believed Campbell was a target for NFL teams. Is that a risk the Gators want to take if he finds a bit of success in the SEC? This is a fall-back option and one that may not even take the job if offered.

Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator: While Quinn did an incredible job during his time running the Gators defense, his goal was always to use Florida as a stepping stone to a NFL coordinator job he previously struggled to obtain. Quinn succeeded in doing that when he returned to the Seattle Seahawks, parlayed that into a head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons and is now back coordinating defense with the Cowboys. It does not make much sense for him to go back to college where he has only two years of coaching experience over the last two decades. Quinn is likely angling for another NFL head coaching job in the next five years.

Mel Tucker, Michigan State head coach: Just … no. Tucker is about to get a $95 million extension from the Spartans on the back of being 16-14 in his head coaching career. He was just exposed by Ohio State in front of a national audience and just left Colorado one season after taking that job. Tucker has an incredible amount of talent and experience coaching in the NFL (2005-14) and SEC (2015-18). He knows what it takes to win at this level. But coupling the expense with the lack of success makes him a highly unlikely target.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest head coach: Clawson is finding success in a down year for the ACC, but the Demon Deacons may still not win 10 games, which he has only accomplished once in 14 seasons at the FBS level (2013 Bowling Green). Though Clawson can get the ball moving, his defenses have struggled mightily. That’s what Florida just went through. Plus, the lack of SEC or top-level Power Five experience is concerning.

Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina head coach: Also … no. Chadwell has done a great job with the Chanticleers, but though he’d be making a similar jump from the Sun Belt as Napier, he does not have the requisite top-level coaching and recruiting experience, particularly in the SEC. The shine has worn off Chadwell a bit, though he may wind up with a second-tier Power Five job at a program like Virginia Tech.

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