Florida Gators coaching search, candidates: Live updates, tracker, football news, analysis

By Adam Silverstein
November 23, 2021
Florida Gators coaching search, candidates: Live updates, tracker, football news, analysis
Football

Image Credit: Alex de la Osa / UAA

The Florida Gators are looking to hire the 26th head football coach in program history after firing Dan Mullen one game shy of completing his fourth season. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin spent the last coaching search after the 2017 season going after three candidates with there being much consternation over whether the Gators actually hired their second or third choice. In the end, Mullen suffered the same fate as the two coaches that preceded him.

This time around, given the advent of the early signing period shortening the window for which college football teams can hire coaches — leaders must be in place to ensure recruits are signed and not lost to rivals — it is more crucial than ever to act decisively in attempting to obtain the coach one desires. With Florida one of three top-tier jobs open, there is going to plenty of competition in the coaching carousel, which will undoubtedly result in consternation among Gator Nation.

OnlyGators.com will be with you the entire way with live updates on this page as we track the candidates and news surrounding one of the most prominent openings in college football this offseason.

READ: FLORIDA COACHING CANDIDATES

Friday, Nov. 26 — Day 5

11:25 p.m. — While I know daily updates are the ideal here, only so much can be said when conversations are at the status quo level entering the final week of the regular season. Louisiana’s Billy Napier remains Florida’s top target, and the process appears to be nearing a conclusion. There are some outstanding details to iron out between the sides. If terms can be reached, it’s possible that word of an agreement could leak as early as Sunday with plans for a Monday announcement. The Gators want to wrap this up.

For those concerned this may be a situation similar to the one Florida faced with Chip Kelly a few years ago, it’s not. Whereas Kelly had reservations about the SEC and what it takes to win in the South while weighing an opportunity from a school in a location (Los Angeles) and conference (Pac-12) in which he was familiar, a source tells OnlyGators.com that Napier understands the monumental opportunity that exists for him as potential head coach of the Gators. However, just like in any coaching search, the deal’s not done until it’s done. And as of Friday night, it’s not done … yet.

Thursday, Nov. 25 — Day 4

2:30 p.m. — Nothing has changed in regards to Louisiana’s Billy Napier appearing to be the primary target at Florida. After the Ragin’ Cajuns finished practicing Wednesday, Napier tamped down job talk, telling the Lafayette Daily Advertiser “there is no decision yet” regarding his future. Also Wednesday, long-time Gators columnist Pat Dooley shared his thoughts on the job search. “I don’t think there is much doubt that it’s Billy Napier,” he said on 1010 XL. “All signs point toward that. I would expect he’ll be announced Sunday or Monday.”

While Florida appears to have been focused on Napier, candidates across the country are quickly taking themselves out of contention for top jobs. Penn State signed James Franklin to a 10-year, $80 million extension. Michigan State signed Mel Tucker, who has a 16-14 career record as a head coach, to a 10-year, $95 million extension. It appears as if Baylor is working on an extension with Dave Aranda, and there is talk that Luke Fickell may actually wind up staying at Cincinnati. Fickell has long been believed as the top candidate for the USC job, while Aranda’s name has been mentioned at both USC and LSU.

How this will all shake out remains to be seen. Could the Tigers jump in at the last minute and make a play for Napier given his on-field success and established recruiting chops within the state? Would Napier spurn the Gators to remain in Louisiana despite no particular ties to the state outside of his current job? Will this all actually be over Sunday or Monday as Dooley believes? Chew on that during Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, Nov. 24 — Day 3

2:15 p.m. — Fox analyst and former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said on the radio Wednesday that he is not interested in returning to coaching at Florida for the exact reasons we noted previously. “I love what I’m doing with TV. … I enjoy watching my son play. … I’m not looking to get in to that [job],” he said on WWLS 98.1FM. Stoops went on to add that the Gators job is a great one. If or when Stoops does decide to come back to the game, a source told OnlyGators.com it would be after his son graduates and only for the right position. Stoops has long been considered the top candidate to replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame one day should that job ever open.

12 p.m. — Louisiana’s Billy Napier remains the hot name when it comes to the Florida coaching search with Virginia Tech as the other party with known interest at this time. LSU does not appear to have made him a priority. Another team to watch is Arizona State, where Napier served as offensive coordinator for one season after leaving Alabama before taking the ULL job. The Sun Devils still have Herm Edwards as their coach, but they’re also mired in NCAA investigations and internal problems. If they move Edwards, certainly they would be interested in an extremely popular former assistant. However, the aforementioned issues make it unlikely that ASU would be particularly attractive as an option for Napier, who wants the ability to step into a job without distractions or overhanging concerns. (LSU has problems of its own ongoing.) Still, if the Sun Devils do stick with Edwards, that at least takes another competitor out of the way should the Gators be focused on Napier as their top choice.

Tuesday, Nov. 23 — Day 2

5 p.m. — A few notes here not only on the Florida search but on searches that have been ongoing at two other programs as well. Let’s start with LSU. There’s a strongly held belief that Louisiana’s Billy Napier is primarily being considered as a fallback candidate for the Tigers and not among the top two or three names being courted for the position. Baylor’s Dave Aranda, who spent four seasons as LSU’s defensive coordinator before leaving for his first head coaching job, is thought to be one of the top two candidates and perhaps the primary target, sources tell OnlyGators.com.

Reports about LSU pursuing Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley could not be confirmed, though it would be unsurprising if the Tigers — or even the Gators, for that matter — at least reached out to gauge interest. One other thing to remember: Boosters at LSU will play a much larger role in deciding their coach and how the teams are run compared to programs like Florida. It’s that type of meddling that turned Napier off to Auburn and other jobs previously.

It appears that Florida’s primary competition for Napier — should he be the top target as widely believed — is actually Virginia Tech, OnlyGators.com can confirm. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman first reported Monday night that the Hokies are seriously considering Napier. This is a situation familiar to the Gators and their fans given Florida’s courtship of Chip Kelly in late 2017 ended with him taking UCLA instead of UF due to concerns over the pressure and atmosphere of the SEC, plus the attractiveness of coaching in Los Angeles in a familiar Pac-12 conference.

However, unlike Kelly, Napier has a firm handle on the SEC and South in general due to his time at Alabama and Clemson. Would Virginia Tech be a less stressful job that offers a potentially easier route to winning a conference championship? Sure. Its ceiling is also far lower than what Florida can offer in terms of power, status, prestige, recruiting, and yes, money. There’s no reason to believe the Gators should be as concerned about the Hokies as they were about the Bruins for Kelly — at least not at this time.

Florida is planning to use its forthcoming football facility, willingness to invest in recruiting and desire to find a long-term coach as differentiators to candidates like Napier who may have multiple opportunities. The Gators are one of a handful of SEC programs planning to invest heavily in stadium remodels with the idea of slightly reducing capacity, while amping up game day atmosphere and seating options, akin to what Alabama has done with Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s a prestige play meant to put Florida back in line with what other top programs can offer.

Does this mean that Stricklin could have an ace up his sleeve? Might he be looking to swing big for someone like Riley, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal or a Power Five coach competing for a conference title with Napier as a No. 2 candidate? That’s certainly possible, but there’s nothing to indicate that anyone other than Napier is a priority focus to this point. However, that could also be a matter of circumstance due to the timelines of other candidates.

One last note. There is not any specific push for Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin at this time, sources tell OnlyGators.com. That does not mean one could not develop, particularly if the Gators miss on one or two candidates. Two sources that know Kiffin say he would leave Ole Miss for Florida with an equal compensation offer. Rumors about his interest in Miami appear to be legitimate but not on the level of UF or perhaps remaining at Ole Miss, which has embraced him and may help him land prized recruit Arch Manning. Kiffin likes the Sunshine State, spending a lot of time with his father on the West Coast. He kept his Boca Raton, Florida, home from the FAU job and waxes poetic about it frequently.

4:30 p.m. — If Penn State’s James Franklin was a legitimate candidate for LSU or USC — and there’s no proof that’s the case — he is no longer. Franklin has agreed to a 10-year, $75 million extension with the Nittany Lions that will keep him with the program through the 2031 season.

Monday, Nov. 22 — Day 1

It did not take long for Louisiana’s Billy Napier to emerge as the most-discussed name for the Florida opening. In addition to (inaccurate) flight tracking, there were some unconfirmed reports about UF brass being in Lafayette, Louisiana. Furthermore, some online gambling sites removed odds for the Gators job from their board. The latter did not occur because oddsmakers have it on good authority that Florida is hiring Napier but rather because too much action was coming in from bettors that would have put the sites in an untenable position.

What OnlyGators.com knew as of Monday — this page was not yet live — is that Napier is a legitimate candidate for the Gators, which is why he was at the top of our list from the jump. Napier has been ready for a top 25 job for two years but has been waiting for the right opportunity. He was turned off to the Auburn opening a year ago due to the booster-centric nature of the program and its in-state competition with a behemoth in Alabama.

Whether all the kindling with Napier on Monday was a smokescreen as Florida pursued a big-name candidate, the start of a burning fire that will lead to his hiring or simply the program doing due diligence remains to be seen, but there is absolutely no doubt that Napier is a name high on the list and has been a coach that’s been watched for more than a calendar year.

Sunday, Nov. 21

Florida fired Mullen less than 24 hours after a dismal 24-23 overtime defeat at Missouri. The loss was the Gators’ fourth straight to an FBS opponent, which made Mullen 2-9 against Power Five teams dating back to late in the 2020 season. Mullen will be paid his entire $12 million buyout, including $6 million up front and $1 million over the ensuing six years. Read more on Mullen’s firing.

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