So Will Muschamp has been fired. Many more things will happen in short order for the Gators. Let's try to run them down.
What happens now?
Muschamp will coach Florida's final two games of the regular season, per ESPN's Brett McMurphy, and as I would have expected. Florida let Ron Zook finish out the regular season despite firing him with four games left to play in 2004, and Muschamp getting the same treatment with just two weeks left on the clock feels fair to me.
Florida — athletic director Jeremy Foley, really — will have to begin a search for Muschamp's replacement immediately, but firing Muschamp now gives Foley a significant advantage on the field.
Why fire Muschamp now?
Foley's oft-repeated "What must be done eventually must be done immediately" axiom aside, firing Muschamp now puts Florida at the front of the line for any head coaching candidates who might want to sign on with the Gators, and allows for more flexibility. Swift and decisive action behind the scenes — the kind that is only really possible with a genuine vacancy, rather than the hints of one — could land Foley his next man at the helm in a matter of days. Zook's early firing in 2004 allowed Foley to position Florida to land Urban Meyer, and Meyer's resignation in 2010 was followed very shortly by Foley hiring Muschamp.
This move also positions Florida as the first major program with an opening this year, ahead of likely competitor Michigan. Even if there isn't a formal announcement soon, expect Foley to pursue candidates vigorously in radio silence.
Firing Muschamp now also allows Florida to transition from uncertainty to certainty as a posture to sell to recruits and coaches. The Gators will want to retain some assistants, most notably defensive line coach Brad Lawing and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, both adored by recruits, and offering them (or other coaches) retentions that aren't tied to Muschamp might go a long way. (Lawing was hired in 2013, and is more of a mercenary than Robinson, whose career has been tied to Muschamp since they worked together at Auburn, so he would be Florida's most likely returning assistant.)
And, finally, dropping the hammer on Muschamp permits Florida to hammer out any financial or other details of his departure that might complicate the hiring of his successor. It would be silly to miss out on a prime candidate while haggling over what Muschamp will get from the Gators for being let go, and more time
How will the Gators react?
I don't know. Muschamp's too decent of a man and too professional of a coach to not give the job his all for the next two weeks — something that was not necessarily true of Zook and his staff after Zook's firing — and I would expect Florida to play a little looser against Eastern Kentucky and Florida State, which might help a team that has come into games tight and fallen behind early over each of their last four contests.
And, as you will hear approximately 447,000 times over the next fortnight, Florida did topple Florida State (in Tallahassee) in the last game of Zook's Florida career. There is precedent for a desperate, hungry band of Gators chomping a better bunch of Seminoles.
Who are the top candidates to replace Muschamp?
It's hard to be sure, because so many of Florida's most obvious targets currently have jobs, and because very few candidates that make rational sense and pleases a fan base so starved for success that it has tended toward irrationality of late will be formally available until at least after the end of the regular season. For Florida's next coach, having an offensive-minded background and significant Power 5 conference head coaching experience would be ideal, as those characteristics have been lusted after during almost the entirety of Muschamp's tenure, but the ideal may not be realistic, and a sufficiently big name could salve some wounds.
Florida essentially has to contact Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, who was Meyer's offensive coordinator, and is currently leading the Bulldogs to maybe the best season in program history. No coach is hotter, and no coach makes more sense on the surface.
But the chances of Mullen returning are slim, given that he was often pilloried while an offensive coordinator despite presiding over an offense that helped Florida to two national titles, produced the school's third Heisman winner, and made Tim Tebow one of the most decorated and beloved players in college football history. Hiring Mullen would also be tacitly admitting that the winning of the Meyer era was more important than the erosion of the standards for behavior that Florida wants to set for student-athletes (and coaches), and it's unlikely Foley wants to go zag back after zigging with Muschamp, who did unquestionably clean up a program that was described as "broken" under Meyer.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, also a former Florida coordinator, would be another interesting target, especially given how his honeymoon seems to have finally ended at Oklahoma. Even if Stoops is a defensive-minded coach, his hiring would more than satisfy any experience criteria — no other coach on the market could possibly match Stoops's credentials — and would harken back to Steve Spurrier's time at Florida, playing to the nostalgia that is still a powerful force among the Gators fan base.
Stoops is far more likely to stay at Oklahoma until he retires than any other outcome, I think, but his name comes up in these discussions because it always will until he is retired, and it's rarely made more sense, in the abstract, for Stoops to leave Oklahoma than it does at the moment.
Beyond those two hires, which would be hailed as home runs, there's only one more "home run" available: Spurrier himself. But Spurrier is far too old for this job, left it of his own volition in 2001, scoffed at the idea of deigning to re-interview for it in 2004, and has repeatedly asserted that his job at South Carolina will be his last as a coach. The prodigal son's triumphant return is not happening, and fans would do well to let go of it.
So Florida might — should, perhaps — swing and miss for its homers, then aim for a double or a triple it can stretch. If that means working from a much larger pool of less certain candidates, that wouldn't be all that bad: Plucking a head coach from a lesser Power 5 school — Mississippi's Hugh Freeze, Arizona State's Todd Graham, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, TCU's Gary Patterson, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez — would satisfy many, and a great many of those coaches are available. Jim Harbaugh's unhappiness with the San Francisco 49ers makes him a name to note, though his Florida ties are nonexistent, and his Michigan ties obvious. Florida could go for retreads like Mike Shanahan or Greg Schiano (reportedly a runner-up to Muschamp in 2010, remember)
Further down the list, if those names all said no — and I feel very confident in saying that, of the names mentioned above, not all would say no — Florida could have the pick of the non-Power 5 litter. Elevating a mid-major program's coach (Marshall's Doc Holliday? Colorado State's Jim McElwain?) to the big chair at Florida would be a risky move for Florida, but those jumps would be no-brainers for coaches outside the current College Football Playoff structure.
Wow, that's a lot of big names.
Yes, it is. But Florida can put big names on a list and work down from the top like few other programs can.
To be clear, there are many Power 5 schools that are "lesser" than Florida. The Gators have been largely unsuccessful over the last five years, falling from college football's elite, but Florida's immense athletic budget can only be matched by a handful of schools, and the football talent in the state of Florida is incredible. The embarrassment of riches that is available to any Florida head coach is staggering, even if the facilities — outdated coaches' offices, a lack of an indoor practice facility, and older dorms for student-athletes — actually lag behind most other premier programs.
But facilities can be upgraded; one cannot move Arizona or North Carolina or Oklahoma State to Florida, and those schools will simply never match Florida's natural geographic advantages. As such, the list of coaches who wouldn't take Foley's call in regards to an opening at head coach is very, very short.
Florida fans get teased for having eyes too big for their stomachs when coaching searches happen, but Spurrier, Meyer, and Foley have established this job as one that makes the pinnacle of the college football world annually accessible. Very few of those jobs exist, and their scarcity makes them very attractive.
Florida may not satisfy the most outrageous fan demands — Chip Kelly will be a popular pipe dream, but I'd put the chances of him leaving the Philadelphia Eagles for Florida at 0.00 percent — but it has truly mighty clout.
So what's the timetable?
I wouldn't expect Florida to hire a new coach until Muschamp's formal departure, so I don't think we're going to hear anything for the next two weeks. And, beyond that, it would be hard to hire a coach preparing for a conference championship game or the College Football Playoff in December.
But very few of those coaches will be on Florida's list; Florida won't pursue Nick Saban, for example, or Jimbo Fisher, even if it might hone in on Mullen, Graham, or Patterson. And so there's a good chance that Florida will find its man soon, announce his hiring in early December, allow that coach to finish out his bowl or other responsibilities with his team, and put him to work in early January. If you're constructing a timetable, going from that framework would make sense.
What's your gut feeling?
I think Florida ends up with a coach like Graham or Rodriguez, who gets enticed to make a significant jump from a mid-level Power 5 program by the Gators' proximity to elite talent and a significant bump in pay.
But I could be wrong. I thought Will Muschamp was going to be a really good coach for Florida, after all.