As departures by college football coaches go, Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins leaving the Gators to become Temple’s head coach isn’t a particularly surprising one.
Collins has had the pedigree of a future head coach for years now, and it’s been widely reported that he wanted to take on that role eventually. When Collins left Mississippi State to take the same defensive coordinator position at Florida, Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen groused about it as a “lateral move,” prompting eye-rolls from many Florida fans — but Mullen’s fuller point about wanting his assistants to leave for clear promotions was a valid one, and Collins was more or less as ready then to take a head coaching position as he is now.
Collins, who previously coached at in-state Florida schools Central Florida and Florida International, was an obvious candidate for the vacant UCF job in 2015, before Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost got the role, and he was probably considered for the Florida Atlantic, FIU, and South Florida jobs this offseason before they were filled by Lane Kiffin, Butch Davis, and Charlie Strong — former head coaches at USC, Miami, and Texas — respectively.
While Collins coming back to Florida was seen as just another sign that he was interested in coaching in the state, there’s clear writing on the wall there in those three hires: Head coaching experience matters.
And so Collins is off to a place where head coaching experience has been a springboard to better jobs. Former Temple head coaches Al Golden, Steve Addazio, and Matt Rhule parlayed their tenures in Philadelphia into the Miami, Boston College, and Baylor jobs just this decade, all steps up from the Owls. And the significant breadth of those coaches’ backgrounds and philosophies is a sign that there are different ways to win at Temple.
So all of that makes sense for Collins, who has assuredly been understood as a flight risk — or, in fairer terms, a candidate for hiring by another program — for Florida from the moment he was hired. But what Jim McElwain has done in building his defensive staff is stock it with potential replacements for Collins.
The most obvious of those is Randy Shannon, who shared the defensive coordinator title with Collins over the last two years, if not all the duties. Collins called plays and likely handled most of the macro-level details of coordinating Florida’s defense, while Shannon — who has also been Florida’s linebackers coach, and done a very good job of developing Gators at that level — was more recruiter and position coach. (Collins did not serve as a position coach, but probably worked most with linebackers — whom he coached at UCF, FIU, and Mississippi State — and defensive backs.)
Shannon’s got extensive experience as both a defensive coordinator and head coach, spending six seasons as the former and four as the latter at Miami. He’s also coached linebackers for the majority of his last 25 years in coaching, and would almost certainly be able to coach them as defensive coordinator, allowing Florida to add another defensive backs or defensive line coach instead of hiring to replace a linebackers coach in the event of a Shannon promotion.
Of course, Shannon is also upwardly mobile. He came to Florida with an eye on possibly returning to the head coaching ranks — and whispers have suggested that he, like Collins, would have been interested in any or all of those in-state jobs.
But unlike Collins, who has a fair bit of experience beyond the Sunshine State, Shannon’s almost inextricably tied to not just Florida but South Florida, having spent all but five years of his professional life since 1991 working in the state and spent the 20 seasons from 1991 to 2010 doing so without interruption. And Shannon has also failed as a head coach, getting fired by Miami after four seasons in which his Hurricanes failed to win 10 games, and is five years older than Collins, both of which likely work against him.
Barring an unorthodox move to a school that would seem to have little connection to him, Shannon could feasibly be considered a candidate to be McElwain’s defensive coordinator until the end of his tenure or until one of those in-state jobs opens up. That’s a big plus for Florida, which could use some stability on the defensive side of the ball — no Florida defensive coordinator has held that role for more than two seasons since Strong did so under Urban Meyer, and while Will Muschamp was the Gators’ de facto DC in his time in Gainesville, the revolving door at the actual position has seen a number of talented coaches come and go, and forced players to adjust to slightly different schemes on a regular basis.
And if Shannon doesn’t want to call plays or be Florida’s fully-fledged defensive coordinator — which I’d consider unlikely, given that it appears to be his best foot forward toward a head coaching job — then McElwain could turn to his other defensive assistants.
Chris Rumph and Torrian Gray each have more than a decade of college coaching experience, and could quite possibly have designs on being defensive coordinators someday. Both coaches have remained position coaches for their entire careers to date, though, and have made moves to the same position without an upgrade in title.
While promoting either one over Shannon seems illogical to me, I’d imagine there’s still some possibility of promoting either to the co-defensive coordinator position Shannon held, followed by Florida lightening the promoted coach’s load by hiring, say, a defensive tackles coach, or a safeties coach.
And regardless of who becomes its next true defensive coordinator, Florida is also now in a position to upgrade or reconfigure its coaching staff — on both sides of the ball. Collins was in line to make over $1 million in 2016, counting base salary and a retention bonus that he will not collect, and while the Gators’ new fully-fledged defensive coordinator is probably going to take home at least 70 percent of that figure, saving a few hundred thousand dollars by promoting from within and enhancing the salaries of retained coaches would free up money for McElwain to hire another top-tier defensive assistant — and/or revamp an offensive coaching staff that has failed to revitalize Florida’s attack to date.
At this moment, I expect Shannon to become Florida’s defensive coordinator, and would be surprised by an external hire, but that’s also a possibility — though it would likely be a more expensive or complicated one, as hiring another defensive coordinator over Shannon might lead to parting ways with him, creating more problems than it would ultimately solve.