Here’s an initial list of who could replace him as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, grouped by relative likelihood.
A source told me there has been an effort to reach out to Stoops, 57, who retired from Oklahoma out of the blue in the summer, leaving the Sooners program he returned to national prominence and led for two decades to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Florida being interested in Stoops — who has been a candidate of some note during all four prior Florida head coaching searches this millennium thus far — would be no surprise, given his pedigree, roots in Gainesville as a former defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier, and knack for hiring warlocks as his offensive coordinators. Stoops tended toward win-at-all-costs decision-making at Oklahoma in his later years, as seen in his shameful handling of Dorial Green-Beckham and Joe Mixon and his inadequate explanation of the latter — but he also won enough to make those criticisms mostly background noise.
I also don’t think it makes any sense for Stoops to have interest in Florida. He would come at an exorbitant cost — Stoops walked away from about $1.5 million more than McElwain was on track to make after his contract extension at Florida — and is older than McElwain, which would make him ill-suited for the demands of Florida even if he had not just stepped down from a Florida-like program in part because of the demands of the job. Coming to Florida would also mean having to coach against his brother Mark, Kentucky’s head coach, for at least a few years — something the Stoops brothers do not like doing.
I suppose it makes sense for Florida to at least see whether Stoops has any interest in coming back to Gainesville, given that there are no other coaches with a national championship and a College Football Playoff berths that have ties to the Gators and aren’t Urban Meyer. But I doubt anything comes of that.
James Franklin, Penn State head coach
Franklin recently quashed some talk that he would be interested in the Texas A&M job by saying, basically, “I’ve got a great job, and I’m from Pennsylvania.” But the Texas A&M job was not open, and the Florida job now is, and Franklin seemed to have a much clearer path to the College Football Playoff this year and in years to come before, uh, Saturday night, when his Nittany Lions blew a lead and their chance to walk an easy road to the Big Ten Championship Game in November against Ohio State.
Franklin would not be cheap, and might be prohibitively expensive. He is not a perfect candidate, given how slowly his tenures at both Vanderbilt and Penn State began and some lingering stink from his tenure at Vandy related to the handling of rape allegations against a handful of players. Prying him away from Penn State would be immensely difficult, I’d imagine.
But there’s no candidate with a mixture of youth, success in the SEC, success at a big-time program on par with Florida, and recruiting acumen quite like Franklin — and phone calls are more or less free.
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State head coach
Like Franklin, Gundy is already running a rich and potent program he has deep ties to; unlike Franklin, Gundy’s continued employment is inextricably linked to the whims of billionaire Oklahoma State mega-booster T. Boone Pickens, whose support has boosted the Cowboys considerably and whose capriciousness could spell a swift exit for Gundy at any given moment.
T. Boone can be used as either a buttress or a bugaboo in discussing Gundy, but it bears mentioning that Gundy has been at his alma mater for long enough that his immortal “I’m a man! I’M 40!” rant is now more than a decade old, which suggests he might just be staying in Stillwater for as long as he can.
Chip Kelly, ESPN TV analyst
Kelly is the No. 1 candidate of frustrated Florida fans, 2010-present, and also Alligator Army’s all-time Florida wide receivers coach. His Oregon offenses revolutionized college football in a way very reminiscent of Spurrier’s offenses revolutionizing the SEC, and his Ducks were cool and arrogant in ways that harkened back to Spurrier’s halcyon days, too. There are many Florida fans who see Chip Kelly as a squatter Steve Spurrier with fewer visor tosses.
The football world sees Kelly differently: As a coach who wanted to try his stuff at the NFL level badly enough to flirt with the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before landing with the Philadelphia Eagles; as a coach who wanted to stay at the NFL level badly enough to choose to work for the San Francisco 49ers; as an indifferent recruiter; as an emperor whose clothes have been tattered by his offenses making repeated contact with bigger, stronger defenses outside of Pac-12 play and in the NFL.
Kelly’s show-cause penalty was a strong reason he was not a strong candidate for Florida in 2014; now, it’s easier to point to a lot of reasons other than Florida’s strong preference for not thumbing its nose at the NCAA that Florida would not want to pay the premium to pry Kelly off of TV and get him to Gainesville, and even easier to believe that Kelly simply doesn’t want to coach college football again. (And, well: Rules might get in the way anyway.)
Les Miles, Fox Sports TV analyst
Like Stoops, Miles has a championship on his resume — and unlike Stoops, he’s also got a legacy of winning in the SEC. Like Stoops, Miles is old — he’s 63 — and probably not entirely minding being relieved of the duties of coaching, though Miles did seem to angle for several coaching jobs in 2016 after being fired by LSU. Like Stoops, Miles could be tremendously expensive — though, unlike Stoops, Miles has some buyout money due to him from LSU.
I think the primary sticking point for Florida with Miles would be his age. At best, Florida would be getting a coach who could get through a few years before whispers about him needing to retire became white noise for the recruiting trail. Couple that with his price tag and the fact that Miles would decidedly not excite a fan base starved for offense, and it’s a bad fit.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach / Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia head coach
Grouped together for ease of discussion and dismissal, Kingsbury and Holgorsen seem fairly similar to me: Both coach pyrotechnic Air Raid offenses that flirt with well-rounded offense on occasion, both have been at their schools for long enough to be comfortable there, and both seem better suited to the more laid-back style of the Big 12 than the pressure-cooker SEC. Kingsbury is clearly the sexier hire of the two, as he’s younger and seems more interested in playing politics, but neither strikes me as likely.
Randy Shannon, Florida interim head coach
It has been understood, if little-discussed, that Randy Shannon coming to Florida to be a defensive coordinator was something done with the intent of getting him back in the mix for head coaching jobs. (It should be assumed that any coach taking a coordinator job at a high-profile school like Florida may want to be a head coach, frankly.)
But the sort of job that a Florida assistant gets is not “Florida head coach” — Florida hasn’t promoted a coordinator to head coach on a non-interim basis since Galen Hall, way back in 1984, and that move probably had as much or more to do with the crushing weight of NCAA sanctions than it did with Florida thinking Hall was a great coach. And while previous Florida interim head coaches Charlie Strong and DJ Durkin will appear on this list, they did not merit serious consideration as head coaching candidates at Florida after their interim stints — though it’s fair to note those stints were limited to bowl games.
Shannon is younger than you might think — he’s 51, despite having been a graduate assistant or higher since 1991 — and he did have some success at Miami. But, barring a truly remarkable rally from the Gators over the next month, he will probably not be a serious candidate at Florida.
Pure pipe dreams
Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic head coach
I think Lane Kiffin is a clown. I think Lane Kiffin departing every job he has had in football with flames licking at his heels is telling, and that his half a year of work as a head coach at Florida Atlantic is far from enough proof that any major program should consider him a viable head coaching candidate. (Arguably, Kiffin openly welcoming players and coaches who have screwed up elsewhere to Boca Raton is proof that those programs shouldn’t do that.) I think Florida hiring Lane Kiffin would produce ire in the Florida fan base that we literally have not seen this century — not as the Ron Zook years went off the rails, not during a 4-8 season, not as Florida’s offense has atrophied.
I put Kiffin on a “Do not want” list back in 2014. I’d do the same today. But he’s probably not a realistic candidate anyway.
Doug Nussmeier, Florida offensive coordinator
See the Shannon entry. And add the degree of difficulty that would be not getting named the interim head coach and still somehow getting named the head coach. And then add the degree of difficulty of impressing down the stretch with Florida’s current personnel on offense.
And then consider that the Florida fan base might actually hate this hire more vociferously than a hypothetical Kiffin one.
Steve Spurrier, Florida ambassador
Steve Spurrier is not going to coach Florida — or, likely, college football — again. He’s 72. He golfs a lot now, and gets to cheer for Florida from the press box, and gets paid to be Steve Spurrier without doing any of the work that made him Steve Spurrier.
Give up the ghost, y’all.
Too soon, but rising
P.J. Fleck, Minnesota head coach
Fleck became your favorite writer’s favorite coach while turning Western Michigan into a deeply fun and overachieving program over the last few years, and rowed his boat to Minnesota last fall. He would come relatively cheap, of course, but he’s unproven as both a coach and recruiter at the Power Five level, probably not leaving Minnesota after one year, no matter how much Florida head coaches in other sports enjoy his friendship, and doesn’t make geographic sense, given his deep roots in the Midwest.
Matt Rhule, Baylor head coach
I have a hard time knowing exactly what to make of Rhule, whom I think has taken on a Sisyphean task — making Baylor both good at football and not a den of iniquity at the same time — but whose eagerness to leave Temple for that gig puzzles me. Hiring Rhule now would be buying extremely low, too, and would be a miserably hard sell job to Gator Nation.
Jeff Brohm, Purdue head coach
There was a brief moment when Brohm had Purdue looking exciting and dangerous way, way ahead of schedule in September.
Purdue has also lost its last three games to Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Nebraska — you know, the Power Five program that has already fired its athletic director this year, and will almost surely part company with its head coach soon.
Brohm has many of the markers of future success, and I suspect he’ll be a good coach for a program a few rungs up the ladder from Purdue at some point, but bringing him to Florida in 2017 would be a substantial reach.
Realistic and rising
Scott Frost, UCF head coach
How many boxes can we check?
Frost has impeccable offensive credentials. He was Oregon’s wide receivers coach under Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator under Mark Helfrich — and while Helfrich’s tenure ended poorly, Frost’s time in it spanned the three years Marcus Mariota spent rewriting record books. And Frost’s Knights have been explosive, too: Absurdly, he inherited an 0-12 team that scored 167 points in 2015 and made it a 6-7 team that scored 374 points a year later — and that team is now on pace to outdo it’s previous year’s point total by 200 points again in 2017, given that UCF is No. 1 nationally in points per game and No. 3 in total points even though UCF missed a game due to Hurricane Irma.
Frost, much like pre-Utah Urban Meyer, is winning at a smaller school without a runway. He’s 13-7 at UCF, a program that fell off only slightly after its stunning Fiesta Bowl run in 2013, going 9-4 in 2014, but fully cratered in 2015, scoring more than 17 points just once in George O’Leary’s last campaign.
Frost now has experience recruiting in Florida, by virtue of recruiting to UCF — something he has done well, if not unimpeachably so.
Frost is also young, at 42, and fully game to do all of the political stuff required of a Florida head coach. I know a couple of UCF fans who swear by his personality, and my own read on him from afar agrees with their assessment.
If Jeremy Foley were still Florida’s athletic director, I would have no qualms at all about saying that Frost would be his ideal candidate save for a lack of Power Five head coaching experience. Scott Stricklin, though, hired a women’s basketball coach by adhering to the Foley formula — even if he made an extraordinary run at a big name first — and does not seem all that different from Foley, philosophically.
The major complicating factor for Frost, though, is Nebraska — the school that Frost won a national title with as a player in the 1990s. There has been an expectation by Nebraska fans that Frost is likely to come back to the Cornhuskers when the time comes — and with Mike Riley all but fired, that time could be soon. Florida would likely be able to compete with Nebraska on a variety of levels for Frost, but it is not his alma mater, and it is unclear whether those roots will pave his route to Lincoln.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech head coach
Fuente is a lot like Frost: Good, though not superb, offense; wild success at a smaller school; young; capable of playing politics; has at least one very notable recruiting success in Florida, in Tigers-turned-Denver Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch.
The primary differences? Fuente is a bit lower-key than Frost, to my knowledge, and is building something at a bigger school than UCF. While Frost’s stock may never get hotter than it is right now, seven games into an undefeated season, Fuente’s is liable to get better if he can turn the Hokies back into a national power — though it should be noted that if the Hokies knock off Miami on the road in a primetime game this coming Saturday, Fuente’s star is going to burn a whole lot brighter in a hurry.
Fuente would also obviously require a bit more recruiting on Florida’s part, and there’s a chance, if a small one, that the Gators would be a little gun-shy about going after a coach from a “lesser” program and striking out.
Mike Norvell, Memphis head coach
And if Florida wants a less exciting version of Frost who is currently following in Fuente’s footsteps, there’s Mike Norvell.
Norvell was the itinerant Todd Graham’s wunderkind offensive coordinator for several years, following him from Tulsa to Pittsburgh to Arizona State, and helping those teams put up points. He’s done well at Memphis over the last two years, going 8-5 in 2016 with totally explicable wins and starting this season 7-1. (Of course, that one loss by Norvell’s Tigers was to Frost’s Knights — and by a 40-13 score.)
Norvell also makes slightly less sense than Frost and Fuente because of geography: He’s from Texas, went to Central Arkansas, and has mostly worked at programs well outside of the Sunshine State.
Matt Campbell, Iowa State head coach
Here is a good case for Matt Campbell in a single tweet:
Iowa State is the first team to beat two AP top-five teams before Nov. 1 since Florida in 2005.— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) October 29, 2017
Those teams were Tennessee and Georgia, which Florida beat as a top-15 team and with the bones of a national championship team — and comparing Iowa State’s feat, which includes wins over Oklahoma and TCU, to that of those 2005 Gators feels like a slight to the Cyclones, who are winning despite a sequence of events forcing a career backup who spent time at Oregon State with Luke Del Rio to play quarterback.
Campbell is thriving at Iowa State in his second season in Ames, though he’s still just 9-11 overall with the Cyclones, and he was very good at Toledo before that, notably coaching the 2013 Rockets team that gave Florida one of the closer 24-6 games you’ll see in their season opener but also failing to ever beat Northern Illinois. He’s also got a rep for good offense, though he isn’t known as a great recruiter, and isn’t from the South.
But maybe the most important thing to know about Campbell is that his Iowa State buyout is ludicrous: It’s the full remaining value of his contract, which currently stands at $9.4 million. Florida, as the above Football Scoop post notes, did take on the task of wooing a coach with a mint for a buyout when it honed in on McElwain — and came away with a deal to pay less than what was on the printed page — but it stands to reason that the Gators won’t be able to pull the same trick twice.
Dino Babers, Syracuse head coach
Like Fuente, Babers has been regarded as a member of the crop of really good hires by ACC schools in recent years that has helped the conference close the gap on the SEC. Like Fuente, Babers cut his teeth at a mid-major — Bowling Green — prior to making it to the ACC. Like Frost and Norvell, Babers arguably comes from a strong offensive bloodline — but he’s proven himself well beyond that bloodline, as he spent just a couple of years at Baylor under Art Briles prior to the Bears really taking off on the field, then left for FCS Eastern Illinois before breaking into the FBS head coaching ranks with the Falcons.
Unlike everyone else on this list of rising candidates, though, Babers is legitimately old. He’s 56, and while that number is legitimately shocking to me for a variety of reasons, it also means hiring him and hoping to get a decade of good coaching out of him is, as with Stoops or Miles or any other older coach, a complicated ask.
Chad Morris, SMU head coach
This is a stretch on the “realistic” front: Morris is a Texan who spent nearly two decades coaching high school ball in the state, and is 13-19 at SMU, having taken over a moribund program and taken a while to get it revving.
Morris isn’t a good fit geographically, is a little too old — he’s 48 — to be “young,” and would probably prefer to step up at a Lone Star State school than to head to Florida. But he’ll appear on lists.
Realistic, rising, and familiar
DJ Durkin, Maryland head coach
Florida’s former defensive coordinator was long tabbed for future success as a head coach — but he’s only beginning to have that at Maryland, where he’s 11-11 through 22 games and has yet to beat a team better than either the 2016 version of Michigan State or the 2017 version of Texas.
Oh, and Durkin’s Terps have met Frost’s Knights twice in the last two years — and while the series is 1-1, Maryland required double overtime to win at UCF in 2016, while UCF pasted the Terps, 38-10, in College Park this September.
You can talk yourself into Durkin eventually building something formidable at Florida or elsewhere, but it would be a hell of a lot harder to sell fans on him doing that beginning in 2017.
Realistic and established
Willie Taggart, Oregon head coach
I didn’t include Taggart on the original list partly because it seemed to me to beggar belief that Taggart would leave a really, really good job at Oregon after just one year.
But Darren Heitner tweeting that Taggart is “now a real possibility” for Florida means that someone — and probably someone hoping to boost Taggart’s stock, given that Heitner likely has better sources among agents than at Florida — either a) thinks it’s not a fully ridiculous notion that Taggart would leave, or b) is willing to put Taggart’s name in the mix for Florida to get him some leverage at Oregon just two months into his first season in Eugene or use him as a smokescreen for another candidate.
The latter of those two lines of thought would still seem more viable to me, because leaving a school as powerful and well-connected as Oregon — which is Nike U, and in a whole lot of ways — after just one year is practically unprecedented, even in an industry as mercenary as college football. Reading even a little bit about Taggart, though, turns up his Treasure Coast roots, as he’s from Bradenton and still has plenty of family in the area.
There were a handful of faces Willie Taggart grew accustomed to seeing whenever he would get those rare chances to peer into the crowd at Raymond James Stadium during his nearly four years as South Florida’s head coach. Taggart grew up as one of six children in Palmetto and, optimistically, he hoped returning to Tampa as USF’s head coach would mean more chances to see his family.
Those chances never came as frequently as he hoped. Guiding the Bulls back to glory was a busy job. Game days, ironically, were the time when he truly had those reminders of home. He could see some of his brothers and sisters. He could see his mother, Gloria James, who still lives in Palmetto.
“I think that’s the part that I’ll miss more than anything,” Taggart said Tuesday, “because it was the one time in my college coaching career that they’ve been able to experience it with me.”
Taggart also has a reasonable buyout, at just $3 million — a sum that would fit within the reported difference between what Florida will pay McElwain as a buyout and what it could have paid.
Setting aside the potential weirdness of leaving a program after one year, Taggart is also a fantastic choice for Florida based on most other criteria. He resurrected Western Kentucky and USF programs that had fallen into deep distress — arguably, Taggart has as much to do with why both Brohm and USF’s current coach both also appear on this list as those coaches’ own efforts do. He is younger than Frost, whose Knights Taggart’s Bulls beat soundly in 2016. And his offenses have been great, if not immediately so: Western Kentucky went 0-6 and scoring 30 points only in the sixth of Taggart’s first six games, but failed to score 21 points just twice in his final season; USF didn’t score 27 points even once in Taggart’s first year, then didn’t score fewer than 30 in any game in 2016 — a feat Florida has never accomplished in school history.
Taggart would have questions to answer about a dodgy saga revolving around an offseason conditioning session that left players hospitalized and his handling of that, but he checks essentially every box that Frost does, and he has more experience at a younger age.
Realistic, established, and familiar
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State head coach
Boy, sure is convenient that Florida’s athletic director worked with a winning coach who knows Florida well at an SEC program that only that coach would argue is on Florida’s level, isn’t it?
Mullen is only 45, somehow, and he might be the best coach in Mississippi State’s history. The success he’s had in Starkville — despite Ole Miss rising, despite playing in the merciless SEC West, despite every other disadvantage that comes with coaching at Mississippi State — is remarkable. He has two national title rings — I mean, I’m assuming he still has them, but — that have Florida insignias somewhere on them.
But the bad blood that existed between Florida and Mullen is not entirely drained from the relationship between the school and its former offensive coordinator, and I do not think the many, many people hired by Foley and still working in the UAA have forgotten about it. Stricklin obviously has deeper ties to Mullen than Foley did, and it is Stricklin’s athletic department now — but Foley’s voice is not entirely gone from the building, and I wonder whether he would speak up to raise doubts about Mullen.
Charlie Strong, USF head coach
Boy, it sure is convenient that a beloved former Florida defensive coordinator with extensive Power Five experience is now coaching in Florida again, isn’t it?
The cases for and against Strong are well-known. Strong was a great defensive coordinator with the Gators, which got him the head coaching job at Louisville. He built Louisville into a national power, which got him the head coaching job at Texas. He didn’t have a winning season at Texas, which got him fired. And, now, he’s stewarding a very good USF team built largely by his predecessor, Taggart, and proving that he might not have been quite as bad a coach as his Texas tenure implied.
Strong is old — he’s 57 — and would do relatively little to satisfy Florida fans who want an offensive revival, unless you think his uneven luck with offensive coordinators would take an emphatically positive turn in Gainesville. It would also be really, really hard to sell Florida fans on hiring a guy who flamed out at Texas — a program most Florida fans would like to think is very similar to their own — even though he is Charlie Strong.
Will Muschamp, South Carolina head coach