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Florida Gators Weekend Review: On Larry Scott to Howard, and a huge women’s hoops win

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Dan Mullen may need to replace a staffer. Cam Newbauer now needs to maintain some good feeling.

NCAA Football: Tennessee-Martin at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I think this is the format I’ll be using for the Weekend Review going forward. Any and all feedback is, of course, encouraged.

Florida reportedly losing Larry Scott to Howard

As of mid-January, Florida appeared to have staved off most of the possible attrition for its football coaching staff: Dan Mullen wasn’t ever really in the mix to jump to the Dallas Cowboys, and Todd Grantham was mentioned repeatedly as a possibility at Mississippi State before the Bulldogs pulled a second shocker by plucking Mike Leach from Pullman to replace Joe Moorhead after their initially surprising about-face on retaining Moorhead in the first place.

But coaches get new opportunities all the time, and one to be a head coach is reportedly going to be enough to pry tight ends coach Larry Scott away from the Gators, as multiple reports — first in almost simultaneous tweets from Chris Vannini of The Athletic and Adam Rittenberg of ESPN, and then confirmed by Nick de la Torre of Gator Country — issued on Saturday night suggested the move.

There has yet to be confirmatory reporting on this since Saturday, and Howard has yet to announce anything on its end, making at least one headline on the news look a little weird, but a lack of any public pushback on Florida’s part would also seem to suggest that the Gators are not actively fighting to retain Scott.

Scott, who had previously served as an interim head coach at Miami in the wake of Randy Shannon’s firing and was briefly Tennessee’s offensive coordinator under Butch Jones, has had head coaching aspirations, and was sure to be mentioned for openings at alma mater South Florida and other smaller Sunshine State schools whenever they materialized. But such openings were available at both USF and Florida Atlantic this offseason — and while Scott’s name was floated for the Bulls, who also interviewed him, they ultimately went with longtime Clemson assistant Jeff Scott. The Owls didn’t get connected to Scott, choosing instead to hire former Florida State head coach Willie Taggart.

With his alma mater and one of the two South Florida FBS schools needing head coaches, this was the sort of cycle that should have shaped up well for Scott to get a big-chair job in Florida if he was primed to do it with his current resume — and it didn’t work out like that. So heading to Howard — where he might take a pay cut to be a head coach, given that he made $425,000 this year at Florida but could be looking at something closer to $300,000 (in an place with local income taxes) as Howard’s head coach — could get Scott a different top line on that resume, one that might make the very difficult task of breaking into the top ranks of college football coaching as a black man slightly easier.

But it could also be the most prestigious job he ever holds. Howard has just two winning seasons in the last 15 years, and the Bison fell off hard after former Virginia coach Mike London’s first season in 2017, a 7-4 campaign that featured an unprecedented upset of an FBS team in an opener against UNLV, a 47-point loss to FCS power Richmond, and a recovery to go 6-2 in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. Howard went 4-6 in 2018 after giving Ohio a scare in its opener, which was followed by London resigning to change hats and DMW area addresses and take the top chair at William and Mary.

After hiring former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince, Howard then fell to 2-10 in 2019, with a 79-0 skunking by Maryland in the season opener setting the tone for a season in which starting quarterback Caylin Newton, brother of Cam, led a four-man midseason exodus in advance of an investigation that led to findings of abuse and Prince’s firing and that number of players in the transfer portal more than quadrupling to 17.

Scott inherits all of that history, and will be working against the history that made London the only Howard head coach to leave willingly after a winning season since 1988, when Willie Jeffries left for South Carolina State after a 7-4 mark. Even Steve Wilson, arguably Howard’s best modern-era coach — he led the Bison to two black national college football championships and their only FCS playoffs appearance — ran his course in D.C., winning just 10 games over his final three years after twice winning 10 games in the 1990s. (Wilson got a second HBCU head job at Texas Southern in the 2000s, but spent just three years there; now, after more than a decade out of football, he’s an assistant for the DC Defenders of the new-look XFL.)

If he succeeds at Howard, Scott should be a hot commodity in coaching: His knowledge of Florida and ability as a recruiter have long been touted as valuable assets, and adding a second stint of head coaching experience to that would make him a more accomplished and well-rounded coach.

History suggests, sadly, that he will struggle to win games at a school that has little recent record of success — and that, after taking a big leap to a big chair, Scott may well realize that his plateau was as a Power Five coordinator and position coach.

What Florida will do to replace Scott isn’t clear, though some initial speculation has linked the Gators to notable former Florida tight ends Cornelius Ingram — now a successful high school coach at Hawthorne High in eastern Alachua County — and Tate Casey, who has done radio work for the Gators in recent years. I suspect that neither is truly a candidate for the role — though each could stand to be interviewed — and concur with The Athletic’s Will Sammon that Mullen is more likely to hire a tight ends coach than play musical chairs with his staff, something that he did while attempting to build his Florida staff and keep running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider in 2018 and which ultimately led to Seider fleeing to Penn State. (A popular knee-jerk reaction on Twitter on Saturday suggested Florida should shuffle things up once again, this time to get Seider back. That’s highly unlikely.)

If I were a betting man, I would guess that Mullen would thus look first at two coaches currently working as tight end coaches who have recent history on Mullen staffs: Scott Sallach of Stetson, who was Mullen’s primary tight ends coach in Starkville, and Tony Graham of Mississippi State, whose status as a Magnolia State legend would likely outrank his relative inexperience as a tight ends coach if he were to be hired.

Neither Sallach nor Hughes — whose name was repeatedly linked to Florida when he appeared to be on the outs at Jackson State, only for him to return to Mississippi State under Moorhead and seemingly stay on for the Leach era — would be a thrilling hire, but Mullen has prioritized continuity in his time as a head coach, with results to back it up. And given that the Gators currently have one of their best tight ends ever in Kyle Pitts — a strong contender for All-America honors in 2020 — it does make a lot of sense to get a coach who can continue to develop him into a devastating playmaker.

Women’s hoops takes down ranked Wildcats

Florida’s women’s basketball program has been in a long rebuild since the 2017 exit of Amanda Butler and the hiring of her replacement, Cameron Newbauer. Butler’s last team failed to make a postseason tournament, but Newbauer’s first two teams failed to combine for 20 wins as he struggled to put together coherent rosters, with a slew of one-year transfers and Butler holdovers never quite gelling.

This year had been slightly different even before Sunday, with Florida navigating its non-conference schedule — admittedly not a very strenuous one — well to enter SEC play with a winning record, and the Gators not immediately tanking in conference games, scoring wins over Vanderbilt and Auburn to get to 11-5 and 2-1 in the SEC as of early January.

But the array of ranked teams in the SEC — which currently has six such schools, with LSU just outside the top 25 — spent January beating up on the Gators, who somehow managed to see five of the six currently ranked schools and LSU in the month, and lost all six of their games to them, none by fewer than nine points.

With February set to dawn with yet another toughie — a road game at Kentucky, which held Florida to its fewest points of the season in a 65-45 win in Gainesville — there was precious little hope of an immediate reversal of fortunes in the Gators’ favor.

Yet that’s what they got on Sunday, earning a 70-62 win that is clearly the best of Newbauer’s tenure to date.

After trailing by as many as 14 in the first half and 10 at halftime — and scoring just 19 points over the first two quarters — Florida exploded after the break, with a 24-point outburst in the third slashing the Wildcats’ lead to three points and a 27-point fourth quarter putting them away.

Freshman Lavender Briggs, a budding star, had 18 points and 13 rebounds to lead all players in both categories, and Zada Williams anchored Florida in the paint, scoring 12 points and snatching 12 rebounds of her own to help power an effort that collected 18 more rebounds than the Wildcats on the day and snagged two more offensive rebounds than Kentucky had defensive boards.

Florida’s shooting — as is going to be the case under Newbauer, whose teams have a proclivity for firing up lots of threes — was as much a tale of two halves as anything, as the Gators sank none of their seven first-half threes and then drained seven of their 13 tries after halftime, and Kentucky was notably without leading scorer Rhyne Howard, who punished Florida with 22 points and six boards in Gainesville.

But this was Florida starting off fairly cold and staying in a game on the road against a good team and then racing past that team when it got hot, an impressive effort in sticking to formula for a young roster — the Gators have just one senior (Williams) and one junior (Kiara “Kiki” Smith) in their regular rotation, and played seven freshmen and sophomores on Sunday — that is still learning how to win.

Florida’s still far from NCAA Tournament contention this year, but its schedule is far less daunting in February than it was in January, with the Gators’ next four opponents all being unranked and three of the four sitting among the SEC’s bottom five teams. If Florida gets truly hot and wins its next five games — which would include knocking off ranked Arkansas at home — then its home finale against top-ranked South Carolina would suddenly become one of the biggest Florida women’s basketball games in years, even if it would also be one in which Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks would be heavily favored. That sort of close would maybe get Florida to the fringe of the NCAA Tournament, but only barely.

But the Gators have put themselves in position to have the first winning season of the Newbauer era and at least play in the NIT, which would be valuable experience for a young team that is very much in need of chances to grow together. And with Newbauer set to accomplish what Butler came to be criticized for regularly doing (while Butler — whose surprising debut 2018-19 season at Clemson rightly earned her ACC Coach of the Year honors — scuffles in a sophomore season in the Palmetto State), it’s going to get easier to sell Florida as a program on the rise to recruits who might want to get buckets alongside Briggs or dish assists to sniper Brylee Bartram.

Florida’s chances of immediately becoming a powerhouse in women’s basketball after the Butler reign probably dropped to near zero when San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon turned down Scott Stricklin’s overtures to come to Gainesville; Newbauer was always going to be a long-term builder rather than an overnight success.

What his Gators did on Sunday shows their foundation might be solidifying, and even if it doesn’t lead to the best dance card in March, it’s a promising sign.

Gators score road win at Vanderbilt

Game Thread

Even considering Vandy’s recent successes against the Gators under Drew, the eternally miserable experience that is playing at Memorial Gym, and Florida’s own struggles, the Gators are favored to win comfortably in Nashville. Poor shooting or inconsistent effort could make that a problem ... but Vandy also took advantage of some of that against Kentucky, and still ultimately lost by nine.

Florida is better — and in a much shallower hole — than Vandy, we presume.

Recap

The Florida Gators spent the first half of their trip to Nashville throwing slightly more rocks into the hoop than the lowly Vanderbilt Commodores could.

The second half was more familiar, as it saw the Gators run out to a lead — as usual — and then cough up much of that lead — also as usual.

The unusual part, in fact, might be that Florida survived this one, 61-55.

Gymnastics soars again at Kentucky

So half of the stakes on Friday were simple: Florida getting a win over Kentucky would keep its run for their second SEC regular season title in a row strong.

And the Gators got that.

The Gators also wanted to pick up a great road score to use in their National Qualifying Score (NQS) when postseason comes.

They got that, too, ultimately posting a 197.800 that should be among the nation’s best road scores for quite some while and gave them a margin of victory of more than a point over the Wildcats (196.600).

Other news and notes

  • Yes, I have seen the reports that Florida is bringing back Charlie Strong and Kerwin Bell in analyst roles, and it’s worth noting that they initially came from old lions Pat Dooley and Buddy Martin, who would obviously be in position to know. Strong has also been floated as a possible analyst for weeks, well predating Dooley’s report, and both moves would make sense as feel-good hires if nothing else: If Strong and Bell are going to settle for analyst roles, why shouldn’t the program that has the most history with both be the one paying them for their insight ... and keeping tabs on them as possible on-field coaches down the road? But — as with the Scott news — it seems a bit odd that there’s been no word from Florida on these moves, especially given how revered both Strong and Bell are. It’s possible that Florida’s just waiting to anounce a full accounting of moves after National Signing Day on Wednesday; if any of these moves aren’t finalized shortly afterward, I’d begin to wonder whether they’re actually happening.
  • Florida’s men’s tennis team handled Florida State, 4-1 in a College MatchDay meeting on Saturday. (You would not believe how many emails I get about College MatchDay and the USTA, especially in relation to how much writing about tennis I’ve done here.) It’s a nice win, but Florida’s season is going to be made or broken by how it fares in matches like the one it lost to now-No. 1 Texas or in 90-degree heat against Georgia or Vanderbilt in April, not before a partisan crowd against a somewhat inferior program. Next weekend’s road swing in the Midwest — on which Florida visits Illinois and Purdue — and the subsequent ITA National Team Indoor Championships should tell a bit more about how hardy this squad is.
  • Florida’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams both fell to Tennessee in their regular-season finales this weekend, putting sour notes on what have otherwise been very good pre-championships seasons for both teams. For the women, this was a first loss; for the men, it’s a first loss since an October defeat at Missouri, and just their second overall.