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Report: Florida told of availability of Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly after firing Dan Mullen

Florida knowing that big fish were trying to find new ponds sheds more light on its hiring of Billy Napier.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Florida vs Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Florida was informed of former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly being willing to move after its firing of Dan Mullen, per a report from Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated.

Dellenger, one of the most plugged-in reporters in college football, relates that detail as one small part of a wide-angle story on this week’s moves in college football coaching, ones that led Riley to USC and Kelly to LSU — quite literally, it’s an aside in a passage about LSU’s pursuit of Kelly.

Just two years removed from their last title in 2019, the Tigers are 11–11 over the past two seasons. Woodward’s goal at the start of the search was to get a “big, proven fish,” says one person close to the AD. Early in the search process, he and a small committee of administrators identified six or so candidates, a who’s who in the sport: Fisher, Franklin, Kelly, Tucker, Riley and NFL coach Matt Rhule. Woodward reduced the list to two or three finalists who were seriously interested in coming to Baton Rouge.

“[Kelly] was willing to dance,” says one LSU source, “so we kept working it.”

Kelly was actually open to dancing with several programs. When Florida’s job opened, its officials were alerted that Riley and Kelly were willing to move, sources tell SI. The Gators were already set on their No. 1 target and the coach they eventually hired, Napier. During the final week of the regular season as Oklahoma State was preparing to play Bedlam, at least one AD received an email from a marketing agent representing Mike Gundy, saying he was interested in the job.

And given that Jacksonville television reporter Mia O’Brien had previously reported that “Kelly’s people called the Gators,” the really interesting detail here is that Riley, too, was floated to Florida.

Proximity and professional courtesy might have plenty to do with that. Riley and Kelly, as Dellenger writes, are both represented by agent Trace Armstrong, a former All-American defensive end for the Gators, who works for the powerful and rising Athletes First agency and out of a satellite office in Gainesville.

And, as Dellenger notes, the heads-up did nothing to change Florida’s process — which he also writes did not “lean heavily on” a search firm.

While athletic director searches can drag on for months, coaching searches now happen quickly. Florida fired Dan Mullen and had his replacement, Louisiana’s Billy Napier, in place within a week, effectively shutting down its broad search after meeting with Napier three days after the job opened. Florida did not lean heavily on a search firm.

So what we have confirmed as pertains to Florida is really just the tidbit as it is: Florida was told — most likely by Armstrong — that Riley and Kelly could potentially move.

What that means in the wider context is unclear, but we can make some guesses. Dellenger’s reporting suggests Riley and Kelly — and Kelly far more so — were apparently known to be restless and potentially available within the industry well before their departures transpired in ways that shocked the public. If that was common knowledge, then it beggars belief to think that Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin was surprised to learn it for the first time when Florida was told of it — and Dellenger reporting that it didn’t alter Florida’s search suggests that Stricklin’s focus was on nabbing Napier.

Florida getting an indication that Riley and Kelly were available also does not necessarily mean that either one was deeply interested in Florida or a real candidate for the job. But that detail surfacing after the fact does mean that at least one party to said indication has no problem with it coming to light. (And Dellenger cites “sources,” plural; it’s possible both Armstrong and Florida don’t mind this being public knowledge.)

For Florida, which has seemingly made no bones about Napier being its primary and only serious candidate, focusing on and landing that top target has the potential to make Stricklin look like a seer, or at least sage. For Armstrong, Florida having at least heard of availability for Riley and Kelly makes their eventual deals look more like leverage plays that resulted in new best fits rather than escapes from untenable situations. And for LSU and USC, the idea that another premier program didn’t swing for the fences or hit the home runs they did at least strokes egos.

But this new detail does not dramatically change any narrative, and the most relevant one for Florida fans remains that Florida landed Billy Napier because it wanted Billy Napier.