The Florida Gators men’s basketball team failing to make the 2022 NCAA Tournament has been hotly debated in the days since, with the program likely heading for its first NIT berth in five years being used to once again cast Mike White’s tenure as a failure and call for his firing.
As it turns out, though, those fans won’t get White’s firing as their wish — but he will also no longer be the head coach at Florida, per multiple reports as of Sunday afternoon, with CBS’s Jon Rothstein leading a number of basketball writers in reporting that White will depart Florida for Georgia, of all places.
Sources: Georgia will hire Florida's Mike White as its next head basketball coach.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 13, 2022
The shocking news of a sitting Florida men’s football or basketball coach leaving for an SEC program, confirmed from Georgia’s side and announced by the school in sequence after the initial report, isn’t without precedent — but it hasn’t happened since football coach Bob Woodruff left Florida for Tennessee in 1963. And the only previous Florida men’s basketball coaches to leave the Gators for another collegiate job in the last 50 years are Norm Sloan — who departed Gainesville to coach N.C. State in 1966, only to end up back with the Gators for much of the 1980s and eventually get them to their first Sweet Sixteen in program history — and Lon Kruger, who followed taking Florida to its first Final Four in 1994 with a largely frustrating 1994-95 season and a departure for Illinois.
White released a statement on Sunday night.
“I am extraordinarily grateful to the leadership of Scott Stricklin and to the entire Florida Athletics staff for an amazing experience during my tenure. Thank you to each and every one of our current and former players. Your hard work, commitment and dedication was and continues to be an inspiration. I will cherish our relationships forever. In addition, the Gainesville community has been wonderful to my family and I. We are truly thankful for our time at the University of Florida.”
Florida’s own release on White’s departure includes a statement from Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin.
“Mike White informed me this afternoon that he was accepting another job. It’s been a pleasure having Mike, Kira and the White family with us in Gainesville, and we wish them well. They are a wonderful family who always represented the Gators in a first-class manner.
”The search for the next Gator men’s basketball coach has already begun, and I look forward to identifying a leader who will embody the UAA’s vision of providing a championship experience with integrity.”
White had seven winning seasons as Florida’s head coach, piloting the team to the Elite Eight in 2017 and to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances — and first-round wins — in the three Tournaments actually contested thereafter. (Florida was also in position to make the 2020 NCAA Tournament that was canceled due to the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
But uneven results in SEC play and a pattern of inconsistency in performance with a number of different rosters left plenty of Florida fans wanting more, especially from the successor to Billy Donovan, whose Hall of Fame pedigree and untouchable career on the sidelines for the Gators have elevated expectations for Florida beyond merely winning and making the NCAA Tournament more often than not.
And so calls for White’s firing have echoed for years, albeit mostly from a fringe of the fan base that was unlikely to move Stricklin. More recent wonderings from more even-keeled folks had White’s possible departure tied to other openings in college basketball, with the chairs currently occupied by Kermit Davis at Ole Miss — the alma mater where White hooped with current athletic director Keith Carter in the late 1990s — and LaVall Jordan at Butler seen as ones he could move to in a convenient parting of ways with Florida.
White leaving for Georgia, which just fired the well-known and well-traveled Tom Crean after a disastrous four-year tenure, was not on anyone’s board. But as in football, Georgia has considerable sleeping giant potential, with its proximity to the perpetually talent-rich Atlanta area and a lot of good high school and AAU programs in Georgia making it a job that could elevate a young coach who can recruit — someone like White, who turned 45 last week but could have decades more in college coaching.
And while his public statement is one of gratitude, White may well have been making this move to save more than himself.
Mike White leaving Florida for Georgia showsjust how badly he and his family wanted out. It had become really toxic with a vocal segment of the fanbase, and White didn’t want his young kids affected by it at school and via social media— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) March 13, 2022
If White truly did want out because of the relentless toxicity from a vocal minority, it’s hard to blame him: The sorts of things said about White on a routine basis on social media frequently tipped past the lines of good taste, even for devoted fans.
But those same fans will point out — with some truth — that White leading Florida to more victories might have spared him their wrath. A program that had turned the Elite Eight berth into a Final Four appearance in 2017, had made a Sweet Sixteen since, or had made a hard run at an SEC title would certainly have been one granted a little more grace.
That might have been easier for White’s Gators with a healthy John Egbunu — who suffered a season-ending injury just as Florida was rounding into terrifying form in 2017 — or with Keyontae Johnson, who suffered through a career-ending medical emergency in late 2020, and missed the next two seasons while remaining on Florida’s roster, around for his junior or senior years. But it also seemed possible in 2018 and 2019, when young teams led by Andrew Nembhard, prior to his transfer to Gonzaga, and then supplemented by touted transfer Kerry Blackshear failed to gel into consistently excellent squads.
And that — proximity to the promised land, with the distance from Florida to where it wanted to be seemingly always premised on ifs and never actually covered — is likely to be White’s legacy as Florida’s coach, with his new role as either a foe to be vanquished or a thorn in Florida’s side sure to be a new chapter for all to write.
What the Gators do from here is less clear. White leaving of his own accord wipes out Florida’s financial obligations to him — Georgia, in fact, will pay Florida something resembling White’s buyout of $1.25 million — and should free up many millions for Stricklin to spend on his successor.
If the process of writing checks to someone who would want to pick up the mantle White relinquished got easier on this Sunday, though, the problem of who to install as his successor got harder. Stricklin will survey a fairly shallow crop of potential hires, with most established names well-entrenched at their various programs and the top tier of mid-major coaches seemingly less appealing this year than in some previous — or future — cycles.
Former Florida assistant and longtime Donovan lieutenant Anthony Grant is sure to be on many fans’ minds and wish lists, but he’s 56 in April — 15 years older and wiser than he would have been when Jeremy Foley was set to install him as Florida’s head coach while the Orlando Magic had Donovan under contract in 2007 — and has failed in a run at an SEC program, spending six largely frustrating years at Alabama. While he has done well at Dayton, resurrecting a career that took a hit in Tuscaloosa, Grant does not fit the profile for young, up-and-coming coaches that Florida has had most of its athletic success with — and it’s not even clear if he’d want the job if asked.
Similarly, Shaka Smart, long thought of as a white whale possibility to succeed Donovan, is also seemingly off the board. While Florida might have had a shot at him if his timing for leaving VCU had synced up with Donovan’s timing for leaving for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Smart and the Gators were ships passing in the night in that respect in 2014, and he has since left Texas after a promising but underwhelming tenure not unlike White’s at Florida, landing at home-state Marquette and in the competitive Big East.
So does Florida go a tier lower than those well-known coaches, to San Francisco’s Todd Golden or Wyoming’s Jeff Linder or North Texas’s Grant McCasland? Does it shake up the college basketball world by ringing up Rick Pitino — or making some unfathomable offer to Brad Stevens?
Stricklin has advantages, substantial ones, that he can bring to bear in this pursuit. But after his first basketball hire, the now-disgraced Cameron Newbauer, and his first football hire, Dan Mullen, both required firings in the last 12 months, there will be significant pressure on him to nail this one or risk an 0-for-3 record in glamour sport hirings that might get even Florida’s usually reticent booster class to make some noise.
For now, though, fans far removed from those boosters appear to have played a significant role in producing a vacancy they desperately sought, even if it comes without a firing they lusted for on a daily basis.
For Florida’s sake, the rest of us now have to hope those fans were right about Mike White — or at least about his coaching.