Mike White's departure from Florida a chance for both sides to start fresh
Hours before Florida missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Mike White’s first season in Gainesville, the news broke that the consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance streak wasn’t the only thing coming to an end Sunday.
The Mike White tenure in Gainesville was also ending, and despite all the hot seat chatter, it was ending on White’s terms, with White accepting the open head coach position at rival Georgia. The Bulldogs fired Tom Crean after 4 mostly disastrous seasons on Thursday, and quickly moved to replace him with White, who had not lost to Georgia since the 2018-2019 season.
White departs Gainesville having won 142 games over 7 seasons. White advanced to 4 of the 6 contested NCAA Tournaments in his Florida tenure, including a run to the Elite 8 in 2016-2017. Until this season, White was also 1 of only 5 head coaches to win a NCAA Tournament game in the past 4 contested NCAA Tournaments, and the youngest on that list to accomplish the feat. During the 7 years White was in Gainesville, only Kentucky and Tennessee have won more basketball games among SEC programs, and only Kentucky has won more road games and games against ranked opponents.
Despite those bullet points of success, there was widespread unrest and noise in the system surrounding White’s tenure at Florida. The Gators were on the bubble for the 3rd time in White’s 7 years this season, and their 13 losses this season marked the 3rd consecutive full season Florida lost at least 12 games. Florida, a program that has won more SEC Championships in basketball than anyone except Kentucky since 1990, hasn’t competed for the SEC basketball championship since White’s third season and hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2016-2017.
White did plenty of good at Florida in the unenviable position of replacing a generational head coach in Billy Donovan. A high character person and great family man, White won games and did it the right way at a time in the sport when the corruption and grift were so widespread that the FBI circled multiple SEC programs. He also won enough games to play in the NCAA Tournament consistently in an era that has seen the SEC blossom into one of the nation’s premier basketball leagues.
But White was never going to be Donovan, a generational, Hall of Fame coach whose name rightly dons Florida’s home court. And after 7 years without delivering a championship, the white noise surrounding the program had created a dangerous sense of apathy around the Florida program. It was hard not to notice all the empty seats this season at Florida home games, or the angst and frustration delved out in White’s direction on social media.
In the end, a reset was likely needed for both parties, and White’s departure for Georgia allows both the Gators and White to get a fresh start. It also helps Florida financially, as White will reportedly receive none of the $8.75 million buyout he would have received had he been fired this offseason.
With the buyout cash in his pocket, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin now has the financial flexibility to go out and make a strong hire. He doesn’t have to be spendthrift, and doesn’t have to take a huge risk on a mid-major coach, hoping to find a version of White with a higher ceiling. He also doesn’t have to convince anyone to be bold enough to be “the guy after the guy,” as White has already done the dirty work of following Donovan.
Florida is a great college basketball job.
The Gators have one of the nation’s best recruiting bases, especially once you include the Florida prep schools, including national power Montverde Academy, where Florida has cleaned up over the years. Florida has good facilities, strong administrative support and outstanding tradition. Only Kentucky has won more games, appeared in more NCAA Tournaments, won more NCAA Tournament games, and won more SEC Championships this century than the Gators. Florida leads the SEC in national titles this century, and the program has been to 5 Final Fours since 1994. The Florida administration needs to expand the basketball support staff and revamp the athletic dorm, but all in all, the Florida job will be coveted.
“It’s the 3rd-best job in the league by some distance,” a former SEC Coach of the Year texted me Sunday evening. “Only Kentucky and Arkansas are better, and when Leonard Hamilton (FSU’s head coach) retires, the best in-state kids will mostly go to Florida again, like they did for Billy.”
“After Kentucky and Arkansas, what job is better? Tennessee? That’s about equal but Florida has better in-state talent. LSU? They are about to get hammered by the NCAA. Missouri? That’s a great basketball school, but they have to get the right coach in there. For me, it’s Florida,” a former SEC and Final Four head coach told me.
These voices are just among those who think that outside perhaps the Louisville job, the Florida opening will be the most attractive job of the 2022 offseason.
The fact the job is that desirable and Florida hasn’t competed for the SEC championship in 4 seasons speaks to just how critical the hire is for Florida. Stricklin needs to get this hire right. Florida suffered an optical black eye with the way Stricklin and Florida handled the resignation of women’s basketball coach Cam Newbauer under a cloud of abuse allegations this autumn, and Stricklin’s first football hire, Dan Mullen, flamed out in spectacular fashion last fall. Florida is the only SEC school to win national championships in football, basketball and baseball, and Stricklin has been handed a golden opportunity to energize both the program and an apathetic fan base with a strong hire.
Most of all, Stricklin must find someone who wins just a little more than White did. White’s biggest crime was the lack of much distance between his ceiling and his floor. Finding a coach who can expand that distance may just be the key to extending Florida’s 3-decade run of basketball excellence.
That’s heady stuff, but at a program that has only missed the NCAA Tournament 5 times in the past quarter century, winning big isn’t a dream. It’s an expectation.