First and 10: Florida's next coach? Perfect fit comes first, and that starts on offense
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Forget about overanalyzing the coaching search at Florida and zero in on this one overriding reality: fit supersedes all.
The Gators tried to be like Alabama and Nick Saban the past two coaching hires. That won’t happen this time.
Florida will go back to being Florida, steering away from trying to recreate what Alabama has done to reshape the SEC – by hiring former Tide assistants and close Saban friends Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain – and being true to who and what the Gators are.
Play Underdog For Heat-Celtics Game 6! Who ya got?
Translation: how Florida reshaped the SEC in its image two decades ago.
“When Florida has been really good, from a distance it has looked really fun,” Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said Sunday night. “I want it to be really fun. Our fans, they deserve it to be really fun.”
That means a high-flying offense with a young and innovative coach who has an edge – and doesn’t mind showing it. The Gators had it with Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, and missed in the three hires – Ron Zook, Muschamp, McElwain – sandwiching the two most successful coaches in school history.
But first, there are ground rules.
A. Florida won’t hire a coach with previous NCAA issues. That means forget about Chip Kelly, everyone’s darling this coaching carousel season. Check out McElwain’s contract, No. 9, subsection A, which states the football coach will conduct himself with the highest standards in ethics, integrity and morals – and that those standards are set by the university and are at or greater than any NCAA or SEC standards.
Kelly was accused of paying street agent Willie Lyles $25,000 to funnel players to Oregon, and received an NCAA show cause order (the harshest penalty a coach can receive) after the NCAA investigation. He has zero chance of landing in Gainesville.
B. Think offense. The hire won’t be anyone with a defensive background (no Gary Patterson).
C. The hire will be a young(er) coach with the fire and inner fortitude to compete with Saban on the field and as a recruiter – not imitate him.
D. Say goodbye to Dan Mullen. He was only a fallback candidate in case the Gators couldn’t get who they wanted. But after his wife publicly complained about how unwelcoming and difficult it was to coach in Gainesville when Mullen was on Urban Meyer’s staff, Mullen’s chances of landing the job are all but zero. The last thing any school with an opening wants is a coach who already is high maintenance (see: Mullen), with a spouse who isn’t happy being there.
E. Buyouts are not an obstacle. Florida can’t afford to whiff on this hire.
That said, here are your five logical contenders, listed in order of priority (salaries and buyouts courtesy USA Today):
1. Scott Frost, UCF (pictured above): Frost checks every box: an elite recruiter (at both Oregon and UCF); young, dynamic and charismatic; an offensive whiz, has connections to recruiting the state of Florida.
The only drawback: He has been a head coach all of 20 games. Took over a winless program in 2016, and made them bowl eligible. UCF (7-0) is unbeaten this fall, and will be favored in all if its remaining games. The Knights lead the nation in scoring offense (51 ppg.) and are fifth in total offense (529 ypg.).
Frost, 42, hits the sweet spot for those pining for yesteryear: Spurrier was 45 his first year at Florida; Meyer was 42.
Salary: $2 million.
Buyout: $4.125 million.
2. Willie Taggart, Oregon: Timing is everything in coaching hires, and had Taggart stayed one more season at USF, he’d be a lock for the Gators’ job. Grew up in Florida, was an all-state quarterback in high school and was desperate to play for the Gators – but Spurrier wasn’t running the option.
Has had two impressive rebuilds at Western Kentucky and USF, and Oregon is 5-4 after a disastrous 4-8 season in 2016. By the time he completed the rebuild at USF last year, the Bulls were fourth in the nation in scoring offense (43.8 ppg.) and 11th in total offense (511.5 ypg.).
Salary: $2.9 million.
Buyout: $8.15 million.
3. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: But for a huge buyout, he would be at the top of the list. Almost got the job when McElwain was hired, and was on a short list of then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. The only drawback then: He was a head coach for all of three seasons, and had just completed his first winning season at Memphis (10 wins) after two brutal years of rebuilding the one of the worst FBS programs in the nation.
A year later, he took the Virginia Tech job, won a division title and nearly upset eventually national champion Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. He’s 17-5 in 22 career games at VT, and his offense – under redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson (hello, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks) – averages 36 points a game.
Salary: $3.25 million.
Buyout: $15 million.
4. Matt Campbell, Iowa State: His stock has risen this year with Iowa State’s top 5 victories over Oklahoma and TCU, and he’s doing it with a backup walk-on quarterback.
He won 35 games in four seasons at Toledo, but never a MAC championship. The big question: Could he recruit at the level needed to win big in the SEC?
Salary: $2.1 million.
Buyout: $9.57 million.
5. Chad Morris, SMU: His work with the Clemson offense was the foundation of a national championship run, and he has completely revamped a left for dead program at SMU. The Mustangs are top 10 in the nation in scoring (41.5 ppg.) and total offense (507 ypg.), and sophomore QB Ben Hicks (a mid-level recruit Power 5 schools passed on) has developed into one of the best players in the AAC.
Salary: $2.1 million.
2. The Mac fallout
Florida firing another coach before he finishes his third season is another in a growing line of coaching casualties that can be traced directly to Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Since Saban’s arrival at Alabama in 2007, there have been 24 head coaching changes in the SEC, a turnover of disturbing proportions. Saban’s success in Tuscaloosa hasn’t made the rest of the SEC better, it has made the rest of the SEC less patient.
Florida is the perfect example. In the 11 years of Saban’s tenure at Alabama, three national title coaches have been fired (Gene Chizik, Les Miles, Phil Fulmer) and one resigned (Spurrier), and one coach who averaged nearly 10 wins a season (Mark Richt) was fired. The latest Saban casualty: McElwain, who won back-to-back SEC East Division titles in his first two seasons – and lost to Alabama by a combined 52 points in the SEC Championship Game.
In fact, since Saban arrived at Alabama, only two coaching changes in 24 have resulted in a conference championship: Chizik (2010) and Gus Malzahn (2013).
Think about this: four SEC teams won 10 games in 2015. Three of the four (Florida, Ole Miss, Georgia) now have new coaches.
3. The fallout, Part II
The multi-million dollar coaching business has quickly become get out before you’re pushed out.
To make it for any length coaching college football, it’s now as much about timing as it is winning. In other words, stay ahead of your opponent – and ahead of the crowd that wants you gone.
What does this have to do with the SEC, you ask? This very scenario could involve two of the league’s coaches (Gus Malzahn, Bielema) and their significant connections to other schools if things get sideways in November.
Bielema already is feeling heat after a disastrous season, one that could have hit rock bottom last weekend were it not for an unthinkable comeback against Ole Miss.
Malzahn’s big tests begin this week at Texas A&M, and include two critical games in November against Auburn’s biggest rivals (Georgia and Alabama).
It’s not a lock that Bielema or Malzahn will be fired; in fact, odds are both are safe for now. But if you’re Bielema (who has strong ties to Kansas State) and Malzahn (who has strong ties to the state of Arkansas), a jobs shuffle wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Bielema moving to K-State to replace Bill Snyder (if he retires), and Malzahn moving to Arkansas to replace Bielema, would reset the earning clock for both. Instead heading into the 2018 season with a win or walk mandate, they both could reset with five-year deals at different schools.
I spoke to two agents about this concept, and both said coaches are beginning to come around to the idea. No coach wants to leave when it’s all unraveling or when it’s clear a relationship with their current school is soiled, because they all believe they can fix it.
But being proactive and leaving early – despite the inherent difficulty of leaving behind players you recruited – is becoming a more attractive option for coaches. McElwain could have been part of the Oregon search last year had he shown interest, a job that would’ve put him closer to his Northwest roots and restarted his clock.
Instead it all ended with a bizarre claim of death threats on the heels of friction between he and the administration – and an offense that got progressively worse since the midpoint of Year 1.
4. You lose, you leave
Lost amid the McElwain meltdown this weekend was a damaging loss for Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
Sumlin likely needs to win nine games to keep his job, and the loss to Mississippi State now means the Aggies need to win out against Auburn, New Mexico, at Ole Miss, at LSU to reach that number. While it’s possible, the negatives are quickly stacking up.
The 21-point loss last weekend to Mississippi State dropped Sumlin’s record to 3-11 at Kyle Field vs. SEC West Division opponents, and 8-13 overall vs. the SEC at home. The Aggies haven’t beaten an SEC West rival at Kyle Field since Oct. 2015 (Mississippi State), and their last chance this season is this weekend against Auburn.
The same Auburn team whose coach (see above) is also fighting for his very coaching life. If you’re keeping score, that’s half of the current 14 SEC coaches fired or with some form of job insecurity as the critical month of November begins (Butch Jones, Matt Luke, Barry Odom, Malzahn, Bielema, Sumlin, McElwain).
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread.
- LSU (+22) at Alabama
- Ole Miss at Kentucky (-4)
- Auburn at Texas A&M (+13)
- South Carolina (+22.5) at Georgia
- Florida at Missouri (-2.5)
Last week: 3-2
Season: 27-18 (.600)
6. Orange clarity
One thing we’ve learned from yet another Tennessee loss: athletic director John Currie likely won’t fire Jones until the Vols have no chance of qualifying for a bowl.
What else could he be waiting for?
“Nothing has changed at all,” Jones said Monday of his support from Currie. He says the two men talk “every day.”
Is no change in status a smart thing? Probably not, because it gives the Vols a shorter window of opportunity to find a coach. Is it the right thing? Absolutely.
Why not wait to see if Tennessee qualifies for a bowl, a nice parting gift for the team’s seniors. Too often, we overlook what’s important and who’s busting their collective tails to put a product on the field for the university to sell.
If that means waiting to fire Jones until it’s clear the Vols can’t win three of the final four games (Southern Miss, at Missouri, LSU, Vanderbilt ), then so be it. Even if it also means Southern Miss becoming the second straight team to gain bowl eligibility by beating the Vols (Kentucky earned the elusive sixth win last week) – while Tennessee moves further away from the postseason award for its seniors, suck it up and make it happen.
7. The time will come
Last week, in the middle of the Mayhem with McElwain, Gators safety Chauncey Gardner was asked about Georgia freshman QB Jake Fromm and had a telling response.
“Anybody can throw a slant,” Gardner said.
That wasn’t trash talk; that was an honest assessment from a player watching game tape. Players, despite what you see and read, rarely talk trash for the sake of talking trash. For the most part, you get honest answers based on what happened on the field.
Gardner’s comment, while simplistic, underlines the still gnawing issue facing Georgia: what happens when the Bulldogs need Fromm to make throws to win games?
Fromm has attempted 15 or less passes in six of the eight Georgia games this season, including a season-low seven last weekend against Florida.
The way Georgia ran the ball against the Gators (292 yards, 8.3 yards per carry), it’s easy to see why the passing game was dialed back. But the more Fromm is protected within the offense, the less reps he gets in critical spots of a game where the Bulldogs will need to throw the ball (see: at Auburn, at Georgia Tech, SEC Championship Game vs. Alabama).
It might not happen this weekend against South Carolina (Georgia ran for 326 yards on the Gamecocks last year), but the Dawgs are two weeks from a critical game against Auburn. Why not let Fromm get more involved in the game plan against South Carolina, and get more comfortable with important throws?
Fromm has a 13-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio, is completing 60 percent of his passes, and is right under 10 yards per attempt. All solid numbers.
But are they winning numbers against elite defenses? Fromm played well enough to win on the road against Notre Dame (the Irish made too many mistakes to win that game), but hasn’t really been tested since.
Every game is a playoff game now for Georgia. Time to get your quarterback ready to make throws when someone figures out how to stop the Georgia run game.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Hey Matt: Why would Jim McElwain not want help from Steve Spurrier? That’s like a house painter not taking advice from Michelangelo.
Donald David, Miami
Donald: There are two ways to look at it: opening the door once to Spurrier (or any former coach with an office still in the football facility at any school), keeps it open forever. One foot in could lead to much more.
I prefer to look at it another way: You have one of the best offensive minds in college football history, at the very least you open your door and say, “Coach, how do I get the tight end open on the goal line?”
Two things come from that: You get a good play, and you create good will with a guy who holds a significant amount of weight in that football facility – like it or not. A guy that, if you took that goal line play and made him feel like you cared, could’ve been a guy who had your back when adversity hit.
9. Numbers game
6: Another critical factor in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s impact on the LSU offense: the Tigers have just six turnovers (three fumbles, three interceptions) this season. Take away two interceptions from backup quarterback Myles Brennan, and that number drops to four.
Think about that: four turnovers from the starting offense in eight games. Want to know how to beat Alabama? Don’t be careless with the football.
Now, the flip side: LSU has forced only nine turnovers – good for 95th in the nation. The Tigers will need multiple turnovers this weekend to beat Alabama – a Tide team that is second in the nation with just five turnovers.
10. Quote to note
LSU linebacker Devin White on the Alabama game, during Monday’s press availability: “It’s like having that older brother that you haven’t been able to beat up. We’re bigger, stronger, and it’s time to beat them up.”