Scott Stricklin’s last marquee hire as an athletic director came in March 2015 while he was the athletic director at Mississippi State. He executed what amounted to a quiet coup. He’d been on the fence as to whether to keep Rick Ray as the basketball coach after three pedestrian seasons. Ray’s eventual firing was followed by a near-immediate announcement of Ben Howland’s hiring as head coach less than three days later.
Stricklin landing an established name like Howland proved a boon for the program, and he earned kudos in the industry for seemingly lining up a replacement ahead of time. It was executed deftly and quietly, a textbook example of a seamless coaching change.
Stricklin is now the athletic director at Florida, and his first major coaching hire there will unfold over the next few weeks as he attempts to replace Jim McElwain. Let’s just say this one won’t be perceived similarly. Florida announced it was parting ways with McElwain on Sunday night, after days of dysfunction and discord. There’s been persistent damaging media leaks, high-stakes legal wrangling and Florida’s biggest game of the year upstaged by self-induced drama. Florida’s bumbling weekend had all the trappings of a made-for-the-SEC-Network reality show.
Stricklin extended McElwain this past offseason and had been intent on keeping him until recently, despite the persistent offensive struggles. Everything changed with McElwain’s foolish “death threats” comment on Monday. But the way the ouster unfolded, including media leaks that undermined Florida’s game with Georgia, didn’t give off the vibe that this was a solo operation from the PR-savvy Stricklin.
The good news for Stricklin is that the search should be a simple one, as Florida remains an attractive job, despite its inferior football facilities that rank near or at the bottom of the SEC. We’ll assume Bob Stoops has shown no desire to coach again, as he’s consistently indicated that since he stepped down at Oklahoma. The most qualified candidate is Chip Kelly, who hasn’t appeared particularly interested in working in the SEC. But there’s a chance that the potential of coaching at a blue-blood program like Florida has changed that. Hiring Kelly, who went 46-7 at Oregon, would come with an extra administrative step because of his NCAA issues in Eugene that included a show-cause penalty that’s since expired.
The SEC passed a rule this spring that says any coach “who has either engaged in unethical conduct or participated in activity that resulted in a major infraction” must have the school’s president or chancellor “consult with the commissioner” about the hiring. The rule was passed to give administrators pause before hiring a coach or assistant with NCAA issues, and it’s unknown how a school would be perceived by the league office or its peers if it’s tested.
If Kelly isn’t a fit, it’s safe to categorize the Florida job as a two-horse race. The two most obvious candidates are UCF’s Scott Frost and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, both of whom can address the ineptitude on the offensive side of the ball Florida fans have endured the past seven seasons. After watching Will Muschamp and McElwain put Neanderthal offenses on the field, Stricklin needs a coach with a pedigree that can satisfy a fan base spoiled by Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun and Urban Meyer’s spread innovation.
So why Mullen or Frost? The timing and the tenor of the hiring hint first at Frost, who is the perceived leader and most likely to get the job. With Nebraska poised to fire Mike Riley and make a run at Frost, Florida’s pre-Halloween jettisoning of McElwain portends that they want an edge in the market. (Along with wanting to capitalize on the stupidity of McElwain’s “death threats” comments.) This is the same strategy former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley used in outfoxing Notre Dame to hire Urban Meyer during the 2004 season.
Frost, 42, projects as having an elite ceiling. He has taken UCF from winless the year before his arrival to a bowl in his first season (6-7) and has them on a trajectory (7-0) to go undefeated this year. UCF leads the nation in scoring offense (51.0 ppg) by nearly five points per game. (Fittingly, Meyer’s Ohio State team is No. 2 with 46.3 points per game).
Don’t expect sentimentality to get in the way of Frost’s decision on his next job, as he’s a Nebraska graduate but is expected to take the job where he has the best chance to compete for a national title. That job is clearly Florida, which will be the best job in the market this year unless something truly stunning happens.
Mullen, 45, is a proven winner in the SEC who has gone 67-44 in what’s long been regarded as the league’s worst job. Mullen brings the offensive acumen and quarterback development that’s been missing in Gainesville essentially since Mullen left for Mississippi State following Florida’s 2008 championship season. Mullen and Stricklin had a solid working relationship in Starkville. They certainly won’t be vacationing together, but nothing happened during their time together that would prohibit them from reuniting. Mullen has done more with less in Starkville, and Stricklin must be intrigued by what could happen if Mullen worked in the thicket of a better recruiting base and affiliated with a stronger brand.
The issue with Mullen at Florida is that he was unpopular with administrators while the offensive coordinator there from 2005 to 2008. Florida infamously leaked during its last coaching search that both Mullen and Rich Rodriguez would not be considered for the job the day it opened, a juvenile slap in the face to two respected coaches. Foley also essentially mocked Mullen’s decision to leave his coordinator job at Florida for Mississippi State, complicating what had been a decent relationship. Foley is obviously no longer the athletic director, but his presence and opinions still loom large in Gainesville, as it was no secret that he disliked McElwain and cheerleaded for his exit.
The persistent media leaks and dramatic nature of McElwain’s departure – certainly not the understated Stricklin’s style – hint at Foley or other high-end administrators at the school attempting to throw their weight around. Foley is experienced in parting ways with bad hires midseason, as he jettisoned both Ron Zook and Will Muschamp in similar fashion. In the parlor game of the worst Foley football hires, however, McElwain will take the cake. It cost Florida $5 million of McElwain’s $7 million buyout to hire him and could cost up to $12.5 million to fire him. While a settlement has been negotiated and not yet announced, it’s likely that just the hiring and firing of McElwain will cost Florida well over $10 million. That’s a lot of cheese for a coach that went 22-12 and couldn’t get his offense ranked better than triple-digits in the national rankings. Foley’s ego guided him past more established coaches to an inexperienced fit, as McElwain’s career highlight at Colorado State was beating Boston College on the road. It didn’t work out for anyone.
Are there other candidates? Certainly. Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente ($6 million) and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell ($9.4 million) appear prohibitive because of their buyouts. But it would be a surprise if the job didn’t go to Frost, Mullen or Kelly.
After a week of Trump-level dysfunction, Stricklin can lock in on getting the ending right. The good news is that it’s hard to imagine things going worse for Florida than they did this weekend.
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