What should Scott Stricklin and Florida look for in next basketball coach?

 

Scott Stricklin
Photo credit: Kim Klement, USA Today

For the third year in a row, the Florida Gator basketball program has fallen well short of expectations under the stewardship of Mike White, and the general direction of the program appears stalled in purgatory. And that means that, for the third year in a row, it’s time to look at potential candidates for AD Scott Stricklin to replace him with.

Yes, technically the season isn’t over. But the debate is. Mike White crossed the point of no return last season. There’s no sense in continuing to beat the same dead horse any further. Been there, done that.  Over… and over… well, that’s beating the horse, I suppose.

So let’s move on. Let’s shift the focus to how Florida’s going to fix the problem. And let’s assume that Scott Stricklin decides to be competent this offseason and make the move that allows for said problem to be fixed.

The list of candidates I personally believe Scott Stricklin should target will be rolled out in the coming days and weeks right here on In All Kinds Of Weather. Different people have different metrics for what makes someone a “good” hire, though, so before I start rolling out that list, I felt it made sense to set the stage with my explanation of mine- as well as the overall thought process that should go into a coaching search.

First, let’s state the obvious.

When you replace a coach, firing the existing coach is only half the battle. You then need to replace him. Not only that, but you need to replace him with someone better. Failure to accomplish the latter would place Florida basketball right where the Florida football program is, constantly hiring and firing coaches like George Steinbrenner in his heyday.

So when asked “who should replace White?” the answer cannot be, “literally anybody would be better!” No. That’s not true. Florida, you can be sure, could theoretically do a lot worse than Mike White as the head coach. The reason Scott Stricklin should be looking for a new coach this offseason is that Florida can also do a lot better, too.

Unfortunately, as alluded to above, Stricklin chose the optics-over-action route last year, not only refusing to fire White after he hand-delivered Oral Roberts a trip to the Sweet 16 but extending the coach’s contract. The fact that White is a good person and slept on hospital couches while awaiting word on his star player Keyontae Johnson after his tragic on-court collapse is all well and good; it also seems to have bought him an extra year despite results on the court- including the one unforgettable result that ended Florida’s season- that objectively did not merit it.

As a byproduct of that, two of my top three choices to replace White each of the last two years, Chris Beard and Porter Moser, were snatched up following the 2020-21 season by Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. Stricklin had a chance to go in either of two very different directions to upgrade his men’s basketball program, and actively chose to pursue neither. And now the pool of surefire options that would be monumental upgrades over Mike White has shrunken considerably.

That’s why, when you face a crossroads, you make business decisions to do immediately what you’ll have to do eventually. What you don’t do is delay the inevitable, placate the sunshine-pumpers who don’t care how much damage to the program a lack of change will cause as long as they get the satisfaction of knowing that they stood with him until the end and have the right-of-way to call everyone else “fair weather” fans, and let a coach slowly whittle away at the prestige of the program just because he’s a nice man.

But that’s not meant to beat a dead horse, as much as it may feel like it. That’s simply meant to illustrate the fact that pickings are a little slimmer this time around. Whereas last year there was a multitude of great options to replace Mike White, the pool of candidates this year comes with more risk- and fewer of them will check off every necessary box with such emphasis.

So, what exactly should Scott Stricklin be looking for in his replacement for Mike White? In short, someone who checks as many of these boxes as possible.

Experience

Florida’s not the kind of school that would be able to poach Tom Izzo or Mick Cronin under any circumstances. Scott Stricklin is not going to land someone with a decade of experience at a powerhouse program. It’d be great, but it’s not happening.

But Florida is also not a place for someone to learn on the job. That’s not to say Florida can’t dip into the midmajor ranks again (yes, I’m aware of the flak I’m going to get after deriding Mike White as #MidMajorMike) and it’s not to say Florida can’t go for someone young, but if they do either one, it needs to be for a coach who has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s accomplished all that one possibly can at his current school.

That means someone with at least five years of experience as a head coach as an absolute minimum, as that’s the amount of time required for a coach to have a full twelve months of a recruiting cycle and then see them through to the exhaustion of that recruiting class’s eligibility. It’s great that Florida took a chance on Billy Donovan with only two years of head coaching experience at Marshall on his resume because it worked out that time, but that’s an extremely low-probability venture. It’s going to fail far more times than it will succeed. And besides, thanks to what Donovan did, Florida is in a place now where it doesn’t have to take such gambles.

As such, would-be first-time head coaches are nonstarters.

Results

Duh. But there’s a specific kind of result above all others that Scott Stricklin should be looking for.

The way I’ll define this “result” is simple. Given the history of the program the coach is at, how close is he to providing that program with the best results in school history? This would be causation to go after a younger coach, say a Matt McMahon type, as Murray State has slightly greater than zero history and he put the program in the national spotlight in 2018-19 more than any coach before him.

The idea is that two Round of 32 appearances at Murray State cannot reasonably viewed the same as two Round of 32 appearances at, say, Arkansas. One signifies a far greater coaching job than the other. And speaking of the postseason: I’m typically not a fan of judging coaches solely on how they perform in a single-elimination tournament consisting of 1-6 games following a regular season that consists of about 35 games. If a coach’s team picks the NCAA Tournament to have an abnormally bad shooting night and shoots 12% from the floor- or inversely, if the opponent randomly decides to shoot a blazing hot 70% from the field for 40 minutes- one team’s season is over due to statistical improbabilities that a coach could not possibly plan for.

If NCAA Tournament upsets just “happen” three or four years in a row, it’s one thing, but I’m just as interested in seeing where the coach has his team finish in his conference standings and KenPom rankings as I am the NCAA Tournament. It goes without saying that the NCAA Tournament is the most important piece of the puzzle- but it’s not the only one. It’s about the totality of the results, and how they stack up with the rest of the results in that school’s history.

Now to combine the “results” qualification with the “experience” qualification: the rule is that no one season is grounds for a head coaching job at the University of Florida. (Yes, Kelly Rae Finley would be the exception to that rule.) The results need to be continuous, demonstrating sustained success over a period of several years.

A good-or-better program CEO

Mike White was absolutely atrocious at this. Not “below average” or even “just plain bad,” he was utterly atrocious at CEO-ing, or in sports terms, “General Managing,” a program. And so whoever takes over for him will have to be a substantial upgrade in this category.

I’m not even talking about building an unprecedented army of staffers like Billy Napier has done with the football program, mind you. I’m talking about someone with a distinct vision for the personnel he wants to have to best execute the style of basketball he’s best suited to oversee, and then the ability to piece it together and execute it.

Every “take” on the recruiting trail has to have a crystal-clear role envisioned for him within the program. More than a few times, White’s signees transferred out of the program because White just didn’t know what he wanted out of the player when he offered him a scholarship (Andrew Nembhard, Osayi Osifo, Ques Glover, and Isaiah Stokes just to name a few). Players will just happen to not work out for any of a number of valid reasons, but it’s just not normal to see that happen with the frequency that it’s happened at Florida under White.

Along those same lines, one-and-dones will happen here and there, but continuity has to be an expectation of this program from year to year. No program can be reasonably expected to compete for championships with the amount of turnover Florida basketball tends to have on a yearly basis, and a smart program CEO will keep that from happening to a damaging degree.

One of the following two

A head basketball coach who can check either of the following two boxes will suffice. Doesn’t have to be both.

An elite offensive mind

Let’s face it, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer spoiled this fanbase. No matter the sport, Florida Gator fans love high-flying offenses that can score. And they love coaches who can engineer them. If Florida can get a basketball coach known for scoring points via his knowledge of the sport, it takes a little of the pressure off of him to recruit blue-chip athletes. Not a lot of pressure, but a little bit.

An elite offensive mind can be counted on to work around potential talent deficiencies by crafting excellent set plays that utilize lots of off-ball movement that can confuse the opponent. This is going to come in handy every single game, of course, but especially early on when he’s cleaning up the roster mess Mike White will leave him as well as in “down” years.

A coach who can consistently recruit elite scorers AND oversee elite defenses

Part of why I really wanted Scott Stricklin to hire Chris Beard is because he’s a defense-first coach… and yet his guys usually find a way to outscore the opposition because he always has a player or two who can simply take over the game. One year it was Keenan Evans, the next year it was Jarrett Culver, then it was Mac McClung, etc. Doesn’t matter if it’s a post player or a catch-and-shoot guy, the constant is that Beard’s team just has that one guy who can dominate in crunch time and carry the team to victory, every year.

This is a little harder to ask for than someone who’s just brilliant with the X’s and O’s of the game, as you’re either an elite offensive mind or you’re not, and this requires some level of work and execution on an annual basis on the recruiting trail. But there’s only one substitute for being a top-notch offensive mind in any sport, and having the horsepower is it. Of course, bad shooting nights will happen, and that’s where you want the coach to be able to install the defensive blueprint.

Amusingly enough, Mike White actually did do that at Florida. The Gators’ defense has been stellar more years than not. His point of failure was not replacing Chris Chiozza with someone of similar or even better caliber, and if his successor at Florida is a defense-first guy, he will have to be able to do so- or else the Gators will be right back in this spot before too long.