The short list: top five coaches to replace Dan Mullen as the Florida Gators head coach

Florida Gators
Could Billy Napier be the guy? (Photo credit: Brad Kemp, RaginCajuns.com)

What had to be done eventually was done immediately-ish, and Dan Mullen was fired as the head coach of the Florida Gators. That means that Florida is once again on the market for a new head coach.

It feels like just yesterday I was doing my research on who the Gators should hire to replace Jim McElwain, but, well, here we are again.

Pickings are a little slimmer this time around. Or at least they seem to be. There are no surefire slam dunk, grand slam hires out there the way there appeared to be in 2017 when Florida was last on the market with Scott Frost, Chip Kelly, and of course Mullen. But there are several really solid ones out there- and with the natural allure that the University of Florida brings (247Sports has even ranked Florida as the single best job available in this year’s coaching carousel), it’s not unfathomable that with time, a coach could grow into the role fairly quickly and become a star.

And the last thing I want to get at before beginning with my list of coaching candidates is just what I ended the last sentence with. The Florida Gators are looking for their fourth head coach since December of 2010. Unless the UAA has a weird fetish for paying buyouts for years down the road, I want Florida to get this hire right for the long run. I do not want someone who will have a great year or two at the start of his tenure and then fizzle out before he’s even completed his fourth year. That is why, for example, Urban Meyer (lol) was never even considered. I have zero interest in being back in this “who’s our next coach going to be?” position again for at least a decade.

So with that said, let’s get right into it!

Top tier

1: Billy Napier, age 42: Louisiana (38-12)

Pros: background, recruiting, long haul option

Billy Napier is one of those rare birds who has worked for both Dabo Swinney at Clemson and Nick Saban at Alabama. Suffice to say he’s learned a thing or two from each. Napier was fired from Clemson after the 2010 season following two years as the offensive coordinator and five years with the program overall.

Thus began a long, humbling road back toward his dreams of being a head coach. He wasn’t interested in taking the job that the public saw as a nice rebound job; he wanted to learn and get better at which he did. So he took a job as an analyst for Nick Saban at Alabama, put in his dues for that 2011 season, and his career was back on track- and off to the races.

Napier then followed Jim McElwain to Colorado State for a year as the QB coach. That was when Nick Saban called him again, and asked him to come back- this time as the wide receivers coach. Napier said yes, and worked for Saban for four more years, helping rejuvenate and remold the Alabama offense from a ground and pound unit to a more explosive aerial attack.

Throughout his four years in Tuscaloosa as the WRs coach, Napier worked with an array of elite wide receivers, including Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley, and ArDarious Stewart. After one season as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State, Napier finally got the call he wanted- as the head coach of Louisiana. And since then, he’s done nothing but shine.

His team meetings and film review sessions are notorious for their resemblances to Nick Saban’s. Every minute of every hour is game planned. Even his bathroom breaks on recruiting visits are scheduled. And the results more than back that up- he’s 38-12 so far in four seasons as Louisiana’s head coach, winning the Sun Belt Western Division all four times and winning the conference title last season.

Oh, and by the way- recruiting courses through Billy Napier’s veins. Immediately upon arrival in Lafayette, he placed a huge emphasis on recruiting, and the results have paid off. Under Napier, Louisiana has owned the Sun Belt on the recruiting trail, finishing with the highest ranked class in the league each cycle he’s been there.

Lastly, and most importantly, if Florida hits on Napier and he succeeds, he’s likely not going anywhere for a long, long time. The NFL is always at least somewhat of a wonder with most successful Power Five coaches, but the way Napier seems to live, breathe, and sleep recruiting, it doesn’t seem as though he would be likely to leave for a job that takes that out of the equation. There’s admittedly a high burnout rate for top-notch Power Five coaches, but Napier might just have the blueprint to buck that trend and be Florida’s version of Bobby Bowden.

Cons: no experience at the highest level, patience will be required

The only knock against Napier is a pretty big one. Though he’s served as the Ragin’ Cajun’s head coach for four years and done nothing but dominate throughout those four years, and though he’s clearly learned some things from Nick Saban and implemented them in his own style at Louisiana, he has never been the head coach at a Power Five program. That can’t be ignored, particularly not after Jim McElwain flopped with that same profile (although McElwain was at Colorado State for three years, not four).

Recruiting in the SEC is an entirely different animal than recruiting in the Sun Belt. Yes, Napier has recruited in the SEC plenty as an Alabama assistant, but now he’d be the guy overseeing everything. He’d have resources at his disposal that he’s never had before as the head triggerman. That’s not necessarily a negative, but that’s a question mark.

And even with that aside, Florida’s going to have to be patient with him. Years one and two may not be anything special. There’s going to be some learning on the job that takes place, and there’s going to be a lot of work to do to clean up the mess that Dan Mullen left on the recruiting trail. Napier isn’t going to be the quick-fix guy that slaps a band-aid on everything, where it all looks good until it’s not because things have been neglected behind the scenes; he’s going to be the guy that will try to repair it, walk before he runs, and slowly create a new foundation. Installing a new way of doing things both on game week and on the recruiting trail takes time to do well.

Chances he takes the job if offered: 70%

I’ve been told by multiple people with knowledge of the situation that as of my writing this article (late Tuesday night) Napier is “definitely interested” in taking the Florida job. I’ve also been told that he’s Florida’s first choice. It just so happens that he’s my first choice, too, which is why he’s listed as #1. But that means that he’s already gone farther into the process with Florida than all other potential candidates.

Of course, Florida taking the bull by the horns here and being the first to make a serious pass at Napier may help, but does not guarantee anything. Napier could secretly be holding out for an offer from LSU, which would make his recruiting efforts real easy given his connections throughout the state. Or Napier could simply be waiting for another job that he finds even more desirable to open up in another coaching carousel cycle.

Make no mistake; nothing is done here, and this coaching search is still in its early stages. He’s turned down SEC offers before. But there has never been a job with this much allure that he has ever been approached about taking before. And unless he’s holding out for Nick Saban to retire at Alabama so he can take over in Tuscaloosa, I don’t think he’ll ever get one. If an offer is made- and mind you, Florida has a LOT of money to include in that offer- I simply don’t see him turning it down.

Grade: B+ hire. The obvious question is whether his career as an SEC assistant and a Group Of Five head coach can translate into being an SEC head coach. And there’s not an A grade hire out there this cycle. But the TNT he brings to the recruiting trail is an obvious upgrade over Mullen’s attitude on the matter. If he can recruit the way Florida should recruit, stock up the cupboard with great assistants who can develop talent, and is even an average in-game coach, he could develop into the greatest coach Florida has ever had.

Verdict: there’s definitely a level of risk involved here, and I do understand the leeriness to go back to the Nick Saban tree after Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain flamed out. But there’s one massive, massive difference between Napier and those two: Napier has proven to be able to not only build a successful program as a head coach, but maintain it for several years. It’s worth taking the risk on him because the upside is so huge, and I think Scott Stricklin sees the same thing. He is my pick to be the Gators’ next head coach.

2: Luke Fickell, age 48: Cincinnati (46-14) and Ohio State (6-7)

Pros: background, recruiting, sustained success

Like Napier, Fickell has learned from the best. He spent nine years on Jim Tressel’s staff at Ohio State, winning a national championship and coaching in two additional championship games. He worked his way all the way up from a grad assistant to the co-defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes, and was even handed the reins to the program as the interim head coach for one year in 2011 when Tressel resigned in disgrace. He then served for five years under Urban Meyer’s staff before taking over the program at Cincinnati- where he’s done nothing but dominate.

Also like Napier, recruiting is something that Luke Fickell will definitely bring to the table at Florida. He was known as an excellent recruiter as an assistant, and then began to prove it at his own program. After inheriting a shaky transition class when he arrived at Cincinnati in 2017 (and still guiding it to 3rd place in the American according to 247Sports’ composite rankings), Fickell has dominated the American on the recruiting trail, finishing with the conference’s top class each year except for 2019, when it finished second. Handing him the keys to a program like Florida could turn him- and thus, Florida- into a recruiting leviathan.

And like Napier, Fickell has proven able to develop that talent and turn it into wins. Since his first year, in which the Bearcats went 4-8, he’s posted a 44-6 record with two appearances in the American Championship Game. He won that second one to earn a spot in the New Year’s Six, narrowly losing the Peach Bowl to Georgia. Now his Bearcats sit at #2 in the AP Poll, and sit closer to the College Football Playoff than any Group Of Five team ever has.

There really are a lot of similarities between Fickell and Napier, up to and including their laser-focus and attention to detail. The difference is that Napier’s roots are in the south, and Fickell’s are up in Ohio. Of course, there’s plenty of talent to choose from up in Ohio, but my gut feeling is that handing him the controls of a program in the state of Florida and in the SEC would unleash a recruiting beast across the most talent-laden state in America. That’s quite an upside, particularly after what we saw the last four years on the trail.

Cons: little experience at highest level, may not be at Florida for too long

Unlike Napier, Fickell does have some experience as a head coach at the Power Five level. It didn’t go well. Ahough, yes, it was just one year at an Ohio State program riddled with turmoil, it can’t just be ignored- he was handed an extremely talented team in 2011, and went 6-7 with it; the previous year’s team won the Sugar Bowl, and the following year’s team finished the season undefeated. His season was the odd man out. Again, that one year is not enough data to make any quick conclusions with, but it did happen and cannot simply be brushed off.

Speaking of Ohio State, that’s where his heart lies. He played for the Buckeyes from 1993-96, and has spent nearly two decades on the Buckeyes’ coaching payroll. Current head coach Ryan Day is younger than him and seems to be firmly locked into that job, but if he were to abruptly retire or jump to the NFL, it’s as sure as sunrise that the first call Ohio State is making is to Fickell with a frighteningly simple pitch: “Come home.”

And again, there’s no guarantee that he’d be able to handle the jump up. The small piece of data that we do have of him as a head coach, fair or not, is not great. Even at Cincinnati, it took him a year to adjust to the new role before beginning to dominate; in the SEC, that learning curve could be heightened.

Chances he takes the job if offered: 45%

This really all depends on whether or not Cincinnati can break through and become the first Group of Five team to reach the College Football Playoff. If the Bearcats reach the CFP, he’s probably never leaving unless Ohio State calls. If beating Notre Dame by double digits on the road and going undefeated doesn’t get him into the CFP, he’s almost certainly leaving Cincy for another program.

The question would be which one. LSU and USC also have head coaching vacancies, and if either one poaches the current coach at another big time school, that creates another opening. Florida is among the more likely destinations regardless of its competition for him, but less competition for him at USC could be more enticing for him the way UCLA was for Chip Kelly.

I think if Florida makes Fickell a strong offer that highlights his future potential use of the Gators’ new facilities, the odds he takes it are just under a coin flip. Fickell would have to seriously entertain the idea. But there’s no guarantee on what he’d ultimately choose to do.

Grade: B hire. The possible future opening at Ohio State scares me, as there’s no telling if or when Columbus will come calling. I don’t want that hanging over Florida’s head. I don’t want to have to keep an eye on Ohio State for as long as Fickell is at Florida to make sure Day stays, because if us as fans are doing that, you can bet other coaches on the recruiting trail will make sure that recruits are, too. That worry isn’t there with Napier. But aside from that and his lack of experience at a big time program, Fickell is a great #2 option for me.

Verdict: I like Fickell for a lot of the same reasons I like Napier, and think he would do fine at Florida. All things considered, his resume is actually even more impressive. But college football is just too volatile to say that the Ohio State job won’t suddenly open up and that he’d stay at Florida for the long haul, whereas Napier doesn’t have another big time program that he calls home and we’d have to worry about him bolting for. That’s essentially serving as the tiebreaker here, and why he sits at #2 behind Napier. As far as second options go? He’s a pretty good one.

Second tier

#3: Mario Cristobal, age 51: Oregon (34-12) and FIU (27-47)

Pros: recruiting, recruiting, Florida ties, and recruiting again

Mario Cristobal may not be the home run hire people seemed to think he was before Utah got through with his Ducks, but this man can recruit. Cristobal has reeled in top eight classes in two of the three full cycles he’s been the head man at Oregon. With deep ties to Miami and the South Florida area, Cristobal could take the keys at Florida and reel in top five class after top five class.

Plus, the idea of him living in the most talent-laden part of the country has to be more appealing to him than flying to the other corner of the continent each time he wants to access it. Oh, and just for the record- yes, he did spend the typical four year stint under Saban at Alabama from 2013-16… ironically enough, at the same time Napier was there.

Cons: inability to get over the hump, mystifying losses

Every coach is going to lose games. That’s just how it goes. But Cristobal has a puzzling record of losing a lot of games against inferior opponents that his team really, really needs. Think “Florida losing to LSU in 2020” type of losses.

There was a weird loss on a weird night in Tempe to a 7-5 Arizona State team in 2019 that cost the Ducks a shot at the national title. And this year, his team has lost not one but two games to inferior opponents while ranked #3. First came a bizarre loss to a Stanford team that’s a loss to Notre Dame away from finishing 3-9, and then came a 38-7 boat racing at the hands of then #23 Utah when his team sat three games away from the College Football Playoff. We’re talking about bringing this guy to the SEC, where the talent gap is much more even than the sum of the Pac-12, remember. That’s not a good sign.

Chances he takes the job if offered: 35%.

Unlike the other four guys on this list, Cristobal is currently employed by what people call a destination job. That means it’s going to take a true dream job to pull him away from Eugene, where he coaches a program that’s basically Nike University. Florida might be that job, though, given his ties to the state. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s waiting out the Miami Hurricanes’ head coaching job, so he can really go back home. But if Florida makes the call, he’d certainly listen.

Grade: C+ hire. Some of the losses he’s been responsible for at Oregon have been truly astounding. One or two of those in Gainesville and a lot of fans would get buyer’s remorse. But there’s no question Cristobal can recruit with the best of them, solving the biggest bugaboo of Dan Mullen’s.

Verdict: Assuming Cristobal can clean up in his home state on the recruiting trail, he can win Florida nine or ten games with his collection of Jimmy’s and Joe’s on a yearly basis, no problem. He feels like a high-floor, medium-ceiling option. There are better coaches out there in college football at places other than Alabama or Clemson- Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley, and Ryan Day, to name a few- but few better who would actually consider taking this job.

#4: Dave Aranda, age 45: Baylor (11-9)

Pros: recruiting, background, can hit the ground running

Don’t be fooled by Baylor’s mediocre recruiting rankings. There are nasty sanctions still in place from Art Briles’ time in Waco and Baylor is fairly difficult to recruit top athletes to anyway. Despite all that working against him, he hauled in the 41st ranked class in the country according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings. And though his first year as Baylor’s head man was definitely subpar, he flipped a switch and now has the Bears poised for a New Year’s Six Bowl in year two.

This all comes on the heels of a tremendous run as LSU’s defensive coordinator, helping the Tigers win the 2019 national championship. Known as an X’s and O’s guru, Aranda had a very hands-on role in Baton Rouge, and was hailed as a master of making sure his players did their assignments on a given play. And while we’re on the subject of LSU, it’s no coincidence that when Aranda- who doubled as the Tigers’ DC and assistant head coach- left, the Tigers began their downfall into the abyss that got Ed Orgeron fired.

Cons: relative inexperience

There’s zero doubt that Aranda’s resume as a coordinator is elite, but what about as a head coach? He’s only in his second season as the head man, and although this second season is a very, very good one, it’s difficult to know if it’s a stray good year in isolation (see Will Muschamp at Florida) or if he would truly have the Bears locked and loaded as an annual threat in the Big 12.

Florida can’t afford to miss a fourth consecutive time, and although there are questions with the resumes of every single prospective head coach out there, Aranda’s has the fewest data points on it. We just don’t have a surplus of evidence to say if he’d be able to translate it into success at Florida or not.

Chances he takes the job if offered: 15%. 

Aranda is almost certain to take the LSU job if he’s offered it, although the wild card is if Florida just tosses an obscene amount of money at him and makes an offer he can’t refuse. But you can pencil him in as the LSU coach for now. He’s been there, he knows that program, he knows that state and he probably wants to be there again, but this time as the boss.

Grade: C hire. This would be the big gamble hire. The ceiling is high, but the floor is low- and there’s a wide range in between where he could fall. He clearly knows how to win at Baylor and could be very successful at a big time school, but in a coaching market where there are few so-called “safe” hires, he’s the farthest away from a sure thing.

Verdict: I wouldn’t mind seeing Aranda in Gainesville. The upside is huge. Ultimately though, I have a feeling Aranda’s eyes and heart are both set on LSU, making him not even worth chasing after unless all three of the guys ahead of him on this list all turn Florida down. Which is unlikely.

#5: Dave Clawson, age 54: Wake Forest (49-47) and Bowling Green (31-32)

Pros: established an identity at lesser school, offensive-minded

Dave Clawson is Wake Forest football. After two 3-9 seasons to start his tenure in Winston-Salem, he’s turned his Demon Deacons into an annual bowl-eligible team. For all the flak about him not recruiting well, he sure does know how to develop what he’s got. This year, his Deacons are 9-2 and poised for just their second ever trip to the ACC Championship Game.

And oh, can he coach up an offense: Wake Forest is putting up 490 yards a game this season, good for seventh in the country. Again. That’s at Wake Forest. That’s an excellently written most recent chapter of a career that has seen him leave every program better than he’s found it- Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and now Wake Forest.

Cons: recruiting, this would be the biggest job he’s ever had

The pitch to excite fans about Clawson would have to be: “OK, no, he’s not a great recruiter, but he does have a knack for finding hidden gems- and he’s never recruited at a program like Florida before.” Because his recruiting rankings are atrocious. Only once in his seven seasons at Wake Forest have the Deacons finished in the top ten of the recruiting rankings in their own conference. Granted, Wake Forest is hard to recruit kids to, but still.

And the same unknowns about Napier and Fickell due to their lack of experience at a major job are there with Clawson just the same, only Clawson is in his mid-50’s now and won’t be that “Gator lifer” that Florida is looking for. For him to get by far his biggest job ever at age 54… I’d be wary, to say the least.

Chances he takes the job if offered: 85%.

Clawson is a good head coach, and has proven to wring production out of the marginal talent he’s got. That’s going to earn him some offers. I don’t know that he’ll ever field an offer of this caliber, though, meaning that if Florida tells him that they want him, he’s probably coming.

Grade: C hire. Clawson would have to keep Tim Brewster and then load up his Florida staff with ace recruiters to make up for this obvious deficiency. Maybe without the stubbornness and loyalty to a fault that Mullen allowed to drown him, he would do so. Because pretty much everything else checks out. It’s just that that’s such an obvious red flag that it drops the grade down.

Verdict: Clawson wouldn’t be a terrible option by any means. He’s just got some neon red flags that other candidates don’t have. As mentioned above, if he stocks his staff with tremendous recruiters, he could thrive.

12 thoughts on “The short list: top five coaches to replace Dan Mullen as the Florida Gators head coach

  1. Good research, good picks. Napier,Fickell & Cristobel are all fine prospects. How about your evaluation and consideration of Bob Stoops? Would any in your opinion, consider a top notch up and commer as their Assistant Head Coach with an offensive coordinator calling the offense and the defense coordinator the defense. Coach 1 & 2 would be free to manage all facets of the game
    as it progresses!

  2. Like reading your evaluations on each coach. What’s your evaluation of Hugh Freeze. To me he is everything Napier is but already proved it at P5 school I know there is some baggage but he has done well at Liberty where they have never won and done the coaching rehab of rebuilding his image. I know it would be hard for Strickland to hire him but I think He is a coach that would stick around for long haul

  3. Hugh Freeze just received an extension at 4M a year from Liberty so he’s not leaving. Plus I believe the UF Administration would stay away due to his checkered past

  4. I love reading your stuff, but I do have a question. Concerning Napier taking the job if offered, you rate it 70%. But then point out your sources say he is definitely interested, which is what I’m hearing too, so shouldnt you take the plunge and rate him saying yes higher than what you gave Clawson? Just asking, thanks for always keeping it real.

    1. Hey, thanks for reading!

      I give Napier a 70% chance to take the job because I think other big time jobs like LSU will be after him. Clawson will probably have other offers, but not likely any as enticing as Florida. These % chances were the % chance they take the job if offered, not the % they will be the next head coach overall.

  5. Florida does not have the patience nor will they ever to wait around for more than 5 years to build a program to compete for championships. Lane kiffin is the best choice if he is available. He can recruit and he also has the kind of offense that will produce the excitement that Florida fans crave. His defense has improved at Mississippi in the past few games. Along with a great defensive coordinator who is an excellent recruiter Florida can compete for championships again. He has enough Talent on this team already to quickly turn it around all he needs is a good quarterback and Anthony Richardson might be that quarterback and some great recruiting. Look what he did at Mississippi and Mississippi isn’t the best school to recruit players to. Kiffin should be the first choice Napier the second

  6. Kiffin has recruited well in the past but the players he is winning with at Ole Moss were all recruited by the prior staff. Ole Miss is currently ranked 38th in recruiting this year, 8 spots lower than a UF team without a coach and after numerous defections after the coach got fired. With a 10-2 season the class at Ole Miss should be much better at this point especially for a bump class. I’m not so sure Kiffin tries as hard as he used to when it comes to recruiting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.