A year ago, after Mike White’s coaching malpractice pushed me over the edge for good, I wrote about all the laundry list of candidates I would love to see Florida replace Mike White with.
After his horrifying late game mismanagement against Oral Roberts, we’re done pretending that White is capable of adequately upholding the standards that the University of Florida has set for its basketball program. By “standards that the University of Florida has set for its basketball program,” I mean reaching Final Fours and winning the SEC. You know, the achievements that the school proudly adorns the rafters of the O’Dome with- and when you have to fire someone, the next step is replacing him. So instead of railing on and on about how Mike White isn’t the guy, let’s move on and talk about who might be- a discussion that very well might (this is partially just me hoping) move from academic to reality within the next twelve months.
And let’s start by establishing from the get go that Florida is not picking from an infinite universe of options here.
Billy Donovan isn’t coming back. Hall Of Famers Jay Wright, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Bill Self are not leaving their jobs to come to Florida. And Florida has already wasted its chances at guys like Chris Mack (who was my first choice back in 2015 when Donovan left), Tony Bennett and Mick Cronin, who six years ago would have dropped what they were doing to book the next flight to Gainesville. Those guys are all off the table.
Furthermore, Florida is not a basketball blue blood. Florida is not on the same top tier with Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke or UCLA. To act like the Florida basketball job is the most prestigious college coaching job in existence simply isn’t logical.
But while Florida isn’t in that upper-upper echelon of college hoops jobs, it is the next tier down. Florida has been to five Final Fours; only fourteen schools have been to more. And Florida has won two national championships; only eight schools have won three or more. So while Scott Stricklin can’t just poach anybody he wants, he does have a fairly deep pool of choices.
So with all that in mind, who should Stricklin target to replace White as the Gators’ basketball coach?
1: Chris Beard, Texas Tech (and formerly Little Rock)
Synopsis: out of the park grand slam hire; first choice.
Beard topped my list a year ago, and he’s done nothing since then to encourage me to slide him off that top spot since.
Historically speaking, Texas Tech has been a Big 12 cellar dweller since it joined the league in 1997. All Beard did was come in and guide the Red Raiders to the Elite Eight for the first time ever in his third season; the following year, he coached Texas Tech to its first ever Big 12 championship, before taking the Raiders to the national championship game for the first time ever. The fact that the phrase “first ever” appears a few times in that last sentence is not a mistake. Not even Bob Knight could wring that sort of success out of the Texas Tech program, and now Beard has the Raiders seemingly poised for another memorable season.
There’s also his proven track record of recruiting and then developing first round NBA Draft picks, such as Jarrett Culver (drafted 6th by Phoenix in 2019) and Zhaire Smith (drafted 16th by Phoenix and traded to Philadelphia in 2018). If he can do that at Texas Tech- and this is a theme you’ll notice throughout this list- imagine what he could do at Florida, in a more fertile local recruiting area and with no real national powerhouses nearby to have to fend off, meaning he’ll have the “stay close to home” weapon at his disposal when he goes into recruits’ living rooms.
As for his style of play? Beard deploys a defense first unit, which may not come off as super exciting to most Gator fans after watching Mike White’s teams play for six years. But you should know that those defenses are elite, finishing in the top ten in the country of KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings in three of the last five years. It’s also worth pointing out that with the aforementioned “recruiting and developing” thing he’s got down pat, he could plug some real scoring machines into his lineup, let them do what they do best and coach them up defensively.
And he’s only 47 years old, meaning that he could become a Gator lifer.
Chances to land him: medium.
As I wrote a year ago:
There’s a $3M buyout to be dealt with, but Florida has an affluent enough array of donors that the school should have no problem ponying that up in addition to giving him a raise to tip the scales in his mind. Even if Florida were to simply match his current $4.575M salary at Texas Tech and not bump it up to an even $5M a year, the other factors would probably be more than enough to persuade him: Florida is a better job in a conference that’s easier to win than the Big 12, boasting a better history, with a better local recruiting base, better facilities and a better booster base. Put simply, nobody worth his salt stays in Lubbock for too long; if Florida wants to take him away from Texas Tech, they will.
All that remains true now. The one thing that has changed since then is the status of Florida’s would-be main competitor for his services, the Texas Longhorns, AKA Beard’s alma mater. Shaka Smart suddenly made Texas basketball a force, presumably decreasing the potential urge for Chris Del Conte to make a change of his own— even after the Longhorns’ shocking loss to Abilene Christian in the Round of 64. But then he suspiciously and abruptly left for Marquette, and now that job is open. And Beard is rumored to be a top candidate there. So Florida might want to get a move on here before it’s too late.
2: Dana Altman, Oregon (and formerly Creighton, Kansas State and Marshall)
Synopsis: home run hire.
Altman is an interesting case study of what happens when you let someone hone his skills at a so-so program, and then poach him when you think he’s ready.
A quick stop at Kansas State preceded a renaissance at Creighton: the Blue Jays had only been to nine NCAA Tournaments, ever, before Altman arrived in 1995. He then took them to seven in the ensuing decade and a half, raising the level of expectations there and consistently keeping the program at that new level of expectation. He even got them to the Round of 32 twice- which, unlike at Florida, was a big deal at Creighton.
Then he departed for Oregon. There, after a bad first year, he flipped the program around and reached five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, winning at least one game in each and leading the Ducks to an Elite Eight in 2016 and the Final Four in 2017. The Ducks fell back to earth over the next two years, but Altman led them to an unlikely Pac-12 tournament title and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2019, showed more promise in the COVID-canceled 2020 season and now has the Ducks back in the Sweet 16.
And unlike White, Altman is known for overseeing explosive offenses. Almost every year since his arrival, the Ducks have ranked in the top 20 of KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings. No doubt he could replicate that at Florida with an unfair amount of nearby talent to recruit.
Chances to land him: medium.
Florida might have waited a year too long to go after Altman.
Now that he’s gotten the Ducks back to the Sweet 16- which follows up a Sweet 16 appearance in the last NCAA Tournament- Altman might be thinking that he can not only have one nice run of teams and then a fluke second-weekend run a few years later, but repeatedly reload for batches of Sweet 16-or-deeper tourney marches over and over again. And it’s not like Oregon is a bad place to coach, not with Nike’s Phil Knight basically owning the athletic program. So he may just want to retire a Duck.
Still: Florida is definitely a preferable place to live, there’s way more nearby talent, and he’d be coaching a more prestigious program in a conference that may be even easier to win than the Pac-12 some years. So while it wouldn’t be a guarantee, it’s definitely worth a shot.
3: Porter Moser, Loyola Chicago (and formerly Illinois State and Little Rock)
Synopsis: home run hire
It wasn’t long ago that many believed Porter Moser to be a one hit wonder. So-so tenures at Little Rock and Illinois State, followed by a decent start to his career at Loyola Chicago, had him pegged as a good-but-not-great coach- at least looking at the results.
Then Donte Ingram nailed a buzzer beater to take out the Miami Hurricanes in the Round of 64 in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, and the Ramblers rode that to a miracle Final Four. And Moser’s stock as a coach rose, as it should have, for guiding an 11th seeded mid major to the national semifinals. But then the Ramblers fell back down to earth the ensuing couple of years, and Loyola Chicago seemed to be a one trick pony with a fluke Final Four run.
Except now, in a wacky COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, Moser again has the Ramblers as a threat. Sweeping the Missouri Valley Conference regular and conference titles placed his team into the Tournament with room to spare as an eight seed, and after bulldozing their first two opponents- Georgia Tech and top seed Illinois- the Ramblers are back in the Sweet 16 and could go even further. This team is no fluke, no miracle-reliant Cinderella team. Moser has built a lion of a program over there, a punch-you-in-the-face-and-beat-you-senseless type of blue-collar team that has dominated almost every opponent in its way.
And, oh yeah: like Beard, Moser is a defense-first coach, but those defenses are elite (currently, the Ramblers rank second in KenPom’s adjusted defense rating). And here comes another instance of that theme I promised: Florida is a far easier place to recruit at than Loyola Chicago. All Moser would have to do to produce an offense is recruit a scoring machine or two, draw up some nice sets and leave them be.
Chances to land him: very high
Texas Tech and Oregon are Power Five programs that pay their basketball coaches multi-million dollar salaries. Though Loyola Chicago, as a private school, can keep contract details under wraps, I can’t help but feel that it’s extremely unlikely Moser makes anywhere close to Altman’s $2.8M salary. Florida’s likely ability to multiply that salary a few times over would have to be enticing.
And, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but: he’d be able to recruit exponentially better at Florida. Wearing a stronger logo on his polo with the ability to tell kids in the talent-rich state of Florida (and Georgia, even) that they can play at such a prestigious basketball programmed stay close to home? That sure sounds a lot easier than trying to recruit kids to spend four years in the bitter cold in the Missouri Valley.
The only way Moser doesn’t take the job is if another suitor, say, Indiana, beats Florida out. So copy and paste the last line of what I wrote for Chris Beard: get a move on, Florida.
4: Ben Howland, Mississippi State (and formerly UCLA, Pittsburgh and Northern Arizona)
Synopsis: solid hire.
Pretty much everything I wrote about Howland a year ago remains unchanged.
The way that UCLA dropped off in the back half of his tenure there is worth an eyebrow raise. But everything else checks out. Howland hit the jackpot by signing Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Kevin Love in a three year span and made the most of them, taking the Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008 before everything kind of fizzled out for him in Westwood. But then Scott Stricklin hired him at Mississippi State, where he slowly turned things around after a rough start. Now Howland has arguably the worst basketball program in the SEC poised for back to back trips to the NCAA Tournament, which suggests that the end of his UCLA tenure could have been the anomaly and not the rule.
Mississippi State did fall back down to earth in 2020-21 (which still didn’t stop Howland from coaching himself to yet another victory over Mike White), but no one year can make or break a coach’s stock. Overall, he’s done as good of a job as one can do in Starkville. Having arguably the second or third worst program in the SEC reach the NCAA Tournament in back to back years (which would have been a certainty if not for COVID-19 last year) is the rough equivalent of back to back Final Fours at UCLA or Kentucky in the sense that it indicates that the coach of that program is doing something right.
So essentially, what we have here is a coach who’s taken various programs as far as anyone within their fan bases could reasonably ask. I’d prefer Beard, Altman or Moser (and Florida is all but certain to get Moser at worst assuming they try) but if somehow everything falls through with all three, Howland is a strong next-tier option.
Chances to land him: very high.
This job belongs to Ben Howland if Florida doesn’t seriously lowball him. Plain and simple. Like I said last year:
He only makes $2.05M a year, which Florida could top with ease. This would be a golden second chance for him at the highest level of college basketball, a shot at redemption after things fell apart in Los Angeles. And it would continue the pattern of Florida using Mississippi State as its farm system: Florida has already poached their athletic director (Stricklin), their football coach (Dan Mullen), the majority of Mullen’s assistant coaches and administrative employees there, their top kicker recruit (Evan McPherson) and someday soon their top linebacker recruit (Diwun Black), so why not add their men’s basketball coach to that list?
5: Thad Matta, formerly Butler, Xavier and Ohio State
Synopsis: medium risk, high reward hire
The only thing really not super impressive with Matta is the way his tenure at Ohio State ended. No, the reports of him “failing a physical” before he was supposedly about to take the Indiana job are not true. And at 53, it’s not like he’s forgotten how to coach.
A stray year at Butler preceded his meteoric rise at Xavier, where he quickly led the Musketeers to three straight tournaments, in which he won at least one game each time- and reached the Elite 8 in his third year. That spotted him an even cushier job at Ohio State, where took a year to get his feet wet- and then started to dominate.
Over the next decade, Matta led Ohio State to two Final Fours (including the 2007 national championship game), three Elite 8’s and five Sweet 16’s. A shocking upset at the hands of Kentucky in the 2011 Sweet 16 derailed what might have been one of the best teams to never reach the Final Four: that Ohio State squad- featuring Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft and 2007 holdover David Lighty- was so dominant throughout the season that it finished #1 in the final KenPom ratings despite the upset. The Buckeyes also became a mainstay atop the Big Ten standings, winning the league title five times and narrowly missing on a sixth.
So even though Matta’s last few teams fell off, he’s proven that he can dominate at the highest level. He’s proven he can recruit, he’s proven he can orchestrate dominant offenses, and he’s proven he can get results. So yeah: chances are he’d fit right in at Florida if he wants to.
Chances to land him: fairly high
Honestly, it just depends on if he wants to do it, to which there’s no real gauge for an answer. He’s currently a free agent, but hasn’t said a lot about what kind of job he would want if he wants to get back into coaching. And we don’t even know if he does.
But if he does, he’s probably not going to find a better job opening than Florida. Thanks to Billy Donovan beating him for the 2007 national championship, Florida’s got even more basketball history than Ohio State (at least in terms of national championships). And though coaching at Florida is no cakewalk, it would probably be easier than at Ohio State, in a loaded basketball conference stockpiled with historic blue bloods. So if he wants to compete for national titles again, he’d likely try to do so in Gainesville.
6: Steve Pikiell, Rutgers (and formerly Stony Brook)
Synopsis: low risk, high reward hire.
Pikiell has never been the head man at a program anywhere near as prestigious as Florida. But that’s about where the negatives end.
Pikiell flipped around the fortunes at Stony Brook with fairly stunning ease. Then he came to Rutgers, and made the Scarlet Knights as much of a force as they’ve ever been. The Scarlet Knights had been to six NCAA Tournaments, ever, and not one since 1991, before Pikiell arrived. It took him three years to establish a foundation, but once he did… holy (word of your choice).
For a guy coaching a program that has to fend off foreign raiders like Kentucky, Michigan, Syracuse, UConn, Ohio State, and yes, sometimes even Florida (remember Mike Rosario? And… um, Scottie Lewis?) for in-state talent, Pikiell has done a masterful job.
In year four at Rutgers, in 2019-20, Pikiell guided the Scarlet Knights into the rankings for the first time since 1979. Rutgers appeared poised to win at least one game and maybe more in the NCAA Tournament, which in Billy Donovan terms would be about the same as a trip to the national championship game, when the season got canceled. But to buck the notion that that team was an aberration, Pikiell took them to the NCAA Tournament for real in 2020-21, won a game, and had Houston on the ropes in the Round of 32 before suffering a devastating eleventh hour collapse against a much more talented team.
(Pastes “if he can do that at XYZ program, imagine what he could do at the far more prestigious Florida Gator basketball program!” line here.)
Chances to land him: certain.
If Florida makes Pikiell an offer, he’s coming to Gainesville. He makes less than half of what Mike White makes per year, meaning Florida could double his salary without a moment’s hesitation in exchange for him taking the keys to an exponentially more prestigious and better situated program.
The ability to recruit better talent, to coach a better program, in a more desirable place (for most) to live, in a far easier conference to win… for more money? Yep. He’s a Gator if Scott Stricklin wants him to be.
7: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall (and formerly Iona)
Synopsis: medium risk, high reward hire.
Yes, yes, I’m well aware that Seton Hall took a dive this season. That’s not the end of Willard’s coaching stock. You can’t do the flavor-of-the-month thing and just let the most recent or current season be the sole determining factor about whether you want him to be the next coach. Nor can you make an apples-to-apples comparison between results at Seton Hall and results at Florida.
Willard is where the hiring pool starts to get a little risky. It did take him five years to get things going at Seton Hall. But then he started reaching the Tournament with the Pirates (it would have been five straight years if not for COVID), developed Myles Powell into a star, and had the program primed for maybe its best season ever in 2020-21 when COVID canceled the season. As is the case with Pikiell, Willard has to perennially ward off out-of-state schools from pillaging his state for its talent, and he’s done a consistently solid job at a not-that-prestigious Seton Hall program despite that.
The other risk involved is that he was suspended two games for transfer tampering. That’s not the end of the world, but it is worth at least vetting him more carefully.
Chances to land him: very high.
Willard spurning Virginia Tech doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of his potential interest in Florida, a far superior basketball program. Just ask Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Hudson or even Kerry Blackshear. And, you know, remember last week?
And Willard’s $1.56M salary at Seton Hall could be doubled at Florida in the snap of a finger. He strikes me as only slightly less likely to take the job than Pikiell is if offered.
8: John Beilein, formerly Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan
Synopsis: high risk, high reward
Our podcast co-host Casey Hampton made a good point about Beilein in our latest episode. He’s old, so he probably wouldn’t stay more than six or seven years at the most. So this hire would have to come with one major condition: Beilein brings along someone like Mike Miller, a brilliant basketball mind who oh by the way just happened to star at Florida once upon a time, as an assistant, let him learn the ropes under a seasoned veteran coach, and if he does well, maybe add a “head coach in waiting” label onto his title.
Which is definitely a risk. Beilein could ultimately pull an about face two years into his tenure at Florida and retire, or Miller could leverage his position for a head job elsewhere. But oh, the potential payoff is huge.
Beilein took Michigan to the national championship game twice following a short but impressive tenure at West Virginia that featured an Elite 8 trip. His Wolverines frequently battled Matta’s Buckeyes and Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans for Big Ten supremacy, and won those battles twice (2011-12 and 2013-14). And even when Michigan wasn’t playing for a national title, they were relevant on a national scale, reaching three additional Sweet 16’s and an Elite 8 under his watch.
To be very clear, it’s worth saying again that this hire is not without significant risks. But if the coaching search has to reach an eighth candidate, it might be worth thinking outside the box.
Chances to land him: medium
It really just depends if Beilein wants to get back into coaching, or if he’s so scarred by his colossal professional flop in Cleveland that he just wants to call it a career.
If Beilein wants to return to the game, he won’t find a better job than Florida, unless maybe Indiana offers him their opening. Florida can give him a nice salary, let him coach for six years or so, prime a young assistant, and hand him the keys in six years. If he wants his last coaching stint to be a success, that’s his best path to doing so.
9: Matt McMahon, Murray State
His resume basically consists of Ja Morant and a lone NCAA Tournament win over Marquette and nothing else. But the intrigue of that one season would be enough to at least merit him some consideration in the apocalyptic scenario where the coaching search gets this desperate. And to leave Murray State for Florida? Yeah, he’d do it.
10: Anthony Grant, Dayton (and formerly Alabama and VCU)
Yes, he had a great team at Dayton a year ago with Obi Toppin that could have been special in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, he was a long time Billy Donovan assistant in Gainesville. And yes, for those two reasons alone, I would prefer seeing what he could do to giving Mike White a seventh year that most fans know will look at lot like the last four. But this is a reach at best, and if the search gets this far down there are some even more serious problems that would have to be addressed.
Hard no to:
-Kelvin Sampson, Houston (and formerly Indiana, Oklahoma and Washington State)
Why not? An avalanche of NCAA violations, resulting in a five year show-case penalty. End of story.
-Shaka Smart, Marquette (and formerly Texas and VCU)
Why not? Simply not good enough. Let Marquette have him. He “left” Texas under suspicious circumstances today after an embarrassing loss to Abilene Christian in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and that really summed up a mostly underwhelming career at Texas.
-Mark Turgeon, Maryland (and formerly Texas A&M and Wichita State)
Why not? The sum of his results have been mediocre at best, and Florida should and will aim higher than that.
-Gregg Marshall, formerly Wichita State
Marshall was actually #2 on my list a year ago. The results are impressive at a traditionally “meh” program, including a… dare I say… shocking run to the Final Four in 2013. But then reports came out that he was abusing players, complete with racial taunts and mockery, and, well, that’s the end of that.