Mark McLeod

Photo by Steph Chambers | Getty Images

I took an informal poll of 50 Florida fans, including a few former players via text and social media messenger to gauge their thoughts on the Gators head coaching vacancy. 

I asked them to give me the top three coaches on their short list for the Florida job. I received responses from 38 of those and tabulated their picks.

Who were the three most often mentioned names? 

Lane Kiffin, Bob Stoops, and Billy Napier. 

Later Sunday, I asked Florida fans on my Facebook page to weigh-in and the most popular names were The three names that came up the most often were again- Lane Kiffin, Bob Stoops, and Billy Napier followed by Mario Cristobal and Luke Fickell. 

Here is a capsule of each coach mentioned even those who are certain not to get a call from Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin.  


Top Tier

Mario Cristobal, 51
The Oregon head coach has to be among the top candidates on the board. Born and raised in Miami, Cristobal played for UM when the Hurricanes were winning national championships in the late ’80’s, early ’90’s.  He spent several years there as an assistant before taking the job at FIU where he was 27-47 overall before being fired in December 2012. 

Cristobal was then hired by Al Golden to coach the Hurricanes tight ends. However, after just one month in Coral Gables, Alabama’s Nick Saban offered him the opportunity its to come to Tuscaloosa and take over the offensive line duties. He did a terrific job recruiting and coaching up the O-Line for Saban at Alabama. 

He took the offensive line position at Oregon under Wille Taggart in 2017 and was elevated to interim head coach when Taggart left for Florida State. A few days later, Oregon made it official and named him head coach. Cristobal has enjoyed two strong years at Oregon (2019 & 2021) and led the Ducks to a 9-4 season in 2018. The school rewarded him with a six-year, $27 million dollar deal last December.

Cristobal’s recruiting prowess is much needed in Gainesville. Mullen failed to lock-up The Sunshine State when arch-rivals Miami and Florida State were down. 

I don’t see any scenario where Manny Diaz survives as head coach at Miami. Is there any doubt that the ‘Canes will try to bring Cristobal home? His buyout is reportedly $9 million, dropping to $6.5 million on January 15th, 2022. Given UM’s financial limitations, wouldn’t Cristobal would have to take a pay cut to return to Coral Gables? Florida owes Mullen $6 million just in time for Christmas. Furthermore, would an expanding Southeastern Conference appeal to Cristobal?   


Lane Kiffin, 46

Many of us have watched Lane Kiffin grow up in the game and what a wild ride it has been. We all know about the Ole Miss head coach’s strong ties to the Sunshine State and the Gators through his ex-wife, Layla. There is no question that he understands the expectations.

Florida is an elite job and seemingly a no-brainer for Kiffin to pursue. Kiffin is one of the top offensive minds in college football, leading Ole Miss to a 9-2 record this season with quarterback Matt Corral, a Heisman Trophy front-runner. 

Kiffin has helped develop some awfully good quarterbacks. 

He previously led FAU to 11-3 and 10-3 seasons after being fired at Southern Cal and by the Raiders. Nick Saban brought Kiffin to Tuscaloosa in 2014 and he lasted three years, which was more than most of us had envisioned. At times, watching the pair was like a real-life version of The Odd Couple. Saban obviously grew “frustrated” with Kiffin, but the Tide did win a national championship and we watched Derrick Henry run for days as Kiffin fed him the ball. 

Kiffin has never stayed in any job for very long. He isn’t boring. He’ll troll opponents and just seems to have a good time. Kiffin has definitely matured, but is it enough for Florida fans? It appears so. It’s hard to imagine Kiffin not being on Scott Stricklin’s list. 

Can Florida afford him? Yes. Mississippi law limits the contracts on state employees to four years. Miami is also in play for Kiffin. 

Billy Napier, 42

There is a lot to like about Louisiana head coach Billy Napier. He is another young coach who enjoyed early success before being fired and hired by Nick Saban as an analyst.  Napier worked with former Florida head coach Jim McElwain at Alabama and he followed Mac to Colorado State in 2012.

Napier would go on to spend an additional four years under Saban at Alabama.  

He took over at Louisiana in 2018 and led the Rajin’ Cajuns to four consecutive Sun Belt Championships Game appearances, losing to Appalachian State twice. He’ll get another shot at the Mountaineers on December 4th. (the 2020 game was cancelled)

Napier helped develop Levi Lewis into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. The Rain’ Cajuns have gone 11-3, 10-1, and 10-1 over the past three seasons. Louisiana’s only loss this past season was a 38-18 defeat to Texas on the road.   

Bob Stoops, 61

You’d have to go back to 1989 to find the last time Bob Stoops wasn’t mentioned as a candidate for the Florida coaching job. Is Stoops up for the job? Ask Steve Spurrier, he’ll know. 

He spent 18 years at Oklahoma finishing with a 190-48 record, 10 conference titles, and a national championship. Big Game Bob lives on!! 

Stoops was most recently (2019) acting as the GM/Head Coach of the XFL Dallas Renegades. 

Lincoln Riley, 38

The Oklahoma coach has three consecutive 12 win seasons (2017-19) and the Sooners are currently 10-1. He has compiled an impressive 55-9 record since taking over the Sooners program in 2017.

Riley learned a lot from Mike Leach as a GA and wide receivers coach. 

Would a Texas boy leave Big 12 country for a Southeastern Conference school when the Sooners will soon be welcomed into the SEC family in 2025?


Dave Aranda, 45

What a job Aranda has done at Baylor in 2021. The former LSU defensive coordinator has guided the Bears to a 9-2 record after a miserable 2-7 campaign in 2020. 

His defenses at Wisconsin and LSU were usually outstanding. His name comes up for the LSU vacant, but so do many other names. Sound familiar?

Does a 2-7 2020 season and the 2021 turnaround provide you with enough on him as a head coach? 

Mel Tucker, 49

For several weeks, Tucker was the hottest coach . His engines cooled a bit when Ohio State shelled Michigan State 56-7 last Saturday. Tucker has a wealth of experience as an assistant coach in the NFL, Big Ten, and SEC. 

He seems to be right at home in the Big Ten. When asked about the opening at LSU, Tucker would only reply that he is focused on Michigan State. A 10-year, $95 million dollar contract can do that for you. 

Luke Fickell, 48

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones did a fine job leading the Bearcats before moving on to greener pastures. Fickell is doing the job. Is there a green pasture he has in mind? 

The former longtime Ohio State assistant has lost only six games in four years at Cincinnati., which includes three consecutive appearances in the AAC Championship Game. Each of those losses were to nationally ranked teams. The lone loss for the Bearcats in 2020 was 24-21 to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.   

Born, raised, and having coached his entire 23-year career in Ohio, Fickell has no Southeastern Conference ties.

Matt Campbell, 41

Campbell’s name has been on nearly every major D-1 coaching vacancy. The Cyclones finished 1st in the Big 12 (9-3) last season and went to the Fiesta Bowl. Campbell has also been named the Big 12 Coach of the Year three times. He grew up in Ohio and spent several years coaching in the Buckeye State at Bowling Green and Toledo before coming to Ames in 2016. Football Scoop’s Zach Barnett reported in March that Campbell’s buyout had been reduced to $4 million. Campbell has had other opportunities to leave. Why wouldn’t he want to leave Iowa State for (insert school name here)? He is still in Ames, Iowa.   

James Franklin, 49

The Penn State head coach always finds his name out there for elite head coaching opportunities. I believe that trends back to his work at Vanderbilt when he coached the ‘Dores to remarkable back-to-back 9-4 records.

He has one Big Ten Championship and three double-digit winning seasons during his eight year tenure in Happy Valley.  The Nittany Lions have struggled over the past two seasons though. 

I see Franklin as good a motivator and recruiter, but the fact is that Penn State recruiting hasn’t been fabulous under Franklin.    

Longshots

Jamey Chadwell, 44

Chadwell has won big at his last two stops, Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina compiling an impressive 63-33 record. 

He has done a fantastic job working with quarterback Grayson McCall, the 2020 Sun Belt Player of the Year into running his version of the triple-option offense. The Chanticleers average 42.3 points per game.  

Virginia Tech should also be in play for Chadwell’s services. 

Kerwin Bell, 56

Bell wins. Period. He wins conference championships. He wins overall championships. Unfortunately for Bell, he has not gotten an opportunity on a bigger stage. 

The former Florida quarterback won the 2018 Division II national championship at Valdosta State (14-0), where he compiled a 27-7 record over three seasons. 

Bell guided the Jacksonville University Dolphins to the Pioneer Conference Championship in his second season. He led the Dolphins to two more titles before the JU administration foolishly opted out of advancing the program, leaving Bell without a new contract due to philosophical differences. 

Previously, Bell led Trinity Catholic High School to the Class 2A state championship just four years after starting the program from scratch. The following year the Celtics lost the state championship game.

He is currently serving as the head coach at Western Carolina. 

Bill O’Brien, 52

O’Brien has six years of experience in the NFL with the Houston Texans and two years at Penn State during the tumultuous Sandusky trial. He took over the Alabama offensive coordinator duties when Steve Sarkisian left for Texas. 

He led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in 2012 earning several Coach of the Year honors.  

Hugh Freeze, 52

Freeze has enjoyed tremendous success after the NCAA took 27 wins at Ole Miss due to recruiting and academic violations while he was the head coach. Freeze also used a university cell phone to call escort services. He took the job at Liberty University and has really done a good job coaching the Flames.    

Charlie Strong, 61

Strong got his first GA job at Florida back in 1983. Former Florida players absolutely love him. Florida fans love him too. He has worked under former Florida coaches Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, and Urban Meyer. Charlie has returned to Gainesville so many times that he still has a reserved parking space. Strong was one of the hottest names in college coaching after taking Louisville to back-to-back 11-2, 12-1 records. His head coaching tenures at Texas and USF resulted in three-year stints at both schools. He is currently the inside linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.     

NFL Coaches

Joe Brady, 32

The Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator grew up in South Florida, playing at Everglades High School. He has tremendous accomplishments for a young assistant coach. He hasn’t been a head coach and I don’t think Florida is the opportunity for first-time head coaches. I’m not sure how he played as a recruiter, either. Would Brady want to leave the NFL?

Dan Quinn, 51

The former Florida defensive coordinator has spent nine years in the NFL since leaving Gainesville. Quinn was 43-42 in his six years as the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons, which included a Super Bowl loss to New England. He is currently the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. One of the nicest guys in football, Quinn just seems to be happy in the NFL. 

Urban Meyer, 57

He has a job in Jacksonville and the perfect scenario for Dan Mullen is to go be Urban’s offensive coordinator working with Trevor Lawrence. Though several fans have mentioned that he be considered, I just don’t see it here.  

Byron Leftwich, 41

Leftwich is running the offense of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Tom Brady under center. After a 10 year NFL career, he has only coached in the NFL and appears likely to get a head coaching shot there.

Jon Gruden, 58

The St. Petersburg native was mentioned by four people in my informal poll. Personally, I thought that he should have stayed in the broadcast booth, but coaches so often find it impossible to resist jumping back in the huddle. The NFL email issues that resulted in his firing in Las Vegas make him untouchable at this point.   

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