The Next Florida Head Coach Will Be ... ?
Petrino, Whittingham, Strong & Mullen
Petrino, Whittingham, Strong & Mullen
Posted Dec 27, 2009

Urban Meyer had barely resigned before speculation began kick in about who the replacement might be. Bobby Petrino? Kyle Whittingham? Charlie Strong? Dan Mullen? Or will Florida AD Jeremy Foley go outside the box again with a Ron Zook-like hire? Pete Fiutak breaks down the top candidates.

Florida Coaching Options

Now what for the Gator program?

Pete Fiutak 

- Instant Analysis - Urban Meyer Steps Down 

After the bombshell that Urban Meyer dropped the day after Christmas, and outside of all the concern over his health, there remained the real world issue of what Florida does from here. After all, this is one the nation's premier programs with a tremendous athletic department, top-notch facilities, and the dough to get any coach it wants, but the problem is the timing with the recruiting season fully kicking in just after the new year.

There was no good way for a coach to leave and there's never a perfect time to go, especially if you have two national titles and were a game away from playing for a third. This wasn't just a case of Meyer being run down and needing a break; he got a wake-up call, literally, from his body after the loss to Alabama and realized that something had to change. Being a legendary college football coach wasn't going to be much fun if he wasn't going to be around to enjoy it, so now he's taking time off to figure out how the next act will play out, but in the meantime, Florida has national titles to try to win.

Recruiting will be the focus with signing day just over a month away. The other SEC coaches will say and do all the right things to express concern over their comrade, but it's now open season for all the studs that would've been a lock for Gainesville had Meyer been around. That's why athletic director Jeremy Foley has to act quickly and he has to come up with a gem. Another Ron Zook isn't going to cut it, and with the money Foley can offer, there's no need to go on the cheap.

So who can Foley get, or more to the point, who does Foley want to get, who can be had quickly, can keep the machine rolling, and will be more than just a good coach? The guy Foley will go after has to be able to not only handle the pressure of the SEC, but the pressure of a program that will demand nothing less than national title contention and SEC championships every year. Here are the top options, based almost fully on rumors and speculation at this early stage.

Darkhorse Candidates: Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh; East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz; Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp; Boise State head coach Chris Petersen; Arizona head coach Mike Stoops; Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin; Former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville

7. Charlie Strong Odds: 50-to-1
While the idea of the former defensive coordinator would make for a relatively seamless transition, he would need to hire a top-shelf offensive coordinator and he would would have to get past that wee little problem of being hired by Louisville as the head coach approximately ten minutes ago. Almost instantly after word of Meyer's resignation came out, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich was saying that he wasn't about to let go of his new hire. However, Jurich also stated that if Strong really wanted to be the coach of the Gators instead, the $1 million buyout wouldn't be an issue. But fortunately for the Cardinals, Florida might be looking bigger and for someone who's already a superstar head coach.

There's something about this that doesn't seem to add up. Strong had to have known that something  was up with Meyer after the SEC title game and there had to have been some discussion somewhere along the line about the possibility that this was going to happen. Foley apparently didn't know that Meyer was leaving until a few days ago, and it's possible that Strong knew and had to jump at the chance at the Louisville job anyway after being passed over for head coaching gigs year after year after year. Strong's contract with Louisville isn't finalized yet so it's not like this would be too messy if he wanted to go back to his old program, but it's unlikely to happen. Strong will almost certainly stay true to the school that finally gave him his shot to run a BCS conference program, and on courtesy alone, Florida probably won't ask for him back.

6. Mike Shanahan Odds: 50-to-1
This is who Foley wanted in the first place after Steve Spurrier bailed to the Washington Redskins, and instead the Ron Zook era kicked in. Had the job been open last year, Shanahan might be a more realistic candidate, but at this point the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach is being talked about for every major job opening in the NFL, most notably the Washington Redskins' gig. He might not be the right fit for Florida considering he'd have to battle with the big boys when it comes to recruiting, and he's hardly a seasoned veteran at that. He'd have to squash rumors year after year that he might be going back to the NFL. If he's hired by Florida, 30 seconds later all the SEC powers will be sending out some sort of message to recruits questioning whether or not Shanahan will be there for five years.

It also might come down to a simple issue of money. Foley could certainly offer whatever it takes to get Shanahan, but he's not going to cough up the $7 million a year, minimum, that an NFL team would throw out there. Foley can't compete with Daniel Snyder.

5. Bobby Petrino Odds: 40-to-1
Call this more of a wish list option for Florida fans than a real, live candidate. Petrino is known for jumping ship at any offer that appears to be shiny, and after doing wonders with the Arkansas offense in just two years, changing it from a pure running attack to a high-octane passing offense, the thought of a return to the fun 'n' gun days might be a fun prospect for both Petrino and Foley, who was interested after the Zook firing. Contractually, Petrino can't go to an SEC West school, but he could go to Florida if Foley wanted to shell out around $5 million in buyout money. Petrino might be interested in taking over with a chance to make his offense sing with projected starting QB John Brantley at the helm, but he might be more interested in the paycheck. Getting under $3 million a year now, he'd likely make at least a million more per year, with reachable incentives, at Florida.

Petrino is purely a speculative candidate right now. He seems like an obvious name because of his résumé, highlighted by a near-miss run for the national title at Louisville in 2006, and this would be one of the few big moves left for him to make. He's dead to the NFL now, and if he doesn't stick at Arkansas there are few other big name programs out there that might want him considering his history of looking around for the next best thing. There are no next best things in college football after Florida.

4. Bob Stoops Odds: 25-to-1
And here we go again. Because he used to be the Florida defensive coordinator and because he's among the top head coaches in college football right now, Bob Stoops would be a dream replacement for anyone. After all the dancing and all the rumors about the Notre Dame job, now it'll be interesting to see if Florida offers something different. The sticking point for the Stoops/Irish marriage was going to be the academic recruiting restrictions, and while Florida isn't going to let just anyone in, it'll let just anyone as long as he can run a 4.4.

But why would Stoops leave Oklahoma for Florida? It's Okla-freakin'-homa, not some MAC school that's a training ground for head coaches. If going from Norman to Gainesville is more than a lateral move, it's by a baby step considering Stoops makes around $4 million a year now, but he might be ready for a new challenge. To his credit, he did everything possible to squash the red-hot rumors that had him going to Notre Dame, and he's going to have to do the same this time around, too. After passing on the job when Spurrier left, Stoops will at least get a phone call from Foley this time.

3. Kyle Whittingham Odds: 20-to-1
And here comes the Meyer influence. Even though he isn't going to be the head coach anymore, Meyer has said he wants to stick around the program and he wants to help out in the decision-making process for the new hire. Whittingham was an assistant under Meyer at Utah and has been able to keep the success rolling. While everyone will point to the 13-0 2008 season, highlighted by the win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham might have done a better job this season with a 10-3 record and a bowl win over Cal despite replacing several key starters on both sides of the ball. He also had to endure some major injuries and a late-season quarterback switch, and the team still produced.

Whittingham makes $1.2 million plus incentives, and he could be had for far, far, less than some of the big names on the list. However, even with Meyer's backing, there's a shot that Foley doesn't care about who the best spread offense coach is and starts to look for who the best coach is, period. Whittingham is good, but he's not nearly the prospect that Meyer was and he might be seen as a second-banana type of choice by Gator fans.

2. Dan Mullen Odds: 10-to-1
The Mississippi State head coach helped make the Florida offense dominate last year as the team's offensive coordinator, and he was with Meyer at Utah, too. Most notably, he did a solid job with nothing to work with in Starkville other than RB Anthony Dixon. Mullen is considered by many in the coaching world as a true high-riser, much like Meyer was, and if he doesn't end up at Florida he'll likely have a much higher profile gig somewhere in the next few seasons; he's thought to be that good an offensive head coach.

Again, this where the Meyer influence could kick in.

The two are friends, and if Meyer desperately wants his offense to continue to be the way Florida does business, then he'll likely push hard to get Mullen back after only a year away. Current offensive coordinator Steve Addazio isn't going to move up into the head job, and he might not be kept around after a mediocre season (like it was his fault that Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy are playing in the NFL). Mullen could bring in who he wants to. However, for good and bad, Mullen is only 37 and winning five games at MSU is hardly enough to go on to assume he can handle a monster like Florida.

Mullen might be an easy choice for Foley, but that would appear that Meyer is pulling the strings when it isn't so. This might be Meyer's football team, but it's Foley's athletic department, and that's why if Foley chooses to go with a coach like Stoops or Shanahan it's bu-bye to Meyer. There's no way that any big-time head man will want the big shadow hovering over the program, but with someone like Mullen or Whittingham, this would still be Meyer's program and some of the heat would be off Foley. If the hire doesn't work out, then Meyer would be to blame for vouching for a buddy. However, Foley isn't like that and he isn't going to be afraid to get the guy he thinks is the best coach possible. He'll listen to Meyer, but the buck will stop in the AD's office.

1. Urban Meyer Odds: 5-to-1
There could be a, "just kidding, guys" moment from Meyer. He might just take a long leave of absence, led Steve Addazio take over for a while, and then come back after the batteries are recharged. There's a chance that Meyer pulls a Brett Favre and makes it a will-he-or-won't-he thing based on how he's feeling and what the family situation is. He's too much of a coach to leave for good, and when he comes back, he's going to want to be the head coach of Florida.

And there's one final option
… The Field Odds: 7-to-1.
Raise your hand if you heard of Ron Zook before he came to Gainesville. Foley won't be afraid to go outside the box, and he's not going to cower to public opinion. Remember, the easy thing to do, clash of egos aside, would've been to bring back Spurrier after Zook was canned. This might be a quick hire, but it'll be a thorough one and there are several names out there that you're going to be hearing for the first time over the next few days. It was huge news when Meyer left, and it'll be just as big when his replacement is brought in.