Just eight years ago, Florida’s athletic department had become the envy of the entire nation. With multiple championships in football and men’s basketball, the university’s combination of academic excellence, a lively college campus and fertile recruiting territory made many believe the school’s great fortunes could become a longstanding enterprise.
But as history has demonstrated time and again, permanence is highly elusive. After some ups and downs in football over the past several seasons, basketball now faces its first coaching hire since 1996.
The man taking his exit from Gainesville to the Oklahoma City Thunder leaves in his wake the formulation of an elite program. With a pair of national titles and four Final Four appearances during his tenure at Florida, Billy Donovan brought Gator basketball into national consciousness and has kept it embedded there for portions of three decades.
No school wants to part with a successful head coach, and the collegiate basketball landscape has changed profoundly since the mid-90s. That’s the uncertainty athletic director Jeremy Foley enters into as he negotiates the process. On the other hand, Florida also boasts an abundance of financial resources and the genuine potential to build upon Donovan’s success.
We asked our national college basketball experts to weigh in on the most pressing questions related to the Gators’ coaching search:
Simply put, how strong is the Florida job?
Rob Harrington: I think it’s a fantastic job, likely one of the best 7-12 in the nation. I’m not a believer that being a more football-dominated school harms the basketball program. There are some downsides, sure, but the benefits easily outweigh the costs. Florida’s athletic department sits atop a sizeable warchest — the school approved an athletic budget of more than $100 million in 2013-14 — and thus can afford to allot a budget for basketball that always will make it competitive with the going rate for elite coaching talent.
More than any other factor, the true measure of a program is the ability to hire and retain a head coach. Break down the other factors however you like, it’s the coach who makes or breaks the program.
Some schools consistently make great hires but can’t retain them, and as Florida proved with Donovan, the school can keep a potential Hall of Fame coach away from even the most storied programs. How many other coaches have ever turned down the Kentucky job? That’s nearly all you need to know about Florida’s status within the landscape.
Meanwhile, not only can Florida hire a great coach and keep that person under its employ, the surrounding recruiting territory is robust and supplies blue-chip talent on an annual basis. The Gators certainly can recruit nationally but frequently don’t need to do so. They can build their recruiting classes at home, a hallmark of most successful public school programs.
Evan Daniels: While it’s not one of the top five or even 10 jobs in the country, I do think the Florida job is a pretty good one. In fact, in my eyes it’s as attractive as it’s ever been because of the recruiting base in the state of Florida. In the 2015 class alone, there are 13 players ranked in Scout’s top 100 and Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes — who both happen to be current Florida pledge — have a great chance to make that list when we update the final rankings. So there’s a strong recruiting base, which is obviously key.
Although the SEC is starting to compile more talent as a whole (three SEC schools have top 10 recruiting classes this year) and Kentucky obviously is tough competition year in and year out, there are plenty of reasons to believe Florida can continue to be in the upper echelon of the league. Another reason I think the job is appealing is it’s a football school. There’s less pressure on the basketball coach to win.
All eyes, focus and attention are on football winning. While they may not get the attendance the bluebloods get, coaches are attracted to jobs that have less pressure to win.
Brian Snow: I think Florida is a very good job, but not a great job. To me it is a job that clearly falls outside of the top 10 in college basketball. It does have some nice advantages in that you have a ton of football money, the state is clearly producing good prospects, and also they are building good facilities. Beyond that, there isn't a ton of pressure because the heat is on the football team.
So that all is a good thing, but at the same time there is a reason that Florida was never a consistently dominant program before Donovan got there. Donovan has made the Florida job seem a bit better than most in the industry feel that it is. It is still a top 25 job to be sure, but it ranks behind some others in terms of being an elite job. So while it is very good, it isn't the great job that it is on the football side.
Josh Gershon: It's a very good job and right there outside the Top 10. The combination of money (which includes investing in updated facilities), fan support (Florida compares favorably to the majority of the SEC), recruiting base (consistently a good number of elite prospects from Florida and Georgia every year), weather and low pressure when compared to football make it a pretty ideal situation and one that almost any up and coming head coach will be drawn toward.
Which candidates make sense?
Evan Daniels: There are going to be a wide range of names thrown around and among the most obvious are going to be a pair of head coaches in Ohio. Dayton’s Archie Miller — who just signed an extension — and Xavier’s Chris Mack are expected to get strong looks.
Other head coaches who make sense are Louisiana Tech’s Mike White, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew and Murray State's Steve Prohm. If Jeremy Foley opts to go the assistant coaching route Anthony Grant’s name is sure to get tossed around. Duke assistant Jeff Capel, who just turned down the Arizona State job, is another name to keep an eye on.
|Miller has displayed coaching and recruiting acumen at Dayton|
Josh Gershon: I think you definitely start with Dayton's Archie Miller and Xavier's Chris Mack, one of which would surely accept the job. They're two of the top young head coaches in the country whose track records suggest they would thrive in a situation like Florida's.
They've shown in-season and postseason success, local recruiting ability and have the personalities to thrive in Gainesville. Considering one of the two would very likely take it, I'm not sure the list of candidates needs to go much further.
Brian Snow: To me, there is no real logical candidate with ties to the area or the university that would stand out. Because of that I think you have to look at an up and coming coach with a resume. With that, I would say Chris Mack and Archie Miller are the two most logical names. Mack has been to three Sweet 16s in six years as a head coach, while Miller has been to an Elite 8 and won another tournament game this year. Both guys are well respected as coaches and recruiters in the profession, each has a good pedigree, and each has the personality to coach at a place like Florida where basketball takes a backseat to the football program.
Rob Harrington: I love Archie Miller for the job. He’s still relatively untested and I understand that fans may want a proven winner, but he’s a very talented young coach and I believe he possesses the pedigree and temperament to run the show at a big-time program. He has served as an assistant at other major schools, key from a recruiting point of view. He even worked at Ohio State, which like Florida features a more football-heavy athletic department. If it were me, I’d start with Miller and look elsewhere only if necessary.
Assessing the recruiting landscape, How do you recruit there?
Josh Gershon: Florida and Georgia, collectively, have an abundance of athletes so it's important that whoever has the Florida job has the right system. Meaning, the more up-tempo the better.
It isn't necessarily a super skilled group of prospects, but very athletic and should be able to defend and get out in transition. In 2016, there are 10 Scout Top 100 prospects from Florida, one of which is already committed to Florida in power forward John Mooney. To go with the 10 Top 100 prospects from Florida, there are 26 from Georgia, which means 32 percent of the Top 100 prospects in the nation sit squarely in the Gators' recruiting base. That's a very high number and a huge advantage for the Gators.
Evan Daniels: As I mentioned in the first question, the recruiting landscape in Florida is as good as I can remember it ever being. To go with the 13 top 100 players in the 2015 class, which is more than any other state in the country, Florida currently has 10 players ranked in Scout’s 2016 top 100, which only trails California with 12. So there’s obviously plenty of talent.
|The Gators’ next coach will attempt to keep recruits such as Florida native Antonio Blakeney (LSU) at home|
There are key AAU programs that you have to mine. Each 1 Teach 1 has been loaded with talent the past few years. Team Breakdown consistently has high-major players, as do Florida Elite and Nike Team Florida. Nike South Beach is a new team that has elite rising junior Zach Brown. Q6 Elite and Team Speights are programs you must build relationships with as well.
Thus, my main point is there are plenty of quality players and AAU teams in the state. If recruited correctly, there’s no reason Florida can’t continue to keep plenty of these guys home, much like Billy Donovan did.
Brian Snow: I think the recruiting landscape in Florida can be challenging but also can have great rewards. Quite honestly, there is some drama you have to deal with, but at the same time there are a lot of really talented players.
The problem is a good number of those players aren't native to Florida, so they don't have the same connection to the area schools that one might expect. Also there is a reason that Miami/FSU/Florida all missed the NCAA Tournament this year, usually there are some definite holes in the games of the in-state kids despite great athletic talent.
Overall, it is a good job to recruit to, and getting into Atlanta is fairly obvious as well, so the recruiting aspect of things is good in Gainesville, but not necessarily ideal.
Rob Harrington: The first job is to establish a connection to the state’s travel team powers. The Donovan-led Gators did much of their best work within the state, sometimes landing stars and on other occasions surrounding their stars with foundational in-state talents. Either way, the new coach first must learn where the state’s grassroots power lies, and that job will fall in part to one or more of the assistant coaches.
One advantage Florida enjoys is the ability to recruit as the flagship program anywhere within the state. The Gators certainly carry the most support in north and central Florida, including Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa, but even in Miami they hold a formidable presence.
The new coach may need a little time to reestablish national preeminence, so first things first I’d try to restore roster balance with Sunshine State natives and then expand from there.