The question came from an old friend who has spent most of his adult life analyzing football in the Southeastern Conference: Is Florida still one of the top jobs in the country or are the Gators about to become another Tennessee?
It is a legitimate question, particularly when you see what’s gone on at Tennessee since Philip Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season. The Vols have had one winning season – 2009 when the head coach was Lane Kiffin – and it’s possible they could finish up with fifth straight loser if Vanderbilt springs the upset Saturday in Nashville. Nobody expects that to happen but this has been a very strange year in the SEC so anything is possible.
The Gators won’t have four – or even five – consecutive losing seasons but the program isn’t anywhere close to where it was back in 2009 when they played for the SEC championship and finished with their third 13-1 season in four years. Since then, the offense has all but disappeared and the only real measure of success is that 11-2 record in 2012 when the Gators spent the entire season on the razor’s edge, winning four games by eight or fewer points including a 27-20 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on a touchdown off a blocked punt with 13 seconds left in the game. Take away that 11-2 mark and the Gators are 25-23. That’s not a losing record, but it’s the kind of record that makes you irrelevant. Like Tennessee.
And this is compounded by the ongoing national debate about Florida’s football facilities. Florida was called out on the national stage by Mark May of ESPN Saturday night who questioned Florida’s commitment to staying relevant in what can only be described as a conference-wide arms race. It is a fact that Florida’s facilities have a hard time measuring up to those at Arkansas, Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Missouri and South Carolina. Georgia is making major upgrades as well so Florida’s facilities will rank even closer to the bottom.
The conversation about facilities always begins and ends with a statement that goes something like “adequate for our needs” but can UF afford to be merely adequate at a time when the entire football program has taken a rather large step backward from where it was in 2009?
A new coach will be hired sometime after Saturday’s game in Tallahassee when Will Muschamp closes the curtain on his four years as Florida’s head coach. The new coach will be charged with making Florida football truly relevant again. Truly relevant means competing for both division and SEC titles. Truly relevant means getting the Gators back into a consistent position among the nation’s top 12 teams in the rankings.
To get the right coach will mean investing a minimum of $4 million a year and quite possibly more than $5 million. That’s what it will take to not only get a coach who can lead the Gators back to the promised land but keep them there. In other words, make Florida relevant again. To get the right coach might also mean joining the arm’s race in the SEC. Just getting a coach might not be enough if he doesn’t have facilities that measure up to the teams that have spent the last five years ahead of the Gators in the standings.
College: Wide receiver at Austin College, 1981-84
Assistant coach under: Chuck Reedy (Baylor); Fisher DeBerry (Air Force); Andy McCollum (Middle Tennessee); Florida (Ron Zook); Oklahoma State (Mike Gundy)
Head coach at: Southern Mississippi (34-19); North Carolina (34-19)
North Carolina salary: $2 million
Contract runs through: 2019
Buyout: $1 million
Why he would stay at North Carolina: NCAA sanctions have pared the Carolina roster to 67 players this season but that figures to change next season. With only six seniors, a roster dominated by freshmen and sophomores and a full recruiting class coming in, Fedora will have the closest thing he’s had to a full roster in 2015. That includes quarterback Marquise Williams (20 passing touchdowns, 12 rushing, 1 receiving and 3,499 yards of total offense), a potential superstar in wide receiver/kick returner Ryan Switzer (82 receptions and 7 TDs in two years; 5 punt returns for touchdowns) and all five starters from the offensive line.
Why he would leave North Carolina: The NCAA is about to stick it to Carolina for the academic scandal that went on from 1993-2010, long before Fedora arrived. While no one expects the death penalty, there could be more scholarship sanctions and a bowl ban. Fedora has drawn rave reviews for cleaning up the mess that Butch Davis left with the football program. Would he be willing to start from scratch if the NCAA levies penalties similar to the ones at Penn State? Additionally, Fedora is only paid $2 million a year. Somebody’s going to offer him somewhere between $3-5 million after this season. Unless Carolina ponies up, he’s as good as gone. If not to Florida somewhere else. He’s very much in demand.
The stats tell the story: When he was Florida’s offensive coordinator in 2004, the Gators had the top offense in the SEC with a 3,000-yard passer (Chris Leak, 29 TDPs); a 1,200-yard rusher (Ciatrick Fasion, 10 TDs); and five receivers with at least 26 receptions (O.J. Small, 63-719 and 4 TDs). His best year at Oklahoma State (2005-07) was 2007 when the Cowboys averaged 486.3 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 5.3 per rush and 8.5 per pass attempt. The offense produced a 1,200-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver. In all four years as the Southern Miss head coach, the Golden Eagles averaged more than 30 points and at least 416 yards per game, with his 2011 team averaging more than 461 yards and 36 points. All three of his North Carolina teams have averaged more than 425 yards and 32 points (more than 445 yards and 36 points this year).
Some of this is fact. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is my opinion. You decide.
1. Dabo Swinney is happy at Clemson: That is what he says. What he won’t say out loud but people who know him well say is true is that he would crawl backwards to Gainesville. He needs to be happy with Clemson. Florida isn’t calling.
2. Hugh Freeze is really interested in the Florida job: He would listen but that’s about it. Not because he really wants to coach at Florida but because it would help negotiations. The Ole Miss brass are working on a new contract. Nothing like rumors that Florida is calling to up the ante.
3. Mike Gundy is out of the picture: Oh really?
4. Rich Rod is out of the picture: Another oh really?
5. Bob Stoops will listen if he’s called but he’s not going anywhere: Supposedly, it’s because he’s comfortable working under Joe Castiglione at Oklahoma and doesn’t relish the thought of working under an AD as powerful as Jeremy Foley.
6. Brian Kelly will stay at Notre Dame and if he makes a move it will be to the NFL: That’s the conventional wisdom. There is also a train of thought that says if he stays much longer at Notre Dame that he will go NFL, BUT … if Florida were to offer that would change the entire equation.
7. Larry Fedora is way, way down Foley’s list: Oh really?
8. Chip Kelly is very much in play: He could be Florida’s coach but he would have to leave the Eagles with his team in the running for top seed in the NFC playoffs. What are the odds that happens?
9. Josh McDaniels would leave the Patriots to coach the Gators: He would, but for that to happen Jeremy Foley would have to offer him the job.
10. Jim Mora Jr. wouldn’t leave the Left Coast: Conventional wisdom says why leave when he’s got USC’s number and the school is investing large amounts of money into facilities upgrades?
Marshall is 11-0 and only a win against Western Kentucky from running the regular season table. If Florida upsets FSU Saturday, Marshall could finish as the nation’s only unbeaten team in 2014. Doc Holliday’s Thundering Herd leads the nation in total offense (562.5 yards per game; 274.2 passing/288.3 rushing), ranks fourth in scoring 44.9 and ranks 17th nationally in total defense (322.3 yards per game) while allowing only 16.5 points (sixth nationally). Quarterback Rakeem Cato, a Miami Central grad, has thrown for 2,897 yards and 28 touchdowns while rushing for 400 yards and six more scores. Cato has thrown for 119 touchdowns and more than 13,000 yards in his career. Tailback Devon Johnson has run for 1,573 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Now no one in his right mind would say the Thundering Herd could survive a season in the SEC but with 30 days to prep for a bowl game, they might create some serious havoc. They’ll definitely go bowling but the question is where? Do they qualify as the Group of Six representative, which will allow them to play in a New Year’s Day game or do they go to a lesser bowl with a much smaller payout? As hard as it is to go unbeaten these days and times, a team that runs the table should get a measure of respect, something that is definitely missing for Marshall, which hasn’t cracked the top 25 of the college football playoff.
For these five coaches, the hours are few as the Countdown to Firing Day clock keeps ticking.
1. Brady Hoke, Michigan: : Any hope Hoke had of saving his job was lost when the Wolverines snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Maryland. Even if he beats Ohio State Saturday he’s a goner.
2. Bill Blankenship, Tulsa: : Tulsa is 2-9 this year, 5-18 the last two. Maybe Blankenship can get his old high school job back. Former Tulsa assistants Chad Morris (Clemson OC) and Mike Norvell (Arizona State OC) are the top candidates.
3. Kevin Wilson, Indiana: : For three quarters the Hoosiers played it close against Ohio State. Then the Buckeyes awoke from their coma and scored three fourth quarter touchdowns. Wilson is a terrific offensive coordinator. Someone will have him calling the plays next year.
4. Bobby Hauck, UNLV: : After leading UNLV to a bowl game last year, Hauck could have had other jobs. He would have been smart to leave. Losing to Hawaii won’t be the final straw. Losing to arch rival Nevada Saturday will.
5. Trent Miles, Georgia State: When the clock strikes zero Saturday against Texas State, Miles will have coached his last game. He’ll leave Georgia State with a 1-22 record. How can you go 1-22 in the Sun Belt Conference with the amount of talent there is in Atlanta?
Do you think Florida will have to make a huge commitment to upgrade the facilities to get a coach who can make the Gators relevant again?
When Al Kooper left Blood, Sweat and Tears over disagreements over the direction the band was heading, David Clayton-Thomas was brought on as the lead singer. The new direction was a fusion of jazz, blues and rock and roll that took the country by storm when it was released in December of 1968. The album went platinum four times and featured one song that reached #1 on the charts (“Spinning Wheel”) and two that made it to #2 (“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “And When I Die”). My favorite song off the album is their rendition of the Billie Holliday jazz standard “God Bless the Child” which features some serious trumpet and flugelhorn by Lew Soloff and Chuck Winfield.