On the floor of the Louisiana Superdome after Florida had blasted Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, Jeremy Foley offered me some reader feedback.
I’d written a column the previous day surmising that the game might be the last night of the Florida dynasty – Tim Tebow was leaving, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was leaving, and head coach Urban Meyer’s future was uncertain after a bizarre retirement/unretirement in a matter of 48 hours. It had been a great run, but the future was in the balance.
“This is not the last night of the Florida dynasty,” Foley said, friendly but firm. “I guarantee you that.”
Nearly five years and zero Southeastern Conference championships or BCS bowl wins later, the dynasty is dead and in need of a revival. And it’s on Foley to bring it back to life.
He’s an accomplished and respected athletic director who suddenly finds his continued viability at Florida very much on the line. After firing Will Muschamp Sunday, Foley has to get his replacement right.
He is batting .500 in revenue-sports hires. If the next one doesn’t work out, and he has more failures than successes in Florida’s marquee sports, it almost certainly would be his last major hire. He’d be gone, too.
Foley made two all-time great ones: Billy Donovan as basketball coach in 1996, and Urban Meyer as football coach in 2005. He identified a young star on the way up in Donovan, and has kept him in Gainesville for 18 phenomenally successful years. And he outflanked Notre Dame to get Meyer, a coup that altered the football trajectory of both schools for several years. Those hires yielded four national championships between them.
But Foley also hired two unproven football head coaches who were busts. He had to fire bumbling Ron Zook after less than three full seasons, and now he has trap-doored Muschamp after fewer than four complete years. This one undoubtedly hurt more than firing Zook – Foley, like most everyone else, greatly liked Muschamp and badly wanted it to work out.
It didn’t. Muschamp never could field quality offense, and rarely fielded even a competent one. At a school that had been on the cutting edge of offensive football for more than a decade with Steve Spurrier and then with Meyer, ineptitude on that side of the ball was difficult to swallow.
A lot of athletic directors who have two strikeout football hires don’t get to make another one. Foley’s stature gives him wider latitude – but there will be a lot of pressure to hit a home run this time.
Florida has a new president, Kent Fuchs, who arrives Jan. 1 from Cornell. He has no ties to Foley. Loyalty won’t keep Foley on the job if the athletic department’s performance is insufficient.
So where will his coaching search lead? In broad terms, the new guy almost certainly will be an experienced head coach – the Zook and Muschamp eras guarantee that. And after years of offensive futility, expect the new guy to have a track record of lighting up scoreboards.
But the specifics are where it gets tricky. This could be a complicated search.
If you want a guy with Florida ties who is having a great year, Dan Mullen would be the obvious choice. The former Meyer offensive coordinator is 9-1 at Mississippi State and has authored what may end up the greatest season in the school’s modest history. But multiple sources say there was a friction between Foley and Mullen that makes a reunion unlikely. Mullen probably is a non-starter.
If Florida wants to get back in the business of winning championships, it shoots for the moon. And right now the most attractive possible name on any level is Jim Harbaugh – a guy who won big in college and is in the midst of a messy, turmoil-ridden season with the San Francisco 49ers. If Harbaugh changes jobs, it’s more likely he stays in the NFL. But if he’s open to giving it the old college try again, Florida might want to give Michigan a run for its money.
The other NFL guy with a great college resume – and an offense that could be nuclear at Florida – is Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles. There has been some chatter about Florida boosters lusting after Kelly, but right now he owns the NFC East and doesn’t have to deal with annoying NCAA rules. (Remember, he left Oregon under a cloud and was given an 18-month show-cause penalty that would, conveniently, expire during this offseason.) He would seem a long shot at well, but a shot worth taking at least to gauge interest.
From the current college ranks, a few names to consider:
• Bob Stoops. If ever the onetime Spurrier defensive coordinator were open to leaving Oklahoma, this would seem like the time. The program has gotten stale in recent years, failing to maintain distance over the strivers in the Big 12. Stoops is a championship-level coach who may just need a change of scenery to rejuvenate. He has a defensive pedigree but his offenses have scored plenty of points, and he’s coached a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Jason White and Sam Bradford.
• Rich Rodriguez. Keep an eye on this one. Rodriguez has been a hit at Arizona and West Viriginia, two places where winning does not come automatically. In between was a three-year debacle at Michigan that increasingly looks like it can be written off to bad fit and bad luck at a place that resisted change. Rodriguez has a fertile offensive mind and recruited well in Florida while at West Virginia – and although happy at Arizona, he could and would be paid a lot more at Florida.
• Brian Kelly. Notre Dame is a great job but an exhausting job, a dog-years kind of place that tends to wear out even the coaches who win. Only Knute Rockne has ever lasted longer than 11 years at the school, and the last six coaches prior to Kelly have averaged fewer than six seasons. This is year five for Kelly. He’s an offense-first coach who was courted by the NFL after unexpectedly taking the Fighting Irish to the 2012 BCS championship game. If he’s starting to feel the burnout of Notre Dame, he might listen.
• Art Briles. The Baylor coach has taken that program from outhouse to penthouse in the Big 12 thanks to a pyrotechnic offense. But he’s a Texas guy to the core, and all his recruiting contacts are in that area. Not sure he would leave the state.
Other names may surface in what doesn’t figure to be a fast search. Foley has given himself a couple of extra weeks to work by announcing Muschamp’s firing now, while letting him finish out the season.
Jeremy Foley has to get this hire right. For his own viability and to revive belief that Florida can again be a dynasty program.
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