The Florida Gators 2021 season will be remembered as an embarrassment. A year that started with promise, including a tough loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, spiraled out of control in October and things have only got worse. With Dan Mullen fired, the Gators coaching search is underway.
The writing on Florida was on the wall. When The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman and G. Allan Taylor talked to coaches around the country, the Florida Gators’ issues were apparent. Mullen’s message has run stale, control of this program is lost and even putting the blame on the assistants by firing them hasn’t turned things around.
Following a humiliating performance against Samford, a middling FCS program with losses to teams like the VMI Keydets and the Mercer Bears, it’s time for Florida’s boosters and athletic department to prepare for necessary changes the Gators desperately need. If all of that wasn’t enough, Saturday’s overtime loss to Missouri drove the final nail into Mullen’s proverbial coffin.
- Dan Mullen record (Florida Gators): 34-15, 2-1 in bowl games
With that in mind, let’s examine some ideal Florida Gators head coach candidates.
Luke Fickell, head coach, Cincinnati Bearcats
One of the top college football coaching candidates, Luke Fickell turned the Cincinnati Bearcats into the closest thing the committee would consider for the College Football Playoffs. A former nose guard at Ohio State, speaking to his demeanor and tenacity as a coach, Fickell arrived at Cincinnati in 2017 for his first head-coaching gig.
Following a 4-8 season, needed to wash out the remnants left by Tommy Tuberville, Fickell turned things around. Cincinnati boasts a stellar 41-6 record since the 2018 season, going 2-1 in bowl games along the way. The Bearcats have been a stepping stone for many recognized names (Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly) and Fickell could be the next great to emerge from this head-coach pipeline.
- Luke Fickell buyout: $3.5 million (2022), $3 million (2023)
Most importantly, Fickelly brings the defensive mind that Florida would benefit from adding. Cincinnati’s defense ranks 15th in total yards allowed per game (322.8), 7th in yards per play (4.3) and it allows the second-lowest passer rating (96.4) in the country. Those numbers aren’t a fluke, given the Bearcats ranked fourth in passer rating allowed (101.8) and 22nd in ypa allowed (6.4) last year. When the CFB playoff committee keeps Cincinnati out again, Fickell will start thinking about his future.
Mark Stoops, head coach, Kentucky Wildcats
It seemed impossible to turn Kentucky into a respectable football program, especially in an era when head coaches are given a short amount of time. But the Wildcats exercised patience with Mark Stoops, confident the former Florida State defensive coordinator would make a mark on the program. After 12 total wins in the first three years (2013-’15), the Wildcats are now on the rise.
Kentucky turned in consecutive 7-6 seasons in 2016 and ’17, heading to consecutive bowl games. Under Stoops, the Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 and won the Citrus Bowl. That was followed by bowl victories in each of the next two years and the 2021 season has been successful for the Wildcats.
Stoops and the Wildcats’ defense held Florida to 13 points and a 30.7% third-down conversion rate in an upset victory earlier this season. Even Mullens can admit Stoops is the better coach. Stoops is familiar with recruiting in Florida (Miami Hurricanes defensive backs coach 2001-’03, Seminoles defensive coordinator 2010-’12) and has made the best of drawing in talent to a program that struggles to pull in top recruits. He has earned a bigger job and could achieve greatness at Florida.
Billy Napier, head coach, Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
The Louisana Ragin’ Cajuns know they have a great head coach, it’s why they signed Billy Napier to a contract extension this year. But the Ragin’ Cajuns are only going to keep him for so long, because it’s only a matter of time until a Power 5 program strikes. That should be the Florida Gators.
Napier is very familiar with recruiting and coaching at top programs. He worked on Dabo Swinney’s coaching staff (2009-’12), worked as an analyst under Nick Saban (2011) then returned to the Alabama Crimson Tide (2013-’16) as wide receivers coach. Hired as head coach in 2018, the Ragin’ Cajuns went 7-7 in his first season. Since, Louisiana boasts a 30-5 record.
As Pro Football Focus notes, Louisiana’s offense entered the 2021 season with the second-highest Expected Points Added (EPA) across the last two years. The Ragin Cajuns’ offense is averaging 425.7 total yards and 30.8 points per game this season. The Athletic’s Brody Miller detailed Napier’s rise and it captures why he could be the right guy for Florida.
Mike Elko, defensive coordinator, Texas A&M Aggies
Mike Elko is one of the best assistant coaches in college football. He’s been on the radar for various head-coaching vacancies for several years but hasn’t found the right opportunity. When you look at his resume, it’s understandable why numerous programs want to take a shot with him.
- Dan Mullen buyout: Florida Gators woudl owe $12 million
As Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2017, the Fighting Irish, held opponents under 370 total yards per game and surrendered a 34.62% conversion rate on third downs. He took over an Aggies unit that needed some work and has turned it into one of the best defenses in college football (317.8 total yards/game, 14.7 points/game). In a poll of coaches by 247 Sports’, he was viewed as one of the assistants most ready to become a head coach.
“Super competitive, super smart He’ll be a great CEO but he also gets it in recruiting and can scheme anyone.”College football coach on Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko, via 247 Sports
There is risk in hiring an assistant without any head-coaching experience. But if the Florida Gators pay Mullen’s buyout and boosters aren’t comfortable putting a huge offer out to his replacement and covering another buyout, Elko could be someone to target.