A RoadTrip RoundTable: More coaching changes to come in SEC

College Football America Publisher Kendall Webb, Editor-in-Chief Matthew Postins and Associate Publisher Chuck Cox discuss the SEC Coaching Carousel including the bold move in Gainesville this week.

Did Florida really just fire Jim McElwain?

Jim McElwain is the most surprising coaching casualty of 2017 so far.

Kendall: I’m still shaking my head at how fast that all came down. It looks like Coach Mac may have stretched the truth a little over the death threats thing, and if he did, that’s a terrible thing to start a conversation about if it didn’t happen. But, the swiftness with which they moved after that to get rid of McElwain indicates to me that they were just waiting to get him out of there at the first opportunity. Matt, you’re our coaching guru at College Football America and RoadTripSports.com, what’s your take on that situation?

Matthew: I think this has plenty to do with his accusations, Webb. But I think it might also have to do with new athletic director Scott Stricklin wanting his own guy – calling Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, anyone?

Clearly, the fact that McElwain couldn’t back up his accusations of death threats irked the administration. If they felt McElwain lied to them, then I could certainly see why they did it. The key word here is “with cause.” The Gators saw his misleading accusations as a way to get rid of him and start over, and do it in a way that actually made the university look good.

I wouldn’t have called this at the start of the year. After all, McElwain and the Gators had won two straight SEC East titles in his first two seasons. Coaches are bound to have down seasons, so missing a bowl game probably wouldn’t have gotten him fired. This is an unexpected opening on the coaching carousel and will likely be one of the two or three best jobs on the market.

Chuck: Yeah, I believe you guys hit the nail on the head. It seems like maybe Florida was just looking for an excuse to get rid of McElwain, and that he was pretty willing to help them out in that endeavor. Even when a program is successful, sometimes it’s just time for a change.

If you just look at what Coach Mac accomplished on the field, you’d think UF would be absolutely nuts to part ways with him – especially given the level of competition in the SEC. Even though he may have stretched the truth about death threats, which is a very poor decision to make, McElwain will land on his feet somewhere soon. How delicious would it be if he landed a job that came open soon in, oh, I don’t know … Knoxville?

Who does Florida turn to from here?

Will Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen finally be a serious candidate for the Florida job?

Kendall: McElwain to Tennessee! Now, there’s some meat to chew on. We’ll talk more about the Vols’ and their situation in a moment, but sticking with Florida for a moment … who takes over in Gainesville?

Personally, I don’t think it’ll be one of those big names that’s currently out of coaching and gets kicked around in these conversations. In other words, I don’t think Les Miles, Chip Kelly, John Gruden or anybody like that is coming to Florida. And with all due apologies to Randy Shannon and Doug Nussmeier, I don’t think the Gators will be looking internally for their next coach either.

I think after turning to two guys in Muschamp and McElwain who didn’t have experience as Power 5 head coaches and having it not work out, I think you might see them go the opposite direction and try to peel away an experienced Power 5 coach who’s had some success at that level. I think they’re still interested in a younger candidate, though, and that’s why I think Matt’s right about maybe Dan Mullen of Mississippi State getting a call. It doesn’t hurt that he’s had success as an SEC head coach and that he has Florida ties, too. And come on, Dan, this makes nine seasons in Starkville, Mississippi, surely you’ve had just about as much of that as you can stand!

But let me throw a new name in the mix that you aren’t hearing much about. It’s Homecoming in Raleigh, North Carolina, this weekend, and what if NC State rises up and beats Clemson? Suddenly, the Wolfpack have a marquee win, and a two-game lead over everybody in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Not to mention a young, 45-year-old coach named Dave Doeren who’s got five years of experience as the head coach in Raleigh. Would he end up on Florida’s radar?

What do you think, Chuck? Who are some names you think might be in the mix in Gainesville?

Chuck: I agree that Dan Mullen will most likely be the guy, but there are a few intriguing candidates outside of a guy like Dave Doeren, Kendall.

Perhaps the Gators will stay close to home and look at a guy like UCF head coach Scott Frost. Frost is only 42 and doesn’t have much experience as a head coach, but it’s pretty hard to argue with the results. In his first season at the helm, Frost took a team that went 0-12 in 2015 to a bowl game in 2016. The encore? Frost and the Knights are off to a 7-0 start to the season heading into Saturday’s game at SMU. If things fall right, UCF could be looking at an undefeated season, which would get the attention of any program looking to hire a coach.

Frost also played in the NFL and coached at big-time programs like Nebraska and Oregon, so I see him as a guy more than capable of coaching in the SEC. He’s the type of coach a bigger program should already be looking to hire. If things don’t work out with Mullen, UF would be crazy not to try to hire Frost.

If things don’t work out with Mullen, UF would be crazy not to try to hire Frost. – Chuck Cox

There are a few other guys – Mike Norvell of Memphis, Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech and Willie Taggard of Oregon – who I could see garnering some interest from UF, but I think it will ultimately come down to Mullen or Frost.

What are your thoughts, Matt?

Will Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente be a serious candidate for the Florida job?

Matt: I wasn’t around that program when I lived in Florida from 2004-08 as I was covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the time. But my bosses at the time, John Fineran and Buddy Martin, were around UF and that was the time of Urban Meyer. This is a fan base that expects to win and believes it can get a big name in the process. And don’t forget that with Steve Spurrier retired, he’s around the program now. That doesn’t mean he’s walking through the door to coach. But I would anticipate that Stricklin would seek his advice as he sifts through the candidates.

I believe the SEC is very insular when it comes to coaching, especially at its stalwart programs, and UF is one of them. They want someone who understands the league, its recruiting dynamic and the high standard that everyone is out to achieve. I think Norvell, Fuente, Doeren and Taggart are hard sells because they don’t have those SEC ties. They’ve never coached in the conference. Coaching in Florida or the south doesn’t mean you understand that dynamic. And there are enough alums who remember Ron Zook – who only had 5 years of SEC coaching experience, plus had been an NFL assistant coach for five years before taking over for Spurrier – to spook them enough to stay off that trail. SEC ties, after all, were what led UF to McElwain in the first place.

That said, there isn’t much of a UF coaching tree to choose from at this point. Most of Meyer’s top guys have head-coaching jobs of their own, so you have to look at Stricklin’s ties at this point for any sort of a direction. And that’s what leads you to Mullen, who has ties to UF, Meyer’s coaching tree and the Gators’ new AD. Stricklin was at Mississippi State before he moved to Florida, and while he didn’t hure Mullen, he was part of the process. Comfort is a big deal to a new AD when hiring a new head coach. Mullen will be his first call. It would mean Stricklin is cannibalizing his alma mater, but all is fair in love and football.

It would mean Stricklin is cannibalizing his alma mater, but all is fair in love and football. – Matthew Postins

If Mullen doesn’t take the job, it’s because he’s happy where he’s at, and doesn’t want to be in that pressure cooker in Gainesville. If he doesn’t take it, then the field is wide open and since Stricklin has never had to hire a football coach until now, all bets would be off.

What other jobs might come open in the SEC?

Is there any possibility that Butch Jones returns to Tennessee in 2018?

Kendall: Good points, I love Frost, but I’m betting on him taking the Nebraska job. Mullen … it just feels like the right direction in so many ways, but we’ve covered enough of these coaching changes to know it doesn’t always work out that way. And Mullen has turned down Florida’s overtures before.

But, Florida isn’t the only SEC team that will have a new head coach on the sidelines next fall, right? I mean, if nothing else, Ole Miss will have to bring in a new head coach to replace interim coach Matt Luke. So what do y’all think about the following names – just a quick yes or no. That is, yes, he’ll be back next year, or, no, he’s definitely going to be fired by season’s end.

Will Butch Jones be the coach at Tennessee in 2018?

Matt: No

Chuck: No

Kendall: What about Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M?

Matt: Yes

Chuck: No

Kendall: Is Bret Bielema still going to be the coach at Arkansas in 2018?

Matt: Maybe. Bielema has a highly prohibitive buyout. Arkansas might still pull the trigger, but the dynamic is different for him at Arkansas than it is for Jones at Tennessee.

Chuck: No

Kendall: Matt, are there any other names we might be missing that you see in the future on your Coaches Hot Seat?

Matt: Well, goodness Kendall my newest Hot Seat Coaches will be coming out next week. So thanks for the plug. But in terms of the SEC — and that’s what we’ve been talking about here — I would also watch the situation at Missouri. Barry Odom, Gary Pinkel’s successor, is a Missouri guy but he has had little success in one-plus seasons at the helm. He’s won two SEC games in 10 tries going into this weekend’s game against, believe it or not, Florida. Perhaps the Mizzou brass knew what they were in for and will be patient – after all, the Tigers were 5-7 in Pinkel’s final season. But before that they won two straight SEC East titles – and, yes, that’s some challenging geography. I’d be a little concerned if I were Odom. Athletic directors have less patience these days as do the boosters they have to deal with.

Which SEC school makes the best hire … and which one screws this up?

Well, Matt, what can I say, we’re all about the shameless plug here which is why I’m slipping one in one for your Heisman updates and Postscripts columns along with Chuck’s Bowl Eligibility reports which are always available at RoadTripSports.com.

Speakin’ of Chuck … I hate to sound like the ESPN guys … but … C’mon Man! McElwain to Tennessee, we’re kidding right?

That does bring up another thought here, though … with as many as four or five openings in the SEC after the season, there’s no way that all those teams are going to get it right. Somebody’s not going to get the guy they want, and they’ll have to settle for maybe even less than what they’ve got right now on paper. So look into your crystal ball, and tell me which team is in position to make the best hire here – and which one is most likely to totally screw this up by hiring Lane Kiffin?

Which team is in position to make the best hire here – and which one is most likely to totally screw this up by hiring Lane Kiffin? – Kendall Webb

Is SMU’s Chad Morris a serious candidate for a job in the SEC?

Chuck: If Texas A&M decides to part ways with Kevin Sumlin, I would say the Aggies have the chance to make the best hire. Why? Because I’m fairly certain the first call from College Station will be to SMU head coach Chad Morris.

Since I met Morris right after he was hired to right the ship at SMU, I’ve been extremely impressed with how he has handled his first collegiate head-coaching job. He knows his stuff. He’s also a very good recruiter and a Texas high school football coach favorite because he used to be one. Morris, who has led SMU to a 6-2 start and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012 this season, seems like the kind of guy who would thrive in a situation like Texas A&M. If he takes that job, I could honestly see him staying there for a very long time. For that particular situation, I’m not sure A&M could make a better hire, which would be a bummer for the Ponies.

The best chance for an SEC team to screw up a coaching hire? I would say Arkansas.

With the current state of the program, I get the feeling the Razorbacks would likely have to settle for a coach as opposed to nabbing a coach they covet. Who will that be? Boy, good question. I would imagine it would be a younger coach with plenty of upside to lay a foundation to build a competitive program that could become a serious contender in the SEC.

Who knows? Maybe a guy like Norvell or Fuente would jump at the chance. If Arkansas does indeed decide to go in a different direction from Bret Bielema, it will be pretty interesting to see who the successor would be.

Matt: I would agree with Chuck on the first point. Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward was the one that finally lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State. As the AD at Washington, he hired Petersen, which I know sounds like a no-brainer, but others had tried and failed. He clearly had something that Petersen was looking for, sold him on it and executed. The results speak for themselves.

Arkansas AD Jeff Long’s track record for hiring head football coaches isn’t that great – Bobby Petrino and Bielema – but at least he’s done it. The one that could really fumble this is Tennessee AD John Currie. He’s never hired a football coach. He took over at Kansas State in 2009 after Bill Snyder had been re-installed as head coach. Sure, he raised a lot of money for K-State. But he’s never executed a head-coaching search for football before. At least Stricklin was part of the process when Mullen was hired at MSU. This is new territory for Currie and given the temperature in Knoxville right now, he can’t screw this up. His reputation is wrapped up in raising money, not in hiring coaches. We’re about to see what he’s really made of.


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