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5 potential candidates to replace Dan Mullen at Florida

Who will Gators, Scott Stricklin turn to next?
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen looks at players as they walk off field in fourth quarter at Missouri Tigers in 2021
Posted at 1:40 PM, Nov 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-22 16:16:05-05

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen got off to an impressive start at Florida, leading the Gators to three consecutive New Year's Six bowl appearances, two top-10 finishes and a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title in his first three years.

But Florida's collapse in the final three games on last season, coupled with the disappointing past two months, had the most loyal Florida fans clamoring for a change.

They got their wish Sunday, as Mullen was fired with one game to go in his fourth season at the helm.

The Gators (5-6, 2-6 SEC) need a win against rival Florida State to become bowl eligible. Win or lose, however, Florida will need a head coach to lead the Gators in 2022 and beyond.

But who will it be? Here's a look at five possibilities, why they'd be interested and why they might not even want the job.

Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops and players celebrate after 2001 Orange Bowl victory
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, left, celebrates with players J.T. Thatcher (15) and Ontei Jones (11) as they pose with the national championship trophy after beating Florida State 13-2 in the Orange Bowl, Jan. 3, 2001, at Pro Player Stadium.

There are plenty of reasons for Bob Stoops to want this job. There are also plenty of reasons why he wouldn't want it.

Stoops was the former defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier during Florida's first national championship season in 1996.

After three seasons in Gainesville, Stoops left to become head coach at Oklahoma, where he found almost immediate success. The Sooners never had a losing season under Stoops and won a national championship by his second season in Norman.

Stoops was 190-48 in 18 seasons at Oklahoma, playing in three other national championship games (including a 24-14 loss to Florida to cap the 2008 season) and winning nine Big 12 Conference titles.

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops carried off field after 2002 Big 12 championship win
Oklahoma players carry off coach Bob Stoops after winning the Big 12 Conference championship with a 29-7 win over Colorado, Dec. 7, 2002, in Houston.

The question remains, would Stoops really want to take on another high-pressure job?

Although Stoops abruptly retired in June 2017, he has already shown his willingness to coach again, coming out of retirement to coach the XFL's Dallas Renegades, although the coronavirus pandemic cut short his first professional football gig. Stoops was rumored to be a top candidate for the Florida State job after Willie Taggart was fired in 2019, but he quickly debunked reports that the two sides were close to getting a deal done.

In reality, Stoops was always more of a Florida guy, so it only seems fitting that the first phone call athletic director Scott Stricklin makes is to a proven winner like Stoops. But it remains to be seen whether Stoops would entertain the idea of a return to college.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon head coach

Oregon Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal on sideline arguing call during game in 2021
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal questions a pass interference call during the fourth quarter of a game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Eugene, Ore.

On the surface, Mario Cristobal to Florida seems like an upgrade. But that may not be the perception for those living outside the Sunshine State.

Sure, Cristobal has ties to Florida, growing up in South Florida and winning two national championships as an offensive tackle at Miami. But why would he leave a place like Oregon, which has played for a national championship in the College Football Playoff era, to go to Florida, where the Gators have the daunting challenge of playing an SEC schedule and Florida State every year?

He certainly knows how to recruit in fertile South Florida, where he spent six seasons as head coach at Florida International. After he was fired in 2012, Cristobal served as Nick Saban's recruiting coordinator at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide land some top talent from the Sunshine State.

But the grass isn't always greener away from the Pacific Northwest. Surely Florida fans remember what happened the last time a Florida school turned to an Oregon coach with state ties for the top football job. Taggart lasted just 21 games in Tallahassee before he was sent packing.

Or maybe he's just holding out for the Miami job.

Billy Napier, Louisiana head coach

Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns head coach Billy Napier before game in 2021
Louisiana head coach Billy Napier claps before a game against Georgia State, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Lafayette, La.

Billy Napier has the Ragin' Cajuns competing at a high level.

Since Napier took over at Louisiana in 2018, the Cajuns are 38-12 with a Sun Belt Conference championship and a West Division title under his belt.

Then there's the recency factor. In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately landscape of college football, Napier's Cajuns are riding a 10-game winning streak after losing their season opener at Texas.

Napier has coached under Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, so he knows how to instill a winning pedigree. He also knows how to recruit in SEC territory and get the most out of his players.

Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns head coach Billy Napier with Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead in 2019
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns head coach Billy Napier and Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead talk before their game, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in New Orleans.

His name has been mentioned as a candidate for some high-profile job openings in the past, so it feels like it's only a matter of time before he leaves Louisiana (unless LSU happens to call).

But has Napier been talking to his old boss, Jim McElwain? Before Mullen was exiled by the Gator nation, McElwain coached the Gators to back-to-back SEC East titles, but the fan base and administration seemed to turn on him in 2017 after he alleged that he had received death threats. He was fired eight games into his third season.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati head coach

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell on field in 2021
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell stands on the field during a game against SMU, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Cincinnati.

Luke Fickell is on the shortlist of candidates for just about every job opening, so Florida should be no different.

Fickell has a defensive background, which is much needed for a Florida team that has been historically bad on that side of the football.

However, Fickell is an Ohio native and seems to have a strong foundation in place at Cincinnati, whose only loss in two years was to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

If the Bearcats continue to win out and become the first Group of 5 school to make the College Football Playoff, there's no reason to think Fickell would leave. But if the Bearcats are shut out and have to settle for a New Year's Six bowl, it could prompt Fickell to contemplate leaving for a Power 5 job. Still, it'd have to be one heck of a job offer, considering Cincinnati is headed to the Big 12 in a few years.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky head coach

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops before game in 2021
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops waits for his senior players to come out during Kentucky's senior day celebration against New Mexico State, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Lexington, Ky.

Speaking of Stoops, the younger brother of Bob has been a real thorn in Florida's side in recent years.

Mark Stoops has been at Kentucky since 2013, slowly and quietly building the Wildcats into a contender in the SEC East.

The Gators went 31 years without losing to Kentucky -- the longest streak by one team over another annual opponent in all of major college football -- but the Wildcats have since beaten Florida twice in four years.

To recap, that means Stoops has as many wins against Mullen's team as Mullen had against Kentucky.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops greets Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen in 2020
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops and Florida head coach Dan Mullen greet each other before the start of their game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.

Stricklin has already shown that he's not afraid to poach from another SEC school to get his man (Mullen was hired away from Mississippi State in 2017), so the fact that Stoops already coaches in the SEC East shouldn't be a deterrent.

But does Stoops want to leave Kentucky, where he's built up plenty of good will and transformed a "basketball school" into a program that seems to care about football?

Stoops has already coached at the other big three Florida schools (defensive backs coach at Miami from 2001-03 and defensive coordinator at Florida State from 2010-12), so he'd be completing the trifecta, but if he decides to return to the Sunshine State, it seems money would likely be the motivating factor behind such a move.