By Mark Long/The Associated Press
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida and Miami used to play annually, a once-heated rivalry that made other series look tame, and they still vie for top recruits every year.
Now, they could be competing for a football coach, too. The Hurricanes fired Randy Shannon on Nov. 28 and got a head start on the replacement process. The Gators lost Urban Meyer on Wednesday when he resigned for the second time in less than a year, saying he wanted to “focus on family and other interests away from the sidelines.”
It’s the first time since 1978 that the two Sunshine State rivals were looking for head coaches at the same time. Back then, Florida fired Doug Dickey late in the year and Miami parted ways with Lou Saban midway through the season.
As both schools can attest, finding the right guy can be the difference between mediocrity and superiority.
“I don’t care if it’s football, baseball, gymnastics, whatever have you, you’ve got to get in front of” coaching searches, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “You need to find out if they’re a fit. Not just can they coach, but are they a fit for this institution, for this community, for this athletic program? Likewise, are we a fit for them?
“Sometimes people think deals get cut in back rooms. It’s got to happen face-to-face and I’m going to do that. … We are going to move as quickly as we can. Certainly recruiting is a factor here, but you’re not going to go too fast. You’ve got to hire the right person.”
There is no shortage of potential candidates, and with Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt the only other schools with openings in major conferences, there’s not a lot of competition.
The Hurricanes looked like they would have the best shot at some of the big names, and reports quickly surfaced that Miami targeted former NFL coach Jon Gruden. But Gruden said no thanks, and Miami moved on. Now, though, the Hurricanes have Florida in the mix.
The Gators can offer more money, and with two of the nation’s best recruiting classes the last two years, there’s plenty of young talent in Gainesville.
Foley said the search will begin immediately and he hopes to have a new coach before Christmas. Although Foley declined to offer names, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino are likely on the list. Petrino was Foley’s second choice behind Meyer in 2004.
Mullen said he has “no plans to go anywhere” at a Gator Bowl press conference Thursday.
Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, Oregon’s Chip Kelly and TCU’s Gary Patterson also could be considered.
Meyer said he wants to be involved in the search, which could make Whittingham and Mullen front-runners. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator in Utah, and Mullen served as the offensive coordinator at Florida.
Foley said Meyer will still have an office on campus.
“I think having him around and having him be able to speak to the team and embracing the past, whoever the new coach is, I think that’s really important,” Foley said Thursday at a news conference for the Outback Bowl in Tampa. “I’ll bring that up (to candidates). He will not do anything around the program where he’s not welcome. He’s smarter than that.”
Foley said head coaching experience isn’t required.
According to several reports, Miami athletic director Kirby Hocutt already has his list.
The Miami Herald reported Wednesday that Miami has spoken with Mullen, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall and Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville about its open job.
The Herald said Hocutt also plans to speak with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. The Cornhuskers, though, denied the report. Athletic director Tom Osborne told the Lincoln Journal Star he has not given Pelini permission to speak to Miami about the job, and Pelini said he didn’t seek permission to interview for another job.
Other candidates possibly in Miami’s cross-hairs include Temple coach Al Golden and Houston coach Kevin Sumlin.
No matter who Florida and Miami get, the more important question will be what happens after they take the jobs. The programs had mixed results in ’78, with Miami landing Howard Schnellenberger and Florida getting Charley Pell. Schnellenberger led Miami to the 1983 national title and built the foundation for the program’s success. Pell, meanwhile, was fired in 1984 after the NCAA cited the program with 107 major rules infractions.
Now, the Gators want someone who can continue what Meyer has started, and the Canes need someone who can get them back in the national title picture.
“It’s just a harder job than it used to be,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “It’s always been about winning, but there’s a lot more that goes into it these days. Urban did a tremendous job coaching in Florida, and I think Randy did a tremendous job coaching in Miami, so I’m surprised by both of them.”