He’s hoping that will be the case by the time he ends it.
Florida’s mid-major football programs, steadily rising over the past two decades, are hotter than ever. With all four hiring talented, well-known coaches, they’re grabbing headlines and hoping to alter the state’s power structure.
“It’s amazing,” Richt said last week on ESPN’s Paul Finebaum Show. “There’s a great buzz here, I can promise you.”
New South Florida hire Charlie Strong brings recruiting connections to a win-now roster. Central Florida’s Scott Frost is viewed as one of the country’s brightest young offensive coaches. Florida International’s Butch Davis was the architect of Miami’s most recent run of greatness and has a keen eye for local talent. And everyone wants to see what Lane Kiffin will do at Florida Atlantic.
Throw those names in with Richt, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Florida’s Jim McElwain, and all seven in-state FBS coaches have won a national title as a player, assistant coach or head coach. No other state can boast such concentrated coaching power.
“What will be the most fascinating will be the recruiting battles,” ESPN’s Brett McMurphy wrote in an email. “I talked to Eric Davis, head coach at Boca Raton High, at Kiffin’s presser and he summed up the recruiting battles the best: ‘Let the games begin.’ ”
The younger programs were built on the dream of elbowing into Big Three territory. USF, which went FBS (formerly Div. I) in 2001, rose to No. 2 nationally in 2007. Around that time, the Bulls even posted a “Big Four” billboard next to I-275. UCF (reached FBS level in 1996) ended the 2013 season with a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor and a No. 10 ranking. FIU and FAU (both FBS as of 2006) have never been ranked; FAU has not received a vote.
But coaching changes bring hope, and fans of the four mid-majors may have designs on pulling talent from Richt, Fisher and McElwain. National writers polled this week say that’s unlikely — though nothing is certain.
“I don’t want to slight Jimbo, because he won a national title — but the gap between the big three and those programs doesn’t feel as large as it normally does,” Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman said.
“My first thinking is, man, Jim McElwain better get going on recruiting,” CBS Sports’ Jon Solomon said. “We are seeing Florida outside the top 10, top 15 in the (recruiting) rankings, in that top-20 range. I don’t know if Charlie Strong moves into that upper level, and USF probably shouldn’t, but he’s got the connections.”
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples noted that the hierarchy won’t change until a program moves up in conference. But as far as first-year impact, all are looking at Strong. Remember, he oversaw Louisville’s rise from American to ACC, and did it largely with Florida-born players. He also inherits a team that went 10-2 in the regular season. McMurphy called the Bulls the “clear-cut favorite” to earn next year’s Group of Five New Year’s Six bid.
That said, the gap is “still huge. It was enormous before,” Feldman said. “The reality is, if you want to play for a national title and you’re not in a Power Five conference, there’s no margin for error.”
The big programs attract talent, and a lot of it. Quality depth helps teams withstand injuries, makes practices more difficult, and elevates the entire program. Miami, Florida and Florida State are used to stocking the lower third or so of their rosters with players FAU, FIU, UCF and USF would love to have.
The new coaches at those schools — all proven recruiters, and outside of Frost, well-known to South Florida high school coaches — could convince those sub-blue-chip players to challenge for a starring role at a smaller program on the rise rather than become another face in the crowd at a bigger-name school.
But not too often.
“Charlie Strong is a great recruiter, has great relationships in the state of Florida,” Staples said. “But if Florida State offers the same junior that he offers, Florida State’s getting him every time. Now if USF offers a sophomore that FSU doesn’t decide they want until he’s a senior, USF’s got a shot because of Charlie Strong.”
McMurphy doubts Kiffin’s chances one-on-one against Fisher, “but if it’s someone FAU really wants/needs and someone FSU is waffling on/slow playing, maybe FAU all of sudden is a much more attractive option.”
The real losers are the out-of-state mid-majors and lower-level Power Five schools, which regularly harvest from these fertile grounds. Said another way: pity Buffalo, which once plucked future top-five NFL draft pick Khalil Mack out of Fort Pierce, and their cold-weather brethren.
“They’ll never be able to get kids that Lane or Butch want,” Staples said. “Charlie and Scott will be able to convince these kids to play for a winning team in the American and be two or three hours from home, instead of being 1,000 miles from home, getting your teeth kicked in by Michigan.”
With the national championship game in Tampa in three weeks, Strong should expect national writers at his door. Orlando’s not far away, Mr. Frost. A few of them might take a day trip to Boca Raton, too.
“I’m most fascinated to see what Lane does,” Feldman said, echoing Staples and Solomon. “I think Charlie Strong’s going to be terrific. I think Scott Frost will have UCF winning nine or 10 games two years from now. Lane, I have no idea how that one’s going to go.”
Feldman said Davis, who doesn’t have the same resources as the other three, should be successful — but if so, it will come at the expense of his new Conference USA rival. “I’d be surprised if both schools are dominating that league,” he said. “There are some good coaches in that league.”
And, for the first time, everywhere in Florida.
“You want to be in this state,” Fisher said. “These are all good schools that have a chance to win. You’ve got a state full of a lot of players. They’ll do well.”
FSU: Jimbo Fisher
Years at school: 7
Coach speak: Fisher sits unchallenged atop the state hierarchy right now. He is 77-17 at FSU, has dominated Miami and Florida (he’s swept them four consecutive seasons), won a BCS national championship in 2013 and reached the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2014. A master recruiter and motivator, it is clear that big-time recruits want to play for Fisher and enjoy doing so. Seminoles have survived back-to-back seasons of rumors that he would leave for LSU.
UF: Jim McElwain
Years at school: 2
Scouting report: McElwain served as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator, winning two national championships (2009, 2011), before turning around the Colorado State program. He is the first coach to win back-to-back division titles during his first two seasons in the SEC. Despite his background he has not been able to solve the Gators’ offensive woes.
UM: Mark Richt
Years at school: 1
Scouting report: Canes fans were ecstatic when the former Boca High quarterback accepted the job last winter after being fired after 15 highly successful seasons at Georgia. Richt knows what it takes to recruit in Florida, having served on Bobby Bowden’s staff at FSU for 14 years. He guided UM through a four-game mid-season losing streak to an 8-4 record and a berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
UCF: Scott Frost
Years at school: 1
Coach speak: Frost took over a program that was winless in 2015 and led it to a 6-6 record this year and a berth in Saturday’s Cure Bowl. Frost earned a reputation as one of the rising young coaches while offensive coordinator for Oregon’s high-scoring offenses with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Frost can get frosty, as he proved this year when he took some verbal jabs at Michigan before and after a game in Ann Arbor. Recruits like attitude.
FIU: Butch Davis
Years at school: Hired in November
Coach speak: If a high school in Florida has ever produced a Division I player, you can bet Davis has walked its hallways. He rebuilt Miami when it was under NCAA sanctions in the 1990s and left enough talent behind when he jumped to the NFL that his successor, Larry Coker, came within a controversial pass interference call in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl of winning back-to-back national championships with perfect seasons. Davis also revived North Carolina’s program. But can he still do it at age 65?
USF: Charlie Strong
Years at school: Hired this month
Coach speak: Strong was fired after three seasons at Texas, where he recruited well but could never get the Longhorns turned around on the field — or win over powerful boosters off it. He’s back in a state where he has strong relationships with high school coaches. Strong was defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida for two BCS championship teams and revived the Louisville program (his star quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, was from Miami-Northwestern High).
FAU: Lane Kiffin
Years at school: Hired Monday
Coach speak: Kiffin is the wild-card of the bunch. What will he do … flame out like he did in his previous head coaching jobs with the Oakland Raiders, University of Tennessee and Southern Cal? Or will he show that he has matured the past three seasons while serving as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama? It’s going to be fun to watch because if Kiffin can make inroads in recruiting the state and get the Owls to play some defense, no one doubts his mastery of calling plays. He has three national championship rings as an assistant to prove it.