Strong, Kiffin add to impressive list of Florida college coaches


When Mark Richt started his coaching career, Miami, Florida, and Florida State were the only options for Florida recruits hoping to play big-time ball close to home.

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.”



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