No coaching search exists in a vacuum.
That wasn’t true for LSU before Florida fired Dan Mullen on Sunday.
It certainly isn’t true now.
For weeks and weeks since LSU announced back on Oct. 17 that Ed Orgeron was out at the end of this season (seems like much longer ago than that, doesn’t it?) the debate pingponged back and forth over the Rocky Mountains as to which job — LSU or Southern California — was the best coaching position on the market.
Now a third major player, Florida, is added to the mix.
In most ways it is a subjective and unprovable argument. And each of the three schools can put at least one factor over on the other two.
USC has the most tradition, in terms of national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, conference titles, etc.
Florida has arguably the best mix of money and talent base of any program in the nation.
And LSU is, like no other school out there except Ohio State, the lone Power Five program in a state traditionally teeming with top-shelf prospects.
Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And it doesn’t really matter much unless you’ve got a coaching candidate who is considering a couple of schools on the list.
For LSU and USC, now that Penn State’s James Franklin is out of the picture (he agreed to a new 10-year contract extension Tuesday), the prime overlap appears to be Dave Aranda. The Baylor coach was LSU’s defensive coordinator from 2016-19 and is a native Californian. For LSU and Florida, it would likely be UL’s Billy Napier.
This assumes of course that either guy wants to leave where he is, that he finds LSU or USC or Florida that much more appealing.
Again, timing is important. And LSU and USC have the edge on Florida. USC had Clay Helton dangling on a thread for a couple of seasons before finally letting him go in September, but the wheels were no doubt in motion long before that.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward no doubt was contemplating moving out Orgeron long before he did, possibly as early as the Tigers’ season-opening loss at UCLA. Observers of the Florida program think Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin wasn’t considering a move on Mullen until after the Gators were routed 40-17 on Nov. 6 at South Carolina, the last of a three-game losing streak that started with a 49-42 stunner at LSU.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Despite last season’s shocking loss to 23-point underdog LSU, Florida won the SEC East and played in the Cotton Bowl. This followed Mullen’s first two seasons in Gainesville when he went a combined 21-5 with two other New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
But now Florida is scrambling. Avoiding such a circumstance is one of the reasons Woodward made his move early and made it known that LSU was shopping for a new coach. The season has been in limbo ever since — but as uneasy as that existence is, it has its appeal in this instance.
The question everyone wishes they could answer is whether Napier prefers LSU or Florida, or possibly even another opening, like Virginia Tech. Napier has long been considered a backburner choice for the LSU job, if that. And perhaps Napier would prefer one of the other big non-LSU jobs, having seen LSU’s off-the-field Title IX issues up close over the past year.
If LSU and Florida do both zero in on him, as low percentage a prospect as that might be, their mutual interest in Napier would likely raise the price for both. Hey, Franklin and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker have gotten fat new contracts because of their perceived interest in moving on. Why not Napier?
Not that Woodward appears worried about setting the market for LSU’s new coach. Details of Franklin’s new deal include a $7.5 million annual salary, and Tucker is believed to be getting $95 million for 10 years. It would be no surprise at all if the Tigers pay their new man even more than that.
Will the Florida opening impact LSU? It all depends on the candidate. One coach could convince himself LSU is the place to be. Another could think it’s Florida.
Ultimately, if LSU is far down the road with a particular candidate — say Aranda, who may be the front-runner — it may not matter much at all.