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Gators poised to move on

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

Everybody was shocked by Steve Spurrier's sudden departure, and that includes Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley. But at least Foley was prepared.

He has a list.

"My job is to try to find a coach that can continue the tradition that Coach Spurrier has built, to help us win (Southeastern Conference) and national championships," Foley said. "We didn't contemplate this day happening so soon, but we contemplated that this would happen one day and we do have people on a list that we will turn to and go from there."

Foley said there is no search committee, meaning the decision on a replacement is his. He did say he would be in consultation with Florida president Charles Young and others on campus. Foley would not comment on potential replacements, saying that would "taint" the process.

Florida's search might focus on three coaches with ties to the program: Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Shanahan and Stoops are former Florida assistants; Mularkey is a former Gators tight end.

Spurrier's resignation has fueled speculation about the future of Stoops, 41, who served as Florida's defensive coordinator under Spurrier from 1996-98. The Gators won their only national title in 1996 and Stoops has many friends on the Florida coaching staff.

Stoops could not be reached for comment, but his brother, Sooners co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, told the Associated Press that if Bob is offered the job he would face a difficult decision.

"It's hard for me to speculate," Mike Stoops said. "He has a great relationship with Steve, had a great time at Florida. On the other hand, he's built a legacy here at Oklahoma already as a head coach. To do what he's done at Oklahoma in such a short period of time is pretty special. I don't know what he's thinking. It's up to Bob and his family. Only Bob can tell you how he feels and why he feels that way."

Stoops, hired at Oklahoma in December 1998, is 31-7 in three seasons and led the Sooners to the 2000 national title. His initial salary was $625,000 a year but he received three raises in his first 18 months. Stoops' contract calls for him to make $2-million a year through the 2007 season.

It includes a $200,000 buyout.

Broncos senior director of media relations Jim Saccomano said Shanahan, 49, did not want to comment on the Florida vacancy but added that the well-respected coach did not deny interest.

Mularkey, a native of Fort Lauderdale, said he was interested in the position.

"I'm not sure what my rights are, but sure, I would have to say I would be," Mularkey said. "Definitely. Right now, I have no idea what the process is. And I've still got some things here that are critical. We've attained some goals but this team has goals that focus on one thing, and I'm right there with them."

Mularkey, 40, was a standout tight end for the Gators in the early 1980s. He played several seasons in the NFL and became the Bucs quality control coach in 1994. In 1996, he joined coach Bill Cowher's staff in Pittsburgh, serving as tight ends coach until this year.

In his first season as offensive coordinator, the Steelers rank second in the AFC in total offense and fifth in scoring. The Steelers (12-3) have the best record in the AFC.

"I still have a lot of friends with (Florida)," Mularkey said. "I've tried to keep up with them as much as possible, but I've not been back (to Gainesville) for a game. My kids are huge fans. Half of their Christmas presents were Florida Gators stuff. I promised them one day to take them back to the Swamp."

Also thought to be likely candidates are Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, Washington coach Rick Neuheisel and Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden. Neuheisel and Spurrier are friends, Gruden has links to the Sunshine State and Bellotti is one of college football's hottest commodities after leading the Ducks to an 11-1 finish and No. 2 ranking in both major polls.

Finding a coach soon is crucial because national signing day is Feb. 6. Gruden and Mularkey may be hurt because their respective teams have advanced into the playoffs.

"We spent the day dealing with this and planning for the future," Foley said. "I can't comment on every single rumor or on candidates. We realize that we have to hire a new football coach and hire one quickly. I have no idea how long this decision will take, yet I do recognize the importance of moving forward."

According to an ESPN.com survey of 26 Division I-AA coaches and coordinators Friday, being coach at Florida is college football's dream job.

"It's one of the premier jobs in all of football, no matter what level," said Brad Culpepper, a former Florida defensive tackle who later played for the Bucs. "Any coach in his right mind would want to look at Florida, be it college or pro."

COACHING CANDIDATES

Mike Bellotti

AGE: 51

BACKGROUND: Bellotti is a 1973 graduate of UC-Davis, where he was a second-team All-Far West Conference tight end as a junior and at wide receiver as a senior.

COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Bellotti is 60-23 in seven seasons as Oregon's head coach. The Ducks went 11-1 this season and finished No. 2 in both major polls. His 2000 team, which went 10-2, gave the program its first 10-win season. Bellotti was Oregon's offensive coordinator from 1989 to 1994 and coach at Chico State from 1984 1988, where he went 23-25-2.

Jon Gruden

AGE: 38

BACKGROUND: Gruden, a native of Sandusky, Ohio, was a three-year letterman at quarterback at Dayton. His father, Jim, is a regional scout for the San Francisco 49ers and formerly served as an assistant coach under John McKay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Gruden is in his fourth season as coach of the Oakland Raiders. He led them to the AFC Western Division title in 2000 with a 12-4 record, and they reached the AFC title game before losing to Baltimore. He is 38-25 with the Raiders. Gruden previously spent time as an assistant with Green Bay, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Mike Mularkey

AGE: 40

BACKGROUND: A former Florida tight end, Mularkey finished his Gators career in 1983 with 55 receptions for 628 yards and three touchdowns. In nine NFL seasons, the former ninth-round draft choice of San Francisco, had 102 receptions for 1,222 yards and nine touchdowns. COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Mularkey is in his first season as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator after spending the previous five seasons as tight ends coach. Mularkey was Tampa Bay's tight ends coach in 1995 and was the team's quality control coach in 1994, where he was responsible for breaking down film. He also assisted with tight ends and special teams.

Rick Neuheisel

AGE: 40

BACKGROUND: Neuheisel played quarterback at UCLA (1980-83) and with San Antonio of the USFL and San Diego of the NFL.

COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Neuheisel has completed three seasons at Washington, where he is 26-10 and has led the Huskies to three consecutive bowl games. The 2000 team won the PAC-10 title and went 11-1. He previously coached four seasons at Colorado, going 33-14 while leading the Buffaloes to two 10-win seasons.

Mike Shanahan

AGE: 49

BACKGROUND: A native of Oak Park, Ill., Shanahan played quarterback at Eastern Illinois. He lost a kidney following the spring game of his junior year, which ended his playing career.

COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Shanahan, coach of the NFL's Denver Broncos, was an assistant in college at 21, offensive coordinator at 25 and an NFL assistant at 32. He began his coaching career at Oklahoma in 1975, then had stints at Northern Arizona, Eastern Illinois and Minnesota before moving to Florida as offensive coordinator (1980-83). He became Broncos head coach in 1995 and won Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998.

Bob Stoops

AGE: 41

BACKGROUND: Stoops, a four-year starter at Iowa (1979-82), earned honorable mention All-American honors at defensive back in 1982 and was a two-time All-Big Ten selection.

COACHING HIGHLIGHTS: Stoops is 31-7 in three seasons as coach at Oklahoma. The Sooners won the 2000 national title after beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl. He was the 2000 AP Coach of the Year. Stoops began his coaching career in 1983 as a volunteer at Iowa, then coached at Kent State and Kansas State before becoming Florida's defensive coordinator in 1996, when he helped the Gators win their only national title. He was with Florida for three seasons.

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