Reshuffling the deck

Notre Dame job opening may alter Florida's coaching choices


Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham watches the pre-game activities before the start of the Notre Dame-Michigan in South Bend, Ind., in this Sept. 11, 2004 photo. Notre Dame fired coach Willingham after three seasons.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 at 12:39 a.m.
Even before the first candidate has been interviewed, Florida's search for a new head football coach has taken some monumental twists and turns and now may be setting up much differently than it appeared only a few days ago.
Things got a little jumbled by events elsewhere Tuesday.
First, Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis resigned under pressure, making him available to UF officials now rather than having to wait until the end of the NFL season in January. Sources have said there has been an interest by both parties, but that Davis may elect to sit out of coaching for a year, which would eliminate him as a candidate.
A few hours after the news broke in Cleveland, another major story emerged in South Bend, Ind., that also likely will impact the Florida search. Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham after three seasons, opening the job that has been coveted by Utah's Urban Meyer, believed to be UF's No. 1 target.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, UF's lame-duck coach, Ron Zook, was interviewing for the head coaching vacancy at Illinois, sources close to Zook said. Zook, who was fired Oct. 25, is expected to reveal today whether he'll coach the Gators in the Dec. 31 Peach Bowl.
In his contract with Utah, Meyer has a clause that would allow him to leave the Utes without a buyout if it is for one of three schools - Notre Dame, Ohio State or Michigan.
The Irish are expected to make a strong move for Meyer, who is considered by many to be the hottest coaching prospect in college football. If (as expected) it comes down to the Irish vs. Gators for Meyer, UF figures to be a considerable underdog even though new UF President Bernie Machen hired Meyer at Utah and the two have remained in contact.
Meyer has said Notre Dame would be his "dream job." It's the school where he got his first major-college coaching job, being hired by Lou Holtz in 1996 to coach the Irish wide receivers. He spent five seasons in South Bend before being hired as the head coach at Bowling Green.
Meyer said he hadn't heard about Willingham's departure from Notre Dame until he was asked about it by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Asked whether he has had any contact with Notre Dame or whether he would be interested in coaching the Fighting Irish, Meyer responded: ''I won't comment on it.''
Meyer also won't comment on the Florida job, but many have considered him UF's No. 1 candidate since Zook was fired.
It's clear now, though, that Meyer will be courted heavily by both the Gators and Irish during the coming days.
If Meyer follows his heart and goes to Notre Dame, it's uncertain who will emerge as UF's top candidate.
There had been speculation it could be Davis, who coached on Super Bowl teams with Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and rebuilt Miami into a major power before leaving to coach the Browns after the 2000 season.
Davis has strong connections in the state of Florida and was one of the nation's premier recruiters with the Hurricanes.
Davis' coaching success did not follow him to the NFL, where the Browns went 24-36 and made the playoffs just once in his four seasons as the head coach. Cleveland dropped its fifth consecutive game Sunday, falling 58-48 at Cincinnati.
His forced resignation Tuesday was not a major surprise.
In his prepared statement, Davis didn't sound like a guy who is ready to start looking for another job - at UF or anywhere else.
"My future is clear for the moment," he said. "I have no immediate plans to stay in coaching."
The other leading candidates for the UF job appear to be Louisville's Bobby Petrino and possibly California's Jeff Tedford, who is a West Coast guy and might be a tough pull to Gainesville.
Petrino and Tedford both have games Saturday, and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and Machen will not approach either one until after that time.
As for Zook, he apparently is a strong candidate for the Illinois job and was in Chicago interviewing for the job Tuesday.
Zook still hasn't decided whether he'll coach the Gators in the Peach Bowl. If he lands a new job in the next week or so, it appears unlikely he'll coach in the bowl game.
Peach Bowl president Gary Stokan said Tuesday he would like to see Zook coach in the bowl game and is hoping for a decision from Zook today.
"I have talked to Ron personally," Stokan said. "We would love to have Ron Zook coach the team. The way they reacted positively (to his firing) against Georgia, even though they lost, and then to beat Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State. But we would also understand if Ron feels he has to move forward with his career.''
Stokan said he was told by Foley that an interim coach from the current staff would work the bowl game if Zook decides to leave.
"Sure, we would love to have Ron coach the team,'' Stokan said. "But either way, we think those kids deserve an opportunity to play in this game."
The Gators will play the loser of Saturday's Miami-Virginia Tech game.
You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling (352) 374-5022.

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