An open letter to Dan Mullen ...
Remember that guy that hopped off the plane on a grim, gray late November day in Gainesville in 2017 and saw nothing but sunshine, Gator chomping his way across the tarmac? What about the guy that took off for Georgia the night after the opening press conference to go get his quarterback in Emory Jones and who stayed a day late just to make sure he kept former Alabama commit Dameon Pierce in the fold at running back? Remember him? How about the guy that found a way to scheme a victory against Joe Burrow and a top-5 LSU team in 2018, while pumping up a rowdy, ravenous Swamp throughout the game?
That guy was fun. That was the guy Paul Finebaum said was “the future of college football” because of the combination of his ability as a play-caller and his enthusiasm for football. That was the guy who, after a homecoming loss to an average Missouri team threatened to derail his first season in Gainesville, said he’d “kick your ass” in thumb wrestling. That was a guy it would be easy to want to play for and compete with.
Where did that guy go?
The Florida job is famously difficult.
Bear Bryant called the job the South’s sleeping giant in the 1960s and he was right, but the reality is Florida has only had 3 great coaches in over 100 years of playing the sport. Ray Graves, who recruited Steve Spurrier and won more SEC games than anyone but the Bear and Johnny Vaught in the 1960s, was one of them. Spurrier, who won the Heisman at Florida and led the charge in dragging the SEC out of 3 yards and a cloud of dust 1980s, was another. Urban Meyer, Mullen’s mentor, was the third. Every other Florida football hire? Either a rule-breaker (Charley Pell), a bad fit (Jim McElwain) or a hyped-up dud (Will Muschamp).
In other words, winning at Florida isn’t easy, but 3 coaches, including 2 in the past 3 decades, say winning and winning big is very possible. That history, and a bit of the sweltering Florida sunshine, creates a cauldron of demanding expectations that can, and has, swallowed coaches whole. Galen Hall won 2 SEC championships but ran into NCAA issues off of it. He would never be anything but a college coordinator again. Ron Zook felt “the noise in the system,” as he called it, so heavily he fought a fraternity. McElwain manufactured death threats in the middle of Year 3, and we’ll never know if he did it because he already wanted out, tired of an administration that isn’t as committed to winning football championships as fellow SEC powers Alabama, Georgia and LSU and a fan base that doesn’t care about excuses.
But you were supposed to understand all that, Dan.
“I know what I’m getting into and I know the expectations at Florida and I embrace them,” you said on Day 1, just an hour or two after Gator chomping your way off the plane.
You knew that and Gators everywhere believed you. After all, you were the offensive coordinator for 2 of the 3 national championships the school has won (that it recognizes). You were Urban’s right-hand man. You are the guy that even this week, as the walls close in around your football program, Finebaum thinks is the “best play-caller in the sport.”
Hell, Kirby Smart, the head coach of your archrival, said about as much last week preparing for the game when he lauded it as the best scheme he’s faced. But Kirby shut you down, whipped you by 27 and then was gentlemanly enough to call it what it is after the game:
“Guys, if you don’t recruit, there’s no coach out there who can out-coach recruiting,” Smart said in his postgame press conference.
We all know who he was talking to, but he was respectful about it anyway, even if he didn’t need to be.
“I don’t care who you are. The best coach to ever play the game better be a good recruiter because no coaching is going to out-coach players. Anyone will tell you our defense is good because we’ve got good players. Spending time on the phone, spending time with people at your house, spending time with people on your campus, I’m not with my family when I’m doing that. My family sacrifices so that I can go and spend time with other people’s families so that we can have good players. That’s 25% evaluation, 50% recruiting, and the other 25% is coaching. If you don’t recruit, guys, you’ve got no chance.”
Kirby’s right, Dan.
But here’s the thing. Shouldn’t you know that already?
When you talked on day one about giving “relentless effort in everything you do,” did that actually mean “relentless effort in everything you do except recruiting and making necessary changes to your program?” Because that’s what it feels like to Gator Nation, and it isn’t just Gators fans, Dan. I mention this not to denigrate Gators fans, because like other fans around the SEC, Gators fans know college football. They aren’t all “idiots.” They aren’t all people who “just don’t understand the process.” They aren’t all, to a person, wrong when they suggest, almost universally, that changes must be made.
But let’s stick to football people, since those are the opinions the coaches in the industry listen to — when they decide to listen.
After Saturday’s debacle, I received two quick texts from football minds I greatly respect. One is a current NFL head coach. The other is a high-level Power 5 offensive coordinator. Here’s what they said, Dan.
“If (Mullen) doesn’t recruit better, that scheme isn’t going to matter. They just have no margin for error.”
Maybe it’s time to put some relentless effort into building a margin for error, Coach.
The other text: “I just don’t see how Dan digs his way out of this unless Richardson drags him out of this as he grows up. They aren’t well-coached on defense and they aren’t getting enough dudes on offense. You can’t build a champion in the portal. Not in that league.”
Your peers see it, Dan.
Maybe deep down, you do too.
I was optimistic about that Saturday night, listening to your postgame press conference. For the first time in a long time, you didn’t deflect criticism with some coachspeak trope about “evaluating everything.” You actually took the blame and said it had to change. That was a breath of fresh air.
“Football’s a great team sport, the ultimate team sport, and you know, as the head coach, the mindset of the team falls on me and where we’re at the attitude, the approach and everything we take falls on me,” Mullen said during his opening statement.
“I know the Gator Nation, I know it’s not pleased with where we are, with the standards and the expectations within this program. But in this final third of the season, that’s on me to get this fixed and the approach that I take and the mindset that we play with, that’s on me to get it fixed. And you know, I certainly plan on doing that, of changing this, where we’re at right now with us, and creating some positive energy for us and some confidence for us, and the expectations to feed off of each other. And I’m gonna work and I’m gonna make sure I get that right.”
Those were good words.
Then came Monday, and this:
Compare that with Smart’s reply — after a 27-point win over his archrival:
“You better be out recruiting during the season because if you aren’t, someone else is.”
That’s embarrassing and it’s why, right now, you’re embattled.
Florida canceled media availability for the rest of the week after this press conference. Presumably, that’s to circle the wagons and silence the outside noise as the Gators try to focus on what’s left of the 2021 season.
If an “us against the world” mentality is what you need to motivate your program and players when you are 4-4, I get it. Social media isn’t always kind in the best of circumstances and it certainly is a toxic spot in the tough moments.
But you’re the guy who wanted to “kick your ass” running stadiums. You’re the guy who championed the phrase “relentless effort” in “everything” you do. I guess you didn’t mean give relentless efforts in press conferences. Maybe that’s fair, too.
Then again, there’s an expression down South: Make your word as solid as an oak.
If you say you’ll give relentless effort in everything you do and you define that as “The Gator Standard,” you better mean it.
That better mean giving relentless effort in making necessary coaching staff changes (Florida needs several, starting with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham).
That better mean giving relentless effort on the recruiting trail (you aren’t, and while you have a show-cause this autumn, your staff has a class ranked in the 30s this season, which, if it doesn’t change, could set the program you want to build back 2 seasons).
If it doesn’t mean those things, then why say it?
Call me crazy, Dan, but I think you can win at Florida. I’ve seen what you can do with a quarterback. I’ve seen you game-plan against great teams when you’ve trusted your guy under center and had playmakers at your disposal. But nothing in life is handed to you, and the pressure of competing is a privilege.
If you don’t want to give relentless effort in pursuing those things, then perhaps some Florida fans are right. Perhaps you should pursue other opportunities. You looked for another job last offseason anyway, right? Or was that just about giving relentless effort to obtain a contract extension?
The good news is there is still time for you to choose. But not much of it.