Only a month ago, a year and change into the Dan Mullen rebuild, Florida appeared poised for a return to national relevance. Mullen and his staff surprised the football universe with a 10-win season in his first season in Gainesville, capping the campaign with an emphatic, demon-exorcising New Year’s 6 rout of Michigan in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Building off that positive momentum, the Gators quickly put the finishing touches on what was, on paper, the program’s first top 10 recruiting class since the 2014 season.
Less than a month ago, Florida left spring practice feeling terrific about its quarterback situation for the first time in a decade, confident about its defense in its second year under the well-respected Todd Grantham, and flush with the best skill position players the program has had since the Tebow era.
Leaving the spring, the Gators weren’t just a program perceived to be on the rise in their own state or regionally. Florida was receiving national attention, a fixture among sleeper Playoff picks and the darlings of the post-spring national projection pieces. This attention reached its fever pitch in April, as the national media rushed to cover Mullen and the program’s troll-happy bluster toward rival Georgia, the current kings of the SEC East. Even this week, veteran Orlando Sentinel columnist and hot take maestro Mike Bianchi went on the Paul Finebaum Show to explain his column about how Mullen was “quickly turning the tables” on Kirby Smart and Georgia.
That’s heady stuff for a program that spent much of the decade wondering whether it was OK to brag about Outback Bowl wins.
Unfortunately for Mullen and the Gators, momentum in college football can be as fleeting as your last news cycle.
May, to put things gently, has been a wretched month for Florida football.
First, word leaked that 4-star quarterback recruit Jalon Jones had entered the transfer portal after only one spring on campus. Jones, one of the blue-chip members of Florida’s 2019 recruiting class, which ranked 9th nationally in the 247 composite, was implicated, but not charged, in two sexual battery incidents during his brief time on Florida’s campus.
Losing the blue-chip QB in Mullen’s first non-transition year class would be bad enough on its own, but the bad news kept coming.
Days after the Jones story broke, 5-star running back Demarkcus Bowman committed to Clemson over Florida.
Bowman, the top-ranked prospect from Florida, was long considered a Gators lean and would have been the first consensus 5-star recruit to sign with Florida since Cece Jefferson and Martez Ivey in 2015. Making matters worse, Bowman attends Lakeland High, perhaps the most Gator-friendly high school in the United States and a longtime Florida football factory and program pipeline.
Bowman was considered nearly a lock to attend Florida after Lakeland stars Keon Zipperer, Deyavie Hammond and Lloyd Summerall all picked the Gators over a host of suitors, including FSU, Miami and in the cases of Hammond and Zipperer, Alabama.
Instead, Florida was left at the altar, with a crowded running back depth chart and the chance to play quickly for the magnetic Dabo Swinney the difference in Bowman’s recruitment.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football.
This shouldn’t be a secret.
If you can’t recruit at an elite level, you’ll never consistently compete for national championships, no matter how well you develop players. We don’t need to theorize this; it’s been proven, meticulously, in column after column.
Even more vitally, you have to protect your own backyard. Recruit well locally is rule No. 1 for championship building fun. When there are 5-star players available at pipeline programs, you can’t lose them. Those are players you count on when filling a class and when you lose them, it hurts not just from a numbers standpoint, but from an optics standpoint. What does that mean? In the age of social media, momentum and optics matter immensely. If a program wants to be a national player, but can’t seal-the-deal in its own backyard, other kids notice.
So do other coaches.
“Why would you go to Florida?” a coach, let’s say one donning red and black, for fun, might say. “They can’t even get Bowman to go there, and everyone from Lakeland goes there.” The narrative becomes self-fulfilling. Kids these days want to go where they can get to the league and win. Losing Bowman is a sign that under Mullen, Florida doesn’t yet inspire that confidence.
As if losing Bowman weren’t bad enough, the Gators received even more awful news earlier Thursday when the story broke that Chris Steele, the crown jewel of Florida’s 2019 recruiting class and one of the most promising players in spring practice, announced he would transfer without ever playing a down in Gainesville.
Steele entered the transfer portal, citing, according to the Gainesville Sun’s Zach Alboverdi, a dispute with the coaches over a roommate situation, as the reason. The roommate? Jalon Jones.
Alboverdi reported, and SDS confirmed through multiple sources, including one with the University Police Department, that Steele had concerns about Jones that predated the early April sexual battery incidents wherein Jones was implicated.
Steele, who is listed in the police reports as a prospective witness on account of living with Jones, expressed concern about Jones’ behaviors to the Florida coaching staff as early as late January, per SDS sources. According to Alboverdi’s report, Steele asked to be assigned a different roommate, citing his own concerns about getting into trouble by association. The staff punted on the request, telling Steele they would move him in the summer.
As it turns out, Steele was right, and the summer was too late.
The whole incident infuriated Steele’s family, who encouraged him to come home to California.
If you are Chris Steele or his family, the decision makes sense, both financially and from a common-sense safety standpoint.
From a safety perspective, Steele’s family entrusted Mullen and the coaching staff with their son’s well-being, future and safety. Steele sensed danger and asked the staff to remove him from what he viewed as the problem. The staff, mystifyingly, declined to act.
From a financial perspective, Steele is a high-level defensive back prospect likely destined for the NFL in 3 seasons. The last thing a player like that needs is NFL teams asking character questions at draft time simply because his name popped up in a sexual battery investigation. Steele, sensing a problem, asked to be removed from that danger. It’s difficult to blame Steele for perceiving Florida’s lack of action as a sign that Florida didn’t necessarily value Steele’s future.
Make no mistake: This is a colossal disaster for Mullen and Florida.
From a football standpoint, Steele was going to play early and often next season. Florida lacks secondary depth, as Georgia exposed last fall, and Steele showed all spring that he was simply too fast and too good to keep on the sideline for long.
But forget the football piece.
Mullen arrived in Gainesville talking about restoring the “Gator standard,” not only on the field, but off it. Mullen inherited a broken culture in the wake of a credit card scandal that rocked the roster the year before. Restoring Florida’s credibility off the field mattered and, to parents entrusting coaches with their children, was critical.
The Steele fiasco is a setback. When Scott Stricklin speaks about “making Florida football fun again,” he’s doubtlessly referencing the Spurrier era, which had its share of barbs and bravado, but always on a foundation of integrity. Where I come from, that matters.
Maybe that type of cultural rebuild was never in the cards for Mullen, who is, after all, an Urban Meyer protégé. Mullen was instrumental in Florida winning two national championships under Meyer, to be sure, but was also in Gainesville during a time of substantial off-field discontent, plagued by a string of off-field incidents and arrests.
The Gator Standard needs to be better than it was under Meyer.
From the looks of it, the Gator Standard needs to look like Chris Steele.
His decision to ask to have his roommate changed took character and it took courage. It’s the type of decision the Gator Standard should be about. When that was met with procrastination, Steele’s worst fears were confirmed.
Now Steele is gone, and Mullen will pay the price.
Will he learn from it?