Florida will 'wait and see' on Dan Mullen, but history doesn't favor a Mullen turnaround
As Florida closes the 2021 season, questions continue to swirl around the future of head coach Dan Mullen.
Mullen’s Gators are 5-5 and need to find a way to win 1 of their final 2 games to get Florida bowl eligible. Neither game is unwinnable: a road trip to middling Missouri and a home game against mediocre rival Florida State. Ask most Gators fans whether they think Florida will win both or even 1 of those games, however, and most will be justifiably cynical.
The Gators are 2-8 in their past 10 games against Power 5 opponents under Mullen and there’s just been nothing about this Florida team that makes you believe different results are coming soon.
There certainly wasn’t much from Saturday’s win over Samford that suggests the Gators are going to close strong. Florida surrendered a Power 5 record 52 points to a 4-5 FCS opponent. The Gators trailed 42-28 in the first half and allowed Samford quarterback Liam Welch to throw for 400 yards. The Gators were woeful in 2 of 3 phases of football Saturday, but celebrated in the locker room like they had won the SEC East. A win is a win, to be sure, but it’s tough to put much stock in a 70-52 victory at home against an overmatched FCS foe.
Mullen, to his credit, hasn’t given up on the season. He called it a “great win” and told the media Saturday he hoped his guys would take the feeling of a victory again and build on it. Mullen especially felt like his team could build off a 35-10 second-half effort where players made a few more winning plays.
“I think there’s guys going to look at it and hopefully they start to build some confidence and say, ‘Hey, I’m right there, all I got to do is go make a play. I have to finish it and have the confidence to go make that play.'”
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate agreed.
“People just have to realize the way we played the second half, we can play like that all the time,” said Diabate. “We just have to come out with the same confidence and same swagger. Nobody should have to come in at halftime, yell at everybody. Everybody should be ready, as the game starts, to take care of business.”
If Mullen and Florida don’t take care of business, Florida’s administration may make a change.
Longtime Mullen lieutenant John Hevesy and Todd Grantham, Mullen’s chosen defensive coordinator for all 4 of his seasons at Florida, are already gone, dismissed after Florida’s 40-17 collapse at South Carolina.
Mullen could be next.
Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, who broke the news of Florida’s McElwain and Mullen hires, wrote Saturday night that Mullen’s firing appeared “imminent.” Florida’s 247sports beat reporter, Thomas Goldkamp, said on his podcast this weekend that the Florida administration has slowly changed its view on Mullen over the last 2 weeks, putting his job in jeopardy regardless of the outcome of the season’s final 2 games. That is certainly possible.
However, the sense SDS has gotten, from speaking to multiple sources inside the Florida athletic department and administration, as well as multiple high-level, million-dollar type Florida boosters, is that the University of Florida is still in “wait and see” mode with Mullen.
“The defense (or lack thereof) was shocking yesterday, but we still fully support Dan,” one booster, who has invested millions into various Florida facilities, told me Sunday morning. “While the buck stops with (Mullen), there are too many other factors that make up the game to think he is Lord of all. Two more wins would help him,” the booster continued.
“He needs to beat Florida State and then a bunch of us would be willing to put up the guaranteed dollars for the coordinator they need to help him,” another “Bull Gator” (the highest level of Florida booster) told me Saturday night.
Inside the athletic department, the vibe is the same. “It isn’t good,” one individual said. “An end-of-year change is possible. But it also isn’t beyond the point of no return. We will wait and see.”
That sentiment — that it isn’t beyond the point of no return– is a fascinating one.
The logic of retaining Mullen is hinted at above. Hire an elite defensive coordinator and see if Mullen, who remains one of the best offensive minds, college or pro, in the sport, can stabilize things again. It’s a formula that worked at Florida before, as Steve Spurrier turned his defense over to a young, rising star coordinator in Bob Stoops in 1996 and broke through for a national championship. But Spurrier’s shift came in the middle of a run of 4 consecutive SEC championships. It was never a desperation play to right a sinking ship.
In fact, the “hire a sexy coordinator” or “overhaul the staff” to fix a faltering regime strategy rarely works.
Brian Kelly at Notre Dame is one rare exception.
Kelly made wholesale staff changes after a 4-8 season in 2016, changing everything, from coordinators to recruiting operations to his strength and conditioning coach. It worked. The Irish, only a season removed from a Fiesta Bowl, won 10 games the following season and made the College Football Playoff the year after that, proving that, at least at Notre Dame, you can turn things around when it looks grim. Notre Dame also plays a famously difficult schedule each year, which should at least soften the “you can’t do that in the SEC” retorts.
Beyond Kelly, you have to go back to the previous century to find other marked turnaround jobs.
Howard Schnellenberger went 7-4 at Miami in 1982 and made a handful of staff changes, continuing to believe that he could build a power in Coral Gables. The staff changes worked and the Hurricanes won their first national championship in 1983. But Schnellenberger mostly won recruiting battles — something Mullen rarely does.
Barry Alvarez started 11-22 at Wisconsin before overhauling his staff and winning a Rose Bowl. He made staff changes again after a 4-5-2 in 1995 and was given time (a pair of 8-5 campaigns) before winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and returning to the Rose Bowl in 1998 and 1999.
Is that type of flip possible in modern college football? It seems unlikely, to be honest.
Mullen’s ability as an Xs and Os coach is the “biggest reason this is even a complicated discussion,” a third huge Florida booster told me Saturday afternoon.
That is all well and good, but even if Mullen gets it right schematically on defense, will Florida ever stop the recruiting bleeding? The Gators’ class ranks 23rd in the 247 composite. Florida’s archrival Georgia ranks No. 1. Florida’s in-state rival FSU ranks 13th. SEC East rival Tennessee, playing much better football under Josh Heupel, ranks 30th, but that’s 1 of only 4 SEC programs the Gators are currently ahead of.
If Florida can’t stop the bleeding of in-state talent, especially from the hotbeds of South Florida and Jacksonville, from taking their talents to Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, then Mullen won’t get it fixed, no matter how much Florida improves schematically.
Fortune favors the bold, or so the old expression goes.
There’s very little to be gained by staying pat and refusing to take chances.
Florida ultimately faces two gambles, no matter what it does over the next month. One gamble is to turn over the defense to an elite, rising defensive mind like Doug Belk and hope that with a better scheme, Mullen’s schematic advantages elevate the program. History says that type of gamble rarely works.
That means the other type of gamble — bringing in a coach like Mel Tucker, who is unlikely to be bullied on the recruiting trail, or Lane Kiffin, who retains some schematic advantages but has proven adept at hiring an elite staff and recruits better than Mullen — may make more sense.
For now, Gators fans will just have to “wait and see.”