In the end, Dan Mullen's stubborn loyalty led to his downfall at Florida
The University of Florida fired Dan Mullen Sunday afternoon, late in his 4th season.
The move came just a day after Florida suffered yet another disappointing loss, this time to a rebuilding Missouri team in overtime. That defeat was Florida’s 9th loss in its past 11 games against Power 5 opponents.
The pace of Mullen’s downfall and ultimate dismissal is shocking, even in the cutthroat world of college football.
Mullen spent the bulk of his first 3 seasons in Gainesville resurrecting a program that spent the bulk of the post Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer era stuck in the wilderness.
Less than a full calendar year ago, Mullen was 29-6 at Florida, the best 35-game start in the history of Florida football. Mullen had a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, perhaps the best tight end to ever play college football, his Gators had vanquished archrival Georgia, won the SEC East and were positioned to play in the College Football Playoff. The shoe dropped against a mediocre LSU team, but even after that disappointing defeat, the Gators played — and fell just 6 points short — of winning an epic SEC Championship Game against perhaps the greatest Alabama team of all time.
Now, Mullen is gone, the latest Gators hire to fail to last 4 full seasons in Gainesville, a pressure cooker of a gig where excellence is demanded and expected but rarely achieved.
In its history, Florida has had 3 truly outstanding coaches: Ray Graves, who won more games than anyone but Bear Bryant and Johnny Vaught in the 1960s SEC, Steve Spurrier and Meyer. In between, there have been a host of disappointments.
The program did, under Spurrier, drag the SEC out of the 3 yards and a cloud of dust 1980s and into the center of the college football universe in the 1990s, a span of nearly peerless dominance for the league that has continued in the 21st century.
But Florida didn’t invent college football, and excellence isn’t a given.
The goal, according to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin on Sunday, was and is to have a coach capable of competing for championships consistently. Ultimately, Stricklin made a change because he no longer believed Mullen was providing a pathway to sustained success.
“We want somebody going forward who can come in here and they share our high expectations for sustained success and can do so at a place with great resources like the University of Florida,” Stricklin said. “To achieve at a high level over a sustained period of time. You know, we talk about competing for championships, and we talk about having a championship experience with integrity. Florida is a place where you have the right to aspire to that.”
While the calamitous 2021 season, with the Gators 5-6 and needing what seems like an unlikely victory over rival Florida State to become bowl eligible, was the death knell to the Mullen era, the root of the more systemic failures that ultimately cost Mullen his job are more aptly boiled down to one word: loyalty.
In and of itself, loyalty is an admirable trait. As human beings, we look for it in friendships and desire it in the workplace. But there’s a fine line between loyalty and intransigence and inflexibility, and Mullen didn’t just cross that line, he stubbornly stormed past it.
First, Mullen was loyal to his longtime defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, when it was obvious the Gators needed to make a change.
Loyalty to Grantham, who was in his 5th season under Mullen dating to Mississippi State, where he helped flip an ailing Bulldogs defense and turned it into a top-10 unit nationally, became Mullen’s most egregious example of loyalty gone wrong.
Grantham’s first two defenses at Florida were top-25 outfits, but signs of trouble were obvious as early as the January 2019 Orange Bowl, where a Florida defense ranked in the top 10 all season struggled mightily to stop Bryce Perkins and a one-dimensional Virginia offense. Even if ignoring the warning flags of a 36-28 Orange Bowl win was understandable at the back end of an 11-win season, Florida was so woeful defensively in 2020 that there was no reason beyond blind loyalty to retain Grantham.
The Gators finished 83rd in total defense, 82nd in yards allowed per play and 96th in pass efficiency defense in 2020. Florida also allowed more points per game (31) than any Florida defense since 1917. Florida’s defensive failures were the largest reason the Gators failed to capitalize on one of the greatest offenses in school history, posting an 8-4 final record instead of winning the championship the talent was capable of delivering.
Those numbers demanded a change, but Mullen stayed pat, ignoring Grantham’s history of defensive regression at prior multi-year stops, including Louisville and Georgia. In doing so, Mullen displayed a fundamental misunderstanding that SEC football requires ruthlessness. It’s an “adapt or die” environment and, unfortunately, there is very little room for loyalty.
This is, to paraphrase The Godfather’s Hymen Roth, the business Dan Mullen had chosen. In refusing to move on from Grantham, Mullen made his choice. It was the wrong one, and by the time Mullen did make the move, after an embarrassing 40-17 loss to a South Carolina team under a first-year head coach, playing a third-string quarterback, the Gators were already past the point of no return.
Mullen was also overly loyal to various members of his staff who proved to be weak links on the recruiting trail. There are elite head coaches who have treated recruiting like a chore, including Spurrier at Florida and Woody Hayes at Ohio State, who both couldn’t stand it. But as Georgia’s Kirby Smart put it, in modern college football, you better be out recruiting, because if you aren’t, someone else is.
That means if you don’t like recruiting as a head coach or, in Mullen’s case, you are hit with a show-cause and can’t hit the trail, you better assemble a staff full of people who get after it on the recruiting trail. Too many members of Mullen’s staff didn’t do that, and it bit the Gators in the end.
Greg Knox, who will serve as Florida’s interim head coach against Florida State, was one of the SEC’s least effective recruiters, a big reason the Gators have relied almost exclusively on the transfer portal at running back since signing Nay’Quan Wright out of Miami 3 recruiting classes ago.
John Hevesy, Mullen’s most trusted lieutenant who had been with Mullen since they met as Meyer assistants at Bowling Green 2 decades ago, had become an empty suit on the recruiting trail. Before being let go earlier this month, Hevesy had lost recruiting battles on the offensive line to UCF, Kentucky, South Carolina and NC State, to name a few. Rather than reassign Hevesy to a role that would allow Mullen to both “be loyal” and upgrade his recruiting staff, Mullen chose loyalty, again only reacting when it was too late.
Mullen’s rigidity extended to the playing field as well.
As Florida’s offensive coordinator and play-caller, he had to know, for example, that Dameon Pierce was his most effective running back. Pierce grades out No. 1 among college football running backs this season, per Pro Football Focus, and he’s been one of the SEC’s most reliable goal-line backs for 3 years.
Despite this, Pierce hasn’t carried the ball 10 times in a single game this season and Saturday, with Mullen coaching for his job, Pierce failed to receive a carry on an early Florida possession that started with 1st-and-goal at the 2. The Gators settled for a field goal, allowing Missouri’s embattled defense to build confidence.
And then there’s the quarterback spot.
Mullen’s quarterback whisperer résumé is undebatable, but of late, there was a reasonable criticism that suggested Mullen let the legend of his ability to develop quarterbacks outweigh what was happening on the field.
Mullen was loyal to Emory Jones, starting the 4th-year player throughout the bulk of the 2021 season over electric redshirt freshman talent Anthony Richardson. Jones is a fine young man who has done everything the coach and his school could ever ask for on and off the field. It’s impossible to root against him.
Again, Mullen’s loyalty here is understandable. What coach doesn’t want to reward Jones’ loyalty and see a young man of his caliber succeed?
But it was also unfair of Mullen — to Jones and Richardson — to handle Florida’s 2021 quarterback situation the way he did.
By constantly inserting Richardson into games, Mullen disrupted Jones’ rhythm and confidence. In multiple games, Jones played worse after Richardson possessions, slowing Florida’s offense and committing costly turnovers. When Richardson did miss games due to injury (Alabama, Tennessee), Jones was at his best, posting big statistical games, limiting turnovers and mistakes, and helping Florida consistently move the football.
Meanwhile, Mullen hampered Richardson’s development by limiting his snaps and limiting packages used for Richardson. These decisions meant that by the time Mullen did finally start Richardson against No. 1 Georgia, Richardson was facing a generationally good defense in his first start having never attempted to run many of the plays that were called at game speed.
That decision proved disastrous, as 3 Richardson turnovers flipped a 3-0 game late in the first half into a 24-0 halftime deficit. Richardson has played minimally since, and Saturday night, briefly scrubbed his Twitter account of references to the University of Florida. Famously close with Jones, Richardson’s decision to openly display his frustrations weren’t about Jones; they were about how Mullen was treating Richardson.
There were whispers, as the final few weeks of the Mullen era unfolded, that Mullen had lost interest, or checked out. It made sense, in a vacuum, as Mullen had, of course, publicly proclaimed interest in the NFL late last season, a move likely about contract extension negotiations with Florida but still odd for a coach who called Florida his “dream job” when hired.
But SDS spoke to a Florida assistant this week who said Mullen’s zeal for work was furious to the end, and Mullen was in his office early and left late all week ahead of the Missouri game.
“I love being the coach of the Gators,” Mullen said after Saturday’s loss to Missouri. “I mean, we’re out there trying. We’re giving it everything we have, every single week. We go in there, try to coach our guys up, try to put them in position. Try to motivate them.”
Mullen likely did love being the coach of the Gators.
He was just too loyal, in the end, to put the program in the best position to succeed under his leadership.
Now Florida is left once again searching for a fit who will put Florida first.