Good luck to Dan Mullen's successor: Florida chewed up and spit out another coach
At the end of Steve Spurrier’s second season at Florida in 1991, The Chicago Tribune’s Ed Sherman wrote something prophetic.
“The name of this place hasn’t been changed to Spurrierville. And it’s still the University of Florida, not the University of Spurrier. For the time being, at least. But if Steve Spurrier stays at Florida long enough, he’ll have his name chiseled in a lot of concrete.”
Twenty years after Sherman penned that column, Florida unveiled a bronze, life-sized statue of Spurrier outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It was a fitting tribute for a man who, as he correctly said, brought swagger and the Fun ’N’ Gun offense to Florida. More importantly, he brought a national title and 6 SEC championships to Florida.
Spurrier stayed long enough to do those things. But he also famously left Florida without a final home game sendoff. His players, like former Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, said “it came out of nowhere” when Spurrier announced he was resigning. At age 56, Spurrier said that he wasn’t “burnt out, stressed out or mentally fatigued from coaching,” but that “I feel my career as a college head coach is complete.”
Welcome to Florida, where even the man they built a statue for didn’t see a path to ride off into the Sunshine State sunset.
It should serve as no surprise that 20 years later, Florida is still chewin’ up coaches and spittin’ them out. On Sunday, Dan Mullen became the 5th coach of the post-Spurrier era to fizzle out in Gainesville.
In a way, his exit was reminiscent of his predecessor. It was a promising start that gave the fan base immediate optimism that they had their guy. Mullen didn’t reach the heights of his former boss Urban Meyer, who burned out after 6 years in The Swamp — only to resurface at Ohio State and then the NFL. But Mullen did something that none of his predecessors could: He started with 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowls.
Still, it didn’t matter. Because when it starts going downhill at Florida, there’s no stopping it. Whether that’s reacting poorly to a photo of a doppelganger with a shark or advocating for fans to pack the home stadium amidst a global pandemic, it always finds a way to snowball at Florida.
Eh, who are we kidding? Jim McElwain’s undoing was picking Treon Harris over Will Grier and Mullen’s undoing was picking Todd Grantham over anyone else after Florida had its worst scoring defense since the Woodrow Wilson administration.
But like with McElwain, one can’t help but wonder how things could’ve been different if Mullen had picked right at quarterback. Forget just not going with Anthony Richardson over Emory Jones. What if Mullen had picked Matt Corral over Jones back when he was hired? Would things have spiraled the way they did?
Maybe they still would’ve. One way or another, they always do at Florida. It doesn’t matter what type of head start a coach gets. Even when you win a national title in 2 of your first 4 seasons like Meyer, it’s probably only a matter of time before the wheels fall off.
Some of that is a fan base that understandably has high expectations. When you win 3 national titles with 3 starting quarterbacks and offensive systems in a 25-year stretch, it’d be strange if there weren’t those high expectations.
Mullen brought those expectations on himself. Some of that was his reputation as Meyer’s offensive coordinator, some of that was his reputation as Mississippi State’s quarterback whisperer and some of that was helping guide a high school backup to the nation’s No. 1 passing offense.
That’s what earned him his raise and extension this past spring, when he became one of the 5 highest-paid coaches in America. Scott Stricklin rewarded Mullen that new contract despite his bizarre, well-documented Year 3. But in fitting Florida fashion, the $12 million buyout didn’t change.
Mullen is expected to collect all of that $12 million. Consider it a friendly parting gift for a coach who delivered Florida’s worst season in SEC play since the conference expanded in 1992. It took 2 months for Mullen to go from the guy earning praise for his second 1-possession loss to Alabama in as many seasons, to being a no-doubter firing.
Life comes at you fast in the SEC. Life comes at you even faster in Gainesville.
If you’re stubborn, you’d better win big like Spurrier. At the very least, you can’t be a national punching bag. Will Muschamp, McElwain and Mullen can all point to 1 bad season that led to their demise, albeit in completely different fashion. If Muschamp or McElwain could’ve scored points like Mullen, they might still be in Gainesville. Then again, no Florida coach can survive that job with as many foot-in-mouth moments as Mullen had.
McElwain made up death threats; Mullen made up excuses. Take your pick. Claiming after a blowout bowl loss that your real season had already ended was rough, and so was citing a total yards stat as a way to defend a loss to Kentucky.
As my colleague Neil Blackmon wrote, if there was anybody who should’ve understood the Gator Standard, it was Mullen. He was the OC under Meyer who won 2 national titles in 3 years. Yet even in his final days on the job, Mullen clearly didn’t get that. Say what you want about dancing with your team after allowing 52 points to a 4-5 FCS team. It was naive at best and a complete lack of self-awareness at worst.
You can do that stuff at Mississippi State. Not at Florida. They’ll chew you up and spit you out.
As Florida turns the page to coach No. 6 of the post-Spurrier area, one can help but harken back to Mullen’s introductory press conference.
“There’s a mindset and a standard of expectation here,” Mullen said back in 2017. “The program wasn’t at the expectation level of the fan base, of everybody involved in Gator Nation, and that’s why I’m here.”
Copy and paste that line for the next Florida coach.