Settle for Dan Mullen? Nope. Florida lucky to have him. Finally
GAINESVILLE — Dan Mullen is coming back.
Florida hired Mullen, its former offensive coordinator, as the program’s 27th head football coach Sunday evening.
The news comes in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile flirtation with Chip Kelly, who ultimately chose UCLA, and an unrequited fascination with Central Florida head coach Scott Frost, who we correctly reported Friday was not, contrary to other reports, interested in meeting with Florida about its head coaching vacancy.
The failure to lure the dynamic Kelly or the young, brash and innovative Frost to Gainesville might make it seem like Mullen was or is a “safety hire,” or a guy Florida simply settled on, and there will certainly be those who frame this hire as such.
Don’t listen to those people.
The reality is that even if hiring Mullen was a happy accident, occurring only after others told them “no,” Scott Stricklin ultimately hired the coach who is probably the best fit at Florida all along.
— Coach Steve Spurrier (@SteveSpurrierUF) November 26, 2017
Mullen possesses an outstanding offensive acumen, a quiet, confident intensity and is a proven winner at the Power 5 level, having won more at Mississippi State than history suggested he should win. At only 45 years old, Mullen’s resume of developing quarterbacks — which Florida has failed to do since Tim Tebow (and Mullen) left campus — is peerless. Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald have all thrived under Mullen’s tutelage. He identifies talent and is masterful at cultivating it.
Mullen also understands Florida’s unique football culture.
Mullen’s name has been bandied about in relation to the Florida job since 2010, when Urban Meyer quit for the second time, citing health and family considerations.
As offensive coordinator for both of Meyer’s national championships at Florida, Mullen’s success at Florida developing talent at the quarterback position and generating high-flying offenses with elite talent has long been considered by analysts and program outsiders to be an ideal fit for Florida’s brand.
The symmetry of Mullen and Florida was only a secret to program insiders, including legendary former athletic director Jeremy Foley, who declined to interview or consider Mullen for Florida’s two coaching vacancies since Meyer’s departure in 2010.
There was talk that during Mullen’s time at Florida, the young offensive coordinator’s fiery, matter-of-fact, brusque midwestern personality wasn’t a great fit with Foley or other university administrators, generating acrimony in the football offices. There’s probably fire with that smoke, too, given Florida’s odd-decision to leak that Mullen was “not a candidate” in its 2014 coaching search, which resulted in Foley’s hire of Jim McElwain.
In the meantime, Mullen kept winning, defying the odds in one of if not the most difficult division in college football despite fewer resources, recruiting advantages and monied boosters compared to his SEC West brethren, including Mississippi State’s more affluent, gilded in-state rival Ole Miss, which Mullen defeated five of nine times. In 2014, while Florida was suffering another mediocre year under Will Muschamp, Mullen led Dak Prescott and Mississippi State to the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
Miss State lost to Alabama later in the season and missed out on a trip to Atlanta as a result, but the achievement, and 10-win season that came with it, was a testament to Mullen’s capacity to develop players better than almost anyone in America and recruit well despite consistent geographic challenges and infrastructure limitations.
Florida and Foley’s decision — twice — to decline to hire or even interview Mullen has turned into a program-altering failure for Florida. Under Muschamp and McElwain, Florida has suffered through its first two losing seasons since 1979 this decade, and played inept offense for most of the decade, finishing in the Top 100 of S&P+ offense only twice (2012, 2014). Florida has only finished in the top 50 in S&P+ offense once this decade (2012).
Under Mullen, Florida’s offenses from 2005-2008 never failed to place in the top 50 in America, finishing 39th, 11th, 1st and 5th in S &P+ offensive efficiency respectively.
Mullen left Florida prior to Tim Tebow’s senior season, and even with Tebow and the playmaking likes of Aaron Hernandez, Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Riley Cooper Florida’s offense was not as crisp under Steve Addazio.
The Gators still went 13-1 and won the Sugar Bowl, but haven’t been the same since the 2009 campaign. Florida football is 60-41 from 2010-2017. Mullen’s record at Mississippi State in the same tenure? Better, 64-39, in a much more difficult division.
Those surface-level disparities between Florida this decade and the product Mullen has been able to consistently produce at Mississippi State — a program that averaged 8 wins in his tenure after averaging close to 6 a year prior to his arrival — are part of why the opposition to Mullen in Gainesville has been curious, to say the least.
In fact, if rank and file Florida fans don’t like this hire, they need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask who do they think they are — and in fairness to Mullen — who do they think Mississippi State is.
Ultimately, to judge Mullen by Florida’s lofty standard of excellence based on his record at a more difficult job in Starkville is ignorant of some base realities, not the least of which is the fact that under Mullen, Mississippi State has been the better football program for most of a decade.
State has been better than Florida and it has been so because of Mullen, not in spite of him.
Despite inherent limitations, Mullen’s Bulldogs teams consistently played to a higher standard than Florida.
The ceiling is different at Mississippi State, no matter how much Mullen insisted, as he had to, that it wasn’t. From a geographic, divisional, infrastructure and financial standpoint, you simply can’t win as much at Mississippi State as you can at Florida. It’s the fundamental reason Mississippi State alum Scott Stricklin left the same job at his alma mater to be the athletic director at Florida, and it’s the reason Mullen had to pick up the phone when Florida finally got around to ringing him.
One program is a Bentley. The other is a really nice Buick. Mullen took the Buick to No. 1 and the Orange Bowl.
Gators fans should be relieved a proven winner is taking the reins, not adamant they could have done better. And they should be relieved that when Stricklin tried to “do better,” the other coaches weren’t interested.
Stricklin and Florida did well to “settle” on Mullen, the guy Tennessee wanted to hire and the guy Urban Meyer, the last guy to win at Florida, said the Gators would “be extremely fortunate to hire.”
He’s a proven offensive mind, proven quarterback whisperer, and a winner who has defied the odds and consistently exceeded expectations. If he’s brash and irascible and hard to like, so be it.
Florida football needs a hero right now, even if it’s not the one they wanted. Dan Mullen is the one Florida needs right now. Or yesterday.