Florida Gators football is in limbo, again, as another offseason of uncertainty begins

By Adam Silverstein
January 4, 2021
Florida Gators football is in limbo, again, as another offseason of uncertainty begins

Image Credit: Anissa Dimilta / UAA

There’s no such thing as a boring season when it comes to Florida Gators football. In 12 years of covering this team professionally — and another decade of watching from afar and as a student — there has yet to be a single campaign where everything went exactly as expected for the program. Combine that with the craziness of 2020 itself, which included a global pandemic, and you have Florida limping into the offseason on the heels of an ultimately disappointing 8-4 campaign with a head coach who is simultaneously off to the best start in program history, responsible for the team’s first probation in 30 years, somewhat at odds with the administration and at least considering a future in the NFL.

Oh, and that’s not even mentioning what’s happening on the field as the Gators are shaking up their coaching staff after the worst defensive season in a century and looking to replace not only the program’s best quarterback in a decade but its three top offensive playmakers.

Need to take a breath? I don’t blame you.

Despite the aforementioned on-field start to his career as Florida coach, which should not be diminished, it has not been smooth sailing for Mullen as one would expect for a coach with his record and successes. The Gators have scored 70 (!) more touchdowns in Mullen’s 38 games than they did in the 38 games the program played from 2015-17. They have contended for the SEC, won the SEC East this season and advanced to three straight New Year’s Six bowls — winning the first two.

Yet, along with that offensive success, the strong defense that has been a calling card of the program has vanished. A Florida team with its best chance to play for a national championship since 2009 — one that took No. 1 Alabama to the absolute limit in the SEC Championship Game — lost four games, including three straight. Among those three were an inexcusable home defeat by a horrendous LSU team and an embarrassing 55-20 blowout in the Cotton Bowl to a talented, rising Oklahoma squad.

However, it’s primarily off the field, behind a microphone and within the walls of the University Athletic Association where Mullen’s having his greatest difficulties with the Gators. Well-known and publicized were his “pack The Swamp” comments after the Texas A&M loss, a mix of frustration at the defeat and anger that the Aggies had so many fans in the stands while Florida’s capacity was significantly reduced.

Mullen was slow to buy into the need for extreme COVID-19 precautions before the season, a program source told OnlyGators.com, though that did not stop the Gators from ensuring all athletes, coaches and staffers were as safe as possible from a policy standpoint. He was only eventually convinced to walk back his postgame comments following a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, which included Mullen himself contracting the coronavirus. Even then, Mullen saw COVID-19 as more of a distraction and roadblock than a significant problem, sources said.

The Gators were also at odds when Mullen rushed the field at halftime of the Florida-Missouri game after redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask was the victim of a late hit at the whistle. A brawl erupted between the Gators and Tigers, and Mullen was hit with a $25,000 fine by the SEC. He was also admonished by league commissioner Greg Sankey. Some in the UAA appreciated Mullen standing up for his player despite the heated interaction, while others used choice words to describe his actions, a program source told OnlyGators.com.

The probation Florida is now facing from recruiting violations will not affect the team on the field, and most of the penalties have already been served. However, it did change how some in the administration feel about Mullen as the program leader considering the Gators have been heavily focused on NCAA compliance since the program’s outlaw days in the 1980s. “The public nature of what happened can’t be ignored,” a source told Matt Hayes regarding the incident, which is further detailed in a column on Saturday Down South.

Mullen’s somewhat-misconstrued comments about the NCAA’s mandated day off from practice to ensure all athletes could vote in the 2020 president election and his postgame stance after the Cotton Bowl are among other public-facing situations that have irked the administration. (Internally, however, Mullen’s decision to wear a Darth Vader costume and allowing his coaching staff to celebrate Halloween in the locker room immediately after an Oct. 31 game was positive, despite some in the media confusingly painting it as part of a “heel turn” for the coach.)

Multiple sources confirmed to OnlyGators.com that Mullen has also been at odds with the administration on numerous other internal issues, which is not unusual for a coach looking to improve a program but is nevertheless frustrating both sides now three years into their working relationship. From (non-coaching) staffing disagreements to pushback against certain UAA directives to his dissatisfaction with Florida’s game day atmosphere, Mullen is simultaneously appreciated for being demanding yet also causing numerous internal frustrations.

“Mullen came back to Florida to see 90% of the same administrative staff that he dealt with during his last tenure as offensive coordinator here,” a source told OnlyGators.com. “[He] wants to try to move on with the rest of the SEC.”

One Mullen frustration detailed to OnlyGators.com is his displeasure with the game day atmosphere, which he feels is out of date compared to those that can be experienced at programs like Alabama, Georgia and specifically LSU. While the administration wants to keep an atmosphere that pleases older boosters and fans, Mullen (along with his coaches and many others within the UAA) wants one that appeals far more to recruits and young people.

“You’re not going to get people excited playing Blues Traveler and 90s rock during timeouts,” a source shared with OnlyGators.com, relating Mullen’s stance.

Still, the Gators’ recruiting problems do not solely lie with game day atmosphere, marketing or the creative department within the football program. In fact, Mullen’s coaching staff choices and own less-than-enthusiastic approach to recruiting are reasons why Florida — despite his coaching prowess and roster management — is unable to keep up with the aforementioned teams when chasing elite prospects.

According to reports, Mullen is simultaneously making staff changes and considering whether his own future should be in college football.

He has reportedly fired cornerbacks coach Torrian Gray and safeties coach Ron English, both of whom are no longer listed on the UF staff director. This as pressure mounted for Mullen to move on from Todd Grantham, his long-time defensive coordinator both at Florida and Mississippi State. Mullen is seen as loyal to his assistants, sometimes to a fault, but there was no question some changes had to be made to the staff this offseason. There are reportedly some intriguing prospects to beef up the staff and defense, namely Travaris Robinson, a former Gators assistant under Will Muschamp who could potentially join the team as co-defensive coordinator. Robinson is seen as a tremendous coach and star recruiter.

However, while this staff shakeup plays out, Mullen is also “open” to leaving college football behind and “going to the pros,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Mullen is reportedly on the list of candidates for the New York Jets job, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero. There are currently six open NFL head coaching jobs, including the Jets, Jaguars, Chargers, Texans, Falcons and Lions. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer is believed to be the leading candidate for the Jacksonville gig.

It has long been believed that Mullen could have an eye on the league one day, though he is not one to make hasty decisions or career moves. He does not appear to be a top candidate for the 2021 hiring cycle, though clearly he is being mentioned. Perhaps his agent is using potential NFL interest as leverage for a contract extension and raise with the Gators, something Mullen has not yet received despite reported ongoing conversations this spring.

Or perhaps Mullen is growing tired of the college game, namely the recruiting aspect. He has also recently mentioned that changes coming to the game — including name, image and likeness rights and one-time transfers without restriction — will drastically change college football and make running programs far more difficult for coaches.

All of this, of course, comes as the on-field product itself will be remade in 2021. Florida will be moving redshirt sophomore Emory Jones into the starting quarterback role, though freshman Anthony Richardson will be in competition for the job. The Gators will be looking to develop multiple new playmakers on offense and replace even more bodies on defense, though changes on that side should be welcome.

Florida also plays Alabama in the 2021 regular season, a Georgia team that has found a quarterback again in JT Daniels, programs in LSU and Florida State that should at least be marginally improved, and a South Carolina team with a new head coach.

Before any of that, Florida needs to solidify its Class of 2021, which has fallen to 11th nationally in the 247Sports Composite team rankings after it was unable to add any significant names during the early signing period. The Gators have not hauled in a recruiting class ranked better than ninth since 2013. National Signing Day is one month away.

Fixing and improving Florida football begins with Mullen, including whether he remains with the program (which appears likely due to light NFL interest), how he fills out the coaching staff, what adjustments are made to the on-field product and whether he can figure out a way to recruit better as a program despite a career of generally falling a bit short in that area. However, the Gators as an athletic organization must be there to support Mullen and the program, not only by ensuring the under-construction football facility serves its purpose for athletes and prospects but by realizing the program is competing in the 21st Century and not resting on the laurels of achievement from Meyer’s relatively short run of success over a decade ago.


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