Dan Mullen reaches inflection point at Florida with next decisions set to determine his future

By Adam Silverstein
November 1, 2021
Dan Mullen reaches inflection point at Florida with next decisions set to determine his future
Football

Image Credit: ESPN Images

Well into his tenure, the coach had to look at himself in the mirror. Expectations were massive, especially after his team was twice in contention for national championships deep into seasons only to flounder late. He appeared to clearly be the right man for the job with the background, name value and skill necessary to lead a top-tier Power Five program … but issues were mounting.

Recruiting was a struggle. Assistant coaches appeared to be ill-fitted for their roles. Interest wained as the impatience of fans, alumni and boosters grew. Discipline softened. The coach made national headlines for all the wrong reasons, namely due to sideline antics, outbursts and comments made in press conferences. There was even an NCAA investigation. On-field performance not only suffered but appeared to be spiraling downward fast.

There was only one answer for the coach: introspection. A honest, thorough evaluation of not only the program but himself.

Am I getting through to the players? Are my schemes and game plans relevant for today’s game? Do I have the right people helping me lead the program? Are we doing whatever we can to recruit the best prospects?

Brian Kelly asked himself those questions — and likely dozens of others — as his time at Notre Dame appeared to be winding down.

The Fighting Irish were still relevant in the national conversation, but they were hardly a team opponents worried about playing. Not after they were routed 42-14 by Alabama in the 2013 BCS Championship Game and later went 4-8 in a disastrous 2016 season. Not while Kelly made headlines less for Notre Dame’s on-field play and more for his red-faced sideline demeanor and unwillingness to take accountability while the “University of Football in America” floundered.

Rather than continue on the same path, Kelly realized, through introspection, that changes — substantial changes — were necessary. He even interviewed all 93 of his returning players after that 2016 season.

And then he acted.

Ahead of the 2017 season, Kelly fired two assistants, encouraged two others to find new jobs and moved another into his administration. He replaced both coordinators, brought back two well-regarded position coaches and added some fresh hires who helped reshape his team on both sides of the ball and in the weight room. Included among those staff changes were coaches and trainers that had been with Kelly nearly his entire career.

“Why did we do this? Why did we go through all this? Why did we hire all these new coaches? We did it because there’s a tradition of excellence that I need to live up to. Period. I didn’t live up to it, and I’m going to make sure that never happens again,” Kelly told Sports Illustrated at the time.

“[They were] the most difficult [decisions] I’ve ever had to make in my 26 years. These coaches literally were part of building your program to get you where you are today. To make those changes, which were necessary, are gut-wrenching.”

Notre Dame went from 4-8 to 10-3 with three top 25 wins in 2017. The next year, it finished 12-1 and advanced to the College Football Playoff. An 11-2 season followed with the Irish then returning to the playoff the year after, going 10-2 in 2020.

Perhaps Dan Mullen should make a phone call?

If much of the above sounded familiar, it’s because the Florida Gators head coach is facing near-identical problems while in a similar situation with his program. Problems so alike that mentioning them again would feel repetative.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who was not a popular hire in the first place, wore out his welcome a year ago when Florida posted one of the worst defensive seasons in program history. Assistant coaches appear to be ill-suited for — or at least no longer effective in — their roles. Mullen has continuously chosen to retain or promote friends and confidants rather than make significant hires to ensure the best coordinators and position coaches in the nation are wearing orange and blue.

Most importantly, recruiting is floundering due to a lack of emphasis from Mullen and a shocking inability to procure top-tier talent from the rest of the coaching staff, particularly in one of the most talent-rich states in the country. The Gators’ incoming Class of 2022 is currently ranked 22nd nationally and ninth in the SEC after losing a pair of top 100 defenders in October. Florida has not finished with a class ranked better than ninth in the 247Sports Composite team rankings under Mullen.

Granted, the Gators entered the 2021 season with the seventh-most talented team in the country, according to 247Sports. However, that ranking not only includes transfers but necessitates perspective. All six teams ranked ahead of Florida have advanced to at least one College Football Playoff with four having won at least one national title since the event’s inception. Five of those six teams also recruit at a tier higher than the Gators. Take it from the man who beat Mullen on Saturday.

“There’s no coach out there that you can out-coach recruiting,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. “No coaching is going to out-coach players. Anybody will tell you our defense is good because we have good players.”

Add in Mullen’s sideline demeanor instigating a fight last year against Kentucky, his buffoon-like “pack The Swamp” post-game comments, his instance that achieving a higher total yardage mark in a loss is a success and his — until Saturday’s loss to No. 1 Georgia — unwillingness to hold himself accountable and take responsibility for Florida’s shortcomings, and you have a coach that is heading down a path eerily similar to the one Kelly traveled.

Mullen even got a one-year show-cause penalty from an NCAA investigation over recruiting violations, ending the Gators’ decades-long position as a strongly compliant program.

So much for the “Gator Standard”.

Again, does this all sound familiar?

Mullen not only faces the same questions Kelly did five years ago, his potential answers are nearly identical. And like Kelly, who was in lockstep with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick throughout the entire process, Mullen has Florida AD Scott Stricklin, who would surely welcome similar changes as he begins feeling the heat himself.

The Gators need to overhaul their coaching staff beyond their inevitable parting of ways with Grantham, whose contract is set to expire after the season. Mullen needs fresh, innovative faces, and he needs to convince Stricklin to pay those fresh faces accordingly. Mullen must obsess over recruiting, emphasizing that skill both in making those hires and in crafting his new philosophy of the program as a whole.

And just as importantly, Mullen must realize that he needs to change both as a coach (how he manages games, what qualities he emphasizes) and a person (how way he carries himself on and off the field).

Mullen, 49, has been a head coach for 13 seasons. He’s 102-59 (.633) at Mississippi State and Florida. Alabama head coach Nick Saban, at age 49, had only been in the top job for seven seasons, compiling a 51-30-1 mark (.622) at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU. In his 19 seasons since, Saban has won seven national championships while losing two or fewer games 14 times.

This is not to say Mullen is capable of becoming the greatest college football coach of all time. Rather, it’s proof that despite already coaching for nearly twice as long as Saban at the same age, he has plenty of time left to change the tune on his tenure at UF and career as a whole.

Mullen has won 71.7% of his games at Florida, third-best in the modern era behind only Steve Spurrier (81.7%) and Urban Meyer (81.3%). However, his trajectory is unfortunately pointing down with him inching closer to Galen Hall (68.6%), Ray Graves (68.6%) and — sorry — Jim McElwain (64.7%) than the two best coaches in program history. It’s not that long ago that we were comparing Mullen’s record through his first however-many games with Spurrier and Meyer.

Despite sitting at 8-7 since the 2020 Georgia game with a 2-7 record against Power Five opponents dating back to the final three games of that season, Mullen will surely be given the opportunity to turn things around. His seat may be warming, but it’s certainly not burning hot. At least not yet.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, the Gators have four games left against opponents with a combined record of 14-18. If Florida can win those four and perhaps even a bowl game, it could not only enter the early signing period but also the 2022 season with much-needed momentum that could be bolstered by the aforementioned necessary changes.

The only question that remains is whether Mullen is willing to get uncomfortable. Will the guy who, like Kelly, once looked to parlay early success at his most prominent job into a potential NFL opportunity, allow himself to be humbled?

If not, we be in this same spot a year from now debating not Mullen’s future but rather a list of candidates as Florida looks to hire its fourth coach in 12 years.

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