Dan Mullen takes first steps to fix Florida Gators, but will it be enough to save him?

By Adam Silverstein
November 8, 2021
Dan Mullen takes first steps to fix Florida Gators, but will it be enough to save him?

Image Credit: ESPN Images

Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen did what needed to be done — and likely needed to be done 20 months earlier — when he parted ways with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy on Monday. Though both Grantham and Hevesy’s contracts were already set to expire following the season, Mullen chose to cut ties with them a couple months early amid a disastrous turn that has seen the Gators lose three straight games for the first time since 2017 and become a talking point across the college football.

The most important development during Monday’s press conference, which Mullen held after meeting with the team and announcing the firings publicly, was actually the overall tone and tenor the coach took while facing a firing squad of questions about both his future and that of the program as a whole. More on that in a moment.

Mullen waited far too long to cut ties with Grantham and Hevesy, and while his hesitation to move on from Grantham was maddening, it’s more understandable that he felt extreme loyalty to Hevesy, a man who has been coaching alongside Mullen for the last two decades. Still, even he admitted Monday that these moves are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s always hard,” Mullen said Monday of firing assistants. “Those guys are friends of mine. I have a lot of respect for them. Both excellent football coaches. My responsibility is to do what’s best for the Florida Gators. That comes above it all.”

While obvious to many that changes within the program have been needed for a while, Mullen apparently came to that realization Saturday. Though he refuted reports, including from OnlyGators.com, that these moves came at the behest of athletic director Scott Stricklin — “There certainly wasn’t any pressure. The decision was mine.” — Mullen admitted that the 40-17 loss to South Carolina was a turning point.

Mullen explained that it’s difficult to judge whether a season is success solely on whether a team wins division, conference or national championships; however, one can look at how a team is playing at a given point compared to how it started the season. It was in this juxtaposition that Mullen admitted that UF is worse off after Week 10 than it was entering Week 1.

“We’ve had some tough losses. We’ve gone out and make some catastrophic mistakes. … That’s not the case on Saturday. We played bad,” Mullen said. “… I can take ‘good’ out of most other games. … Saturday we didn’t play well. … That’s not acceptable.”

It was written in this space last week that Mullen could survive and potentially thrive at Florida by taking a page out Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s playbook. Kelly turned around his program after a difficult start to his tenure with the Fighting Irish where he faced many of the same issues — both personally and professionally — currently affecting Mullen and the Gators.

It appears as if the ousting of Grantham and Hevesy are Mullen’s first move toward walking in Kelly’s footsteps. Whether he takes the rest of the journey remains to be seen, but all trips need to start somewhere.

Acceptance and introspection

Mullen has been combative, brash and stubborn during his tenure at Florida, especially when it comes to being asked legitimate questions by the media whether in post-game or Monday-after press conferences. For the first time this season, he not only admitted fault but took complete responsibility for the Gators’ play and the program’s downward trend among the powers of the sport.

“I’m the head coach. I bear all of [the responsibility]. It’s on my shoulders. I’m the one that’s responsible for this program, responsible for this team,” he said. “… My job is to make sure we go perform and this team plays to the Gator Standard, which we’re not doing right now. It’s my responsibility to find a way to fix that. … What I’m pretty confident in is finding the solution.”

Admission is the first step. Introspection — looking inside with an investigative eye to determine what needs to be changed within oneself and the program as a whole — is the next. And it’s not one that is going to happen immediately.

As Kelly did at Notre Dame after its disastrous season, Mullen said that he let the Florida players hold an open forum for discussion during Monday’s meeting. Hopefully, another opportunity for the Gators to freely speak their minds comes at the conclusion of the regular season.

Mullen did not address the recruiting issue, but the topic was not broached on Monday. Rather, he stated a clear understanding that Florida needs to be positioned differently as a program, and it’s up to him to make it happen.

“My responsibility is to get this program where it needs to be. All of my energy needs to go into that,” he said.

Loyalty is great … to a point

Whether it was friendship or stubbornness, Mullen clinged to Grantham and Hevesy far longer than most would in his situation. Grantham in particular given his defenses — even when they were operating well — could be exposed in any given moment, most of which usually determined the outcome of games.

If there was one fault in Mullen’s press conference, which was quite a turnaround from his first dozen this season, it was his response when asked if he would have done anything differently knowing the outcome of retaining Grantham after the Gators finished 72nd in scoring defense last season. Here was his response.

“I’m a pretty loyal person. I’m not going to jump to any conclusion. First sign of trouble, I’m not going to abandon ship,” he said. … I’m going to look at it. It could be a knock [on me]. I’m a very facts-oriented person. … I have no regrets sticking with him, and I wouldn’t change it. I just felt, at this time, we need to go in a different direction than we are now.”

Loyalty is an admirable quality, but it should only extend so far. Perhaps Mullen lost sight of what relationship was most important. Hint: It’s not the one with his coaches/friends but the one that pays him $7.5 million per season to field a successful, competitive football team.

One of the worst traits a coach can possess is the mindset that one should wait until something is broken before fixing it. Especially when that coach stresses constant evaluation across all aspects of his program.

In this case, Mullen waited until Florida was broken and his hand was forced — either by Stricklin or his internal voice — to make changes. Now he and the Gators will wait and see whether the alterations are just in time or too little, too late.

What’s next?

Stricklin has not offered public comments about Mullen, though it’s easy to infer that he supports the coach given Mullen was allowed to take responsibility for the staff changes with an open microphone allowing him to comment on the state of the program without Stricklin injecting his thoughts beforehand. Still, questions about Mullen’s future linger. How could they not given Florida is 4-8 in its last 12 games and 2-8 against Power Five opponents in that span?

For what it’s worth, Mullen insisted he has a “great working relationship” with Stricklin. He said recent conversations between the two have focused on long-term plans and not specifically the 2021 or 2022 seasons. “[Stricklin is] pretty confident we’re gonna get this fixed,” Mullen said, “but I can’t speak for him on that.”

Still, questions remain about both of their futures. Mullen has already lost a portion of the fan base despite these long-awaited firings. Stricklin is under immense pressure given he is now dealing with tumult across the football team while dealing with fallout from the scandal surrounding ex-women’s basketball coach Cam Newbauer and the recent lack of success from the men’s basketball program.

Given those obstacles, perhaps it’s not a surprise that Stricklin has stayed quiet. Whereas Michigan in 2020 and Nebraska on Monday both responded to questions about their big-name coaches by restructuring contracts — the equivalent of public ultimatums that leashes are being shortened — Florida (for now at least) appears content to let Mullen follow the aforementioned Kelly model of fixing the program as he sees fit.

The initial focus must be winning the final three games of the season — the Gators will be favored in all of them — and advancing to a bowl game. Next, Mullen must not only hire two quality assistants to replace Grantham and Hevesy but evaluate the rest of his staff to determine whether more changes need to be made. There are four other assistants whose contracts expire this offseason.

Mullen is going to need to hit some home runs — or at least stand-up triples — when making these hires. He needs to focus not only on coaching ability but recruiting acumen, and Stricklin should be loosening the purse strings to do find the right coaches. Mullen may be forced to do so with a shortened list of candidates given his uncertain long-term status. It’s not often that top-tier assistants will take what could be a temporary job under an embattled coach.

“This is Florida. I think there’s a long list of people who want any job they can get here in any aspect,” Mullen said confidently.

Let’s hope so. Otherwise, instead fo looking at potential defensive coordinator and offensive line coach replacements next November, the Gators may be embroiled in a whole other type of coaching search.

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