Dan Mullen’s future at Florida: Job status with Gators, complications, potential candidates

By Adam Silverstein
November 20, 2021
Dan Mullen’s future at Florida: Job status with Gators, complications, potential candidates
Football

Image Credit: ESPN Images

The downward spiral of the Florida Gators’ 2021 season reached a new low Saturday not because Florida suffered its most embarrassing defeat of the season (it did not) or it coughed the game away but rather because head coach Dan Mullen put forth a masterpiece of mind-boggling decision making over 60 minutes. Though Mullen is still the coach at Florida, that may not be a status he holds for much longer. UF’s mind-numbing performance led to Mullen being fired Sunday after four seasons with the program.

While no program wants to fire its coach and go through a nationwide search — the ideal is to win and progress with each passing year — one would hope the Gators learned the mistake athletic director Jeremy Foley made when he brought Will Muschamp back following a 2013 season that appeared to be the nail in his coffin.

Unlike Muschamp, who garnered much goodwill throughout the University Athletic Association during his time at Florida, Mullen’s tenure has been spent ruffling feathers. Couple that with the Gators’ on-field performances this season and the wrong kind of records that seem to be set with each passing week, and any goodwill Mullen had left must have disappeared.

Mullen on Saturday lost his fourth straight game to an FBS opponent and fell to 2-9 against Power Five teams dating back to the 2020 season. The Gators ended SEC play at 2-6, posting their fewest SEC wins since 1986 (2-4) and their worst conference winning percentage since 1979 (0-6). Florida has now lost seven straight one-possession games, including four this season, and Mullen has now lost six times to unranked opponents in four seasons.

The Gators are facing a losing season, missing a bowl game and a recruiting class that is outside the top 20 nationally with the early signing period less than a month away. Though OnlyGators.com reported last week that Mullen would be given the final two games of the season to coach and it was far from a certainty that he would be fired, Saturday’s performance told a story of a coach that opened his own exit door. The administration walked him through it Sunday.

Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of Florida making a coaching move and why the program may be in a particularly difficult situation going forward.

1. Was there any case to keep Mullen even if UF finishes 5-7? Sure. In his first three seasons, Mullen took the Gators to three straight New Year’s Six bowls. He was also 21-5 in his first two years. Florida has been one score away from beating Alabama in consecutive seasons — the closest any team had come in a while until Texas A&M beat Bama this year — and the close-game losses could be seen as coin flips if one desires to be optimistic. Most notably, Mullen had succeeded in fixing a Gators offense that completely flatlined under consecutive coaches, which was one of his top charges upon being hired. (Florida has struggled to score over its last three SEC games, however.)

The best case to retain Mullen may be the coaching market (more on that later). There is some history of head coaches keeping their jobs and turning teams around by completely revamping their staffs and program philosophies. The most notable, as has been written plenty in this space, is Brian Kelly with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish went 4-8 in 2016 but are 53-9 in the five seasons since with two College Football Playoff berths. But while Kelly made some headlines for the wrong reasons, he was flexible enough to be willing to change. There’s no proof to this point that Mullen is that malleable.

Mullen firing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy — something that should have been done after the 2020 season — was a move made with his back against the wall. Those are far from the only two assistants on staff out of their depth. Is Mullen actually willing to completely clean house save for a couple of holdovers?

2. Why has the athletic department been quiet? Athletic director Scott Stricklin has barely been heard from this season, neither in good times nor bad. An active Twitter user, he has not sent a tweet or even hit the retweet button since Oct. 7. There have been no votes of confidence (as useless as those can be) or reassurances to fans. And the reasons go far beyond Mullen’s failures on the football field.

Due to time conflicts, I have failed to give proper space here to Florida’s women’s basketball scandal with former coach Cameron Newbauer accused of a variety of abuses by multiple players. (Newbauer resigned on July 16, citing personal reasons, after Stricklin signed him to a contract extension.) The Independent Florida Alligator has done a tremendous job reporting on the situation. Stricklin’s last extended public comments came in late September to address their reporting, and the situation remains largely unresolved.

With Gators athletics largely underperforming during his tenure, the Newbauer allegations coming to light and Mullen standing as Stricklin’s (failed) signature hire, it’s fair to question the temperature of the AD’s seat. While there’s no indication that Florida plans to move on from Stricklin — he’s done plenty good in terms of fundraising, facility development and more — a major university that needs to hire a new football coach would not want to do so with an AD under fire. It may be better to move on from both than just one, particularly if the other shoe may potentially drop the next season.

3. So about that coaching market … Generally, if a top-tier program like the Gators need to fire a coach, the ideal scenario is to do so at least midway through a season to get a jump on potential competition. Furthermore, throughout its last two coaching searches, Florida has largely been the premier job on the market. Neither of those preferable scenarios are the case this time around.

Now that Florida has decided to pay Mullen’s $12 million buyout, it will get behind at least LSU — but likely USC as well — in terms of the desirability of the gig. Both the Tigers and Trojans are already deep into their searches. The simple fact is that UF has fallen from Tier 1A of college football jobs in large part due to a set of unsuccessful hires from Muschamp to Jim McElwain to Mullen, among other reasons.

There is also a lack of top-tier candidates. LSU and USC are both shooting for the moon. The Trojans may land Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell due to a relationship with USC athletic director Mike Bohn, but attempts to lure names like Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker appear to have been unsuccessful. Baylor’s Dave Aranda is still out there with ties to LSU (former assistant) and USC (native Californian).

The options are thin, and though this is not baseball, WAR (wins above replacement) may have factored into Florida’s decision. If the Gators fired Mullen just to make a change without a candidate that they believe will appreciably improve the program, perhaps it was not worth making the move at all. Recruiting will take a hit, but Florida could potentially get a jump by making an early move the following season. It may have been better to be the belle of the ball in the 2023 cycle than a third option during a weak cycle without an obvious Urban Meyer-adjacent up-and-comer in 2022.

4. Who might be on a candidates list? Without going into extensive detail — that will come Sunday afternoon — Florida’s obvious first call must be to former Oklahoma coach and UF defensive coordinator Bob Stoops. Yes, Stoops is retired and unlikely to return to coaching until his sons leave college (if at all, he appears to be having a blast on Fox), but he’s exactly what the Gators need as they approach their fourth coaching change in 11 years.

Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who is 31-5 over the last three seasons, has long been considered an option for both LSU and Florida should their respective jobs open at any point. Napier, 42, is an offensive coach, tireless recruiter and program builder. Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin will be on the tips of fans’ tongues after an incredible season leading the Rebels. Boston College’s Jeff Hafley, 42, has garnered buzz as a darkhorse fallback candidate for some top jobs already in this cycle.

Once we get past those names, not considering potential Hail Marys that could be attempted, there’s not much else out there. Liberty’s Hugh Freeze could do the job but would be an astoundingly bad move. Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell has not impressed in his follow-up season and would be taking a far-too-large step up to a prominent SEC team. Tom Herman got a raw deal at Texas but would probably be a lateral move at best.

The truth is that a cycle lacking great candidates — in large part due to Power Five athletic departments having coffers so full that even less-prominent programs can pay their coaches insane amounts to stay (Michigan State is offering Tucker, who is barely over .500 as a head coach, $95 million) — made moving on from Mullen extremely difficult.

That’s another reason why the Gators wanted to give Mullen every chance possible to either right the ship or at least create some positive momentum for 2022. The problem is that it’s another opportunity of which he’s failed to take advantage.

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