Florida puts faith in Dan Mullen the quarterback whisperer

Dan Mullen, the new head football coach at the University of Florida, is introduced during a news conference in Gainesville, Florida on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. (Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner via AP)
Dan Mullen, the new head football coach at the University of Florida, is introduced during a news conference in Gainesville, Florida on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. (Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner via AP)
Published Nov. 27, 2017

GAINESVILLE — Fifteen years before Dan Mullen was ready to become the 27th head coach in Florida history, he was a young quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green.

And he was livid.

His quarterback, Josh Harris, had done something wrong, and Mullen ripped into him.

"He's like, 'I want to win more than you do,' " Mullen recalled Monday during his introductory news conference at UF. " 'So if you don't have anything productive to say, you might as well shut up right now.'

"And I learned that day."

He kept learning, eventually to the point where he became known as one of the nation's top quarterback whisperers.

That skill is one of the things athletic director Scott Stricklin kept coming back to during his four-week search to find Jim McElwain's replacement. His faith in Mullen was enough to convince him to poach him from his alma mater, Mississippi State, and reward him with a six-year, $36 million deal that makes him the second-highest paid coach in the SEC (behind Alabama's Nick Saban).

"You've got to have a quarterback," Stricklin said. "And Dan obviously had a run of them …"

UF once had a run of them, too. Just look at the statues of Heisman Trophy winners Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow standing in front of the Swamp.

But the run has stopped.

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Will Muschamp couldn't groom a quarterback, even though he had future NFL passers Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett on his roster.

McElwain couldn't do it, either, even though he bragged during his introductory news conference that he would win with his dog at quarterback.

Mullen didn't say anything about his dog, Heisman, Monday. He can point to an actual Heisman — the one Tebow won with Mullen as his offensive coordinator.

"Dan understands how to coach and mentor quarterbacks and build championship-level expectations and deliver them both on and off the field," Tebow said.

Few coaches can match Mullen's track record. His work at Bowling Green helped Harris and Omar Jacobs get drafted. Utah's Alex Smith became the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Tebow had his best years under Mullen. His passer rating dropped from 172.4 to 164.2 after Mullen left for the Bulldogs. His touchdown passes decreased, too (from 30 to 21).

Stricklin had an up-close view of how Mullen developed Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.

"There were not very many quarterbacks of note in the history of the school until Dan showed up," Stricklin said. "It was obvious how important that position was at having any chance of any success at this level."

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That's still true for the Gators. Their dismal 2017 statistics — they ranked No. 112 nationally in passing touchdowns (10) and 114th in efficiency (113.11) — help explain their disappointing 4-7 record.

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Mullen hasn't done a thorough evaluation of the roster yet, so he doesn't yet know whether Feleipe Franks is UF's long-awaited, long-term solution.

Regardless, the 45-year-old New Hampshire native will try to unearth another Prescott or Tebow by attacking recruiting immediately before the inaugural early signing period begins Dec. 20. He doesn't have a prototypical mold. He'd rather take a proven winner and leader, then tailor his spread offense to fit that quarterback's specific strengths.

Whoever he finds must have the intelligence and strength to handle the sky-high expectations that come at a program known for passing and points.

"Playing quarterback here, at the University of Florida, those are pretty big shoes to fill, right?" Mullen said.

Mullen knows that as well as anyone. But he also knows that his job depends on finding someone who can fill them.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Gator bits

• Athletic director Scott Stricklin first called Dan Mullen about the job Friday afternoon. By Saturday night, an agreement was pretty much in place.

• UF will pay Mississippi State $500,000 to hire Mullen.

• Mullen's buyout from UF is $12 million, or whatever is left on his six-year, $36 million contract (if that's smaller than $12 million). Mullen owes $2 million if he leaves voluntarily.

• Mullen hopes to name some members of his new staff soon, but others might not be finalized until January.

• Stricklin wouldn't talk about other candidates, including Chip Kelly. He did, however, say UF sent a large contingent to vet Kelly because of "some unique circumstances" in his past — presumably the NCAA violations that led to his show-cause penalty. "I felt like if it was going to have any chance of being someone we ended up with, we needed Dr. Fuchs to have been face to face and some other things there," Stricklin said.