Why Dan Mullen was Gators' best available option

In this file photo, Dan Mullen is shown during his time as Florida's offensive coordinator in 2007. Mullen was named the Gators head football coach on Sunday. TIMES FILE.
In this file photo, Dan Mullen is shown during his time as Florida's offensive coordinator in 2007. Mullen was named the Gators head football coach on Sunday. TIMES FILE.
Published Nov. 26, 2017

By Matt Baker

The University of Florida couldn't get the top college football coach on the market. Six days after the Gators flew to New Hampshire to meet with Chip Kelly, the former Oregon coach signed with UCLA.

Florida couldn't get the second-best coach on the market, either. UCF's Scott Frost apparently wasn't interested and is widely expected to head to his alma mater, Nebraska.

So with the top two names off the board, the Gators found the best coach they could — minimizing the letdown of the biggest hire of athletic director Scott Stricklin's career.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.

UF announced Sunday that the 45-year-old New Hampshire native and former Gators assistant will replace Jim McElwain and become the program's 27th head coach. Terms were not announced, but Mullen will be introduced in a 3 p.m. news conference today.

"I strongly believe Dan is the most prepared candidate to have immediate and long-term success at the University of Florida," Stricklin said in a statement.

Most prepared doesn't mean a home-run hire, like Kelly or Frost would have been. It's more like a solid double.

But given the rest of the coaching carousel, a relatively safe hire was probably the best option available.

Consider one of the other notable coaching stories Sunday: backlash to reports of Tennessee pursuing former Bucs coach Greg Schiano included objections from politicians and fans protesting in Knoxville.

Gators fans might not want a parade to celebrate Mullen's hire, but he was an obvious, sensible candidate from the moment McElwain and the Gators parted ways four weeks ago.

Stricklin said he wants to make UF fun again, and Mullen was around the last time that happened. He won two national titles in Gainesville as Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach from 2005-08. Those final two seasons were the highest-scoring in program history.

"I have such great memories of the championships we won during our time here and have a love for Florida," Mullen said in a statement. "We are happy to be coming back to such a supportive administration, staff, student body and fan base, which is the premier football program in the country. We will give relentless effort in everything that we do on and off the field."

If the Gators are going to be successful, that must include developing quarterbacks — something Mullen has shown he can do.

At Utah, Mullen groomed Alex Smith into the No. 1 overall draft pick. At UF, Mullen helped Tim Tebow win the Heisman Trophy. And at Mississippi State, Mullen turned a three-star prospect (Dak Prescott) and a two-star recruit (Nick Fitzgerald) into two of the best dual-threat players in SEC history.

Mullen was also one of the only realistic candidates with a proven track record as an SEC head coach. In nine years in Starkville, Mullen was 69-46, including 8-4 this season. That won't cut it in Gainesville, but briefly taking a traditional West Division doormat to No. 1 in the country during 2014 is an impressive accomplishment.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

It helps, too, that Mullen already has a relationship with his new boss; Stricklin didn't hire Mullen, but he was his AD at Mississippi State before taking over UF a year ago. So Stricklin knows first-hand what Mullen can do.

The question now is what Mullen can do at a program with more resources but loftier expectations.

The last time the Gators settled on their third choice was a flop. Ron Zook, who got the job because Bob Stoops and Mike Shanahan didn't want it, finished his disastrous tenure at 23-14.

We'll find out eventually whether Mullen is another Zook, another Meyer, or somewhere in between. But on Sunday, Plan C didn't look like a major loss.

And that was as close to a win as the Gators could get.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.