Speculation that coach Dan Mullen could leave the Gators for the NFL has been circulating since the end of Mullen’s first season at Florida.
“Some interesting college names floating around for NFL openings,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jerermiah tweeted in January 2019, four days after UF beat Michigan in the Peach Bowl. “Rhule, Kelly, Kingsbury & Mullen.”
Two of those names (Matt Rhule and Kliff Kingsbury) are now NFL head coaches. Mullen is not.
Mullen said before Wednesday’s Cotton Bowl debacle that he hasn’t thought about coaching in the league. He said the same thing when reporters asked him about it a year ago.
“As opportunities present themselves,” Mullen said this week, “like everything in the world, you take things as they come and you visit them and you sit down and reflect where you’re at in your life.”
We don’t know whether any opportunities will present themselves after the NFL’s regular season ends this weekend. But, unlike Mullen, we have thought a lot about the possibility.
Here’s why it might — and might not — make sense for Mullen to jump to the next level.
Why Mullen in the NFL makes sense
The NFL has changed
The stigma around college coaches and their spread offenses has disappeared. NFL offenses routinely try to stress the defense with space, put the quarterback in the shotgun and move players around to create mismatches. Just like Mullen does at UF.
“We run a pro offense, right?” Mullen said in the preseason. “They run the same offense we kind of do of utilizing a guy like Kyle Pitts.”
That means Mullen — an elite tactician — wouldn’t have to overhaul his offensive system in the NFL, even though he has never coached or played at that level.
College football is changing
The transfer portal has made it easier for disgruntled players to leave, and the NCAA is expected to relax those guidelines even more in 2021. Upcoming legislation will soon allow players to make money off their names, images and likeness, adding another complicating factor for coaches.
“I don’t want to say it’s going to be better, worse,” Mullen said. “It will just be different than a lot of what college football is used to.”
And a potential reason for college coaches like Mullen to look around.
College football is a year-round grind because recruiting never stops. This season was especially draining because he had to juggle the delayed SEC championship with the early signing period. He told a friend in the NFL that it was like coaching for the NFL title during the week of the draft.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mullen said.
Next year won’t be as crazy (hopefully), but he’ll still have to keep recruiting players under some lingering restrictions for NCAA rules violations that gave him a show-cause penalty. It’s worth remembering, too, that recruiting is arguably the biggest reason why Mullen’s Gators haven’t yet cracked the College Football Playoff. Perhaps building a roster through the draft and free agency would be more appealing.
Why Mullen might want to stay at UF
He’s in control
One of the only NFL-related issues Mullen has discussed centers on control. “I don’t want to make it sound too big,” Mullen said last December, “but you’re kind of the owner, GM, vice president and head coach. I’ve got a lot of control here. You’re in control of everything.”
Even as college football changes, he’ll have more control with the Gators than he would with the Jaguars, Texans or any other NFL team.
He has a great job
Mullen makes $6 million a year, lives in a state with no income tax and leads one of the 15 or so programs that can feasibly win a national championship.
“This is not a place you’re looking to leave,” Mullen said last December.
Job security in the NFL is even shakier than it is in the SEC. And if the NFL didn’t work out, there’s no guarantee Mullen could pull a Nick Saban (who got the Alabama job after failing with the Dolphins).
Mullen also doesn’t have to deal with NFL-level scrutiny. Imagine how much flak he would have received for dressing up like Darth Vader after a brawl if he had been coaching the Jets, not the Gators.
His college work is unfinished
As impressive as Mullen has been in the SEC — and he has done quite well — his resume is incomplete. He has never won a conference championship, let alone a national title.
It’s too early to get a good read on UF’s 2021 playoff chances until after the transfer market and traditional signing period sort themselves out. But Mullen is only 48 and the coach of a top-10 program. He has a lot of years ahead of him to chase national titles.
If he wants to keep trying.