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Let’s talk about Dan Mullen’s long-term future at Florida

Here’s the case for putting him on the hot seat, the case against it and all the other factors to consider.
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen and his program are headed the wrong way after a third consecutive loss to LSU.
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen and his program are headed the wrong way after a third consecutive loss to LSU. [ MATTHEW HINTON | AP ]
Published Oct. 20
Updated Oct. 20

Florida’s embarrassing loss at LSU last week has intensified the questions around Gators coach Dan Mullen’s future. Not only did he lose as a double-digit favorite to a rival with a depleted roster, he did so against one led by a coach (Ed Orgeron) whose exit was in the works.

If the winning coach lost his job, it’s fair to start wondering about the losing coach — one whose tenure is heading in the wrong direction.

Related: The pressure is on Dan Mullen after Florida’s loss at LSU

Let’s take a step back and do what Mullen and his Gators planned to do during the off week: evaluate.

This isn’t meant to be hot-seat speculation. Think of this as the backdrop for a discussion that’s likely to continue in the coming weeks, if not months.

Why could Mullen’s job be in jeopardy?

Florida coach Dan Mullen just lost to a coach (LSU's Ed Orgeron) who was in the process of losing his job.
Florida coach Dan Mullen just lost to a coach (LSU's Ed Orgeron) who was in the process of losing his job. [ MATTHEW HINTON | AP ]

The program has regressed since he won back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls in his first two years. Mullen went 8-4 last season with one of the most prolific offenses in program history. He’s 4-6 over his last 10 games. That’s the same record Jim McElwain had over his final 10 games and that Will Muschamp had at the time of his firing.

If the Gators lose next week to Georgia — they’ll enter as underdogs — UF will clinch a second straight season with at least four losses. Since Steve Spurrier made the Gators a national power, three coaches have had back-to-back years with at least four defeats: McElwain, Muschamp and Ron Zook. All of them were gone before the end of the next season.

Related: Can Florida Gators’ Dan Mullen win a title? Or is he UF’s Mark Richt?

Mullen is one of eight coaches nationally who makes at least $7 million annually, according to USA Today. His record against the other seven: 2-9.

Mullen’s first four recruiting classes ranked 14th, ninth, ninth and 12th nationally. The unfinished 2022 crop sits 18th after UF’s top recruit, four-star Alabama linebacker Shemar James, decommitted Wednesday. Having the SEC’s No. 6 recruiting class isn’t good enough for Florida, and it doesn’t inspire much confidence for the future.

Why could Mullen’s job be safe?

Dan Mullen's tenure includes a win over Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Dan Mullen's tenure includes a win over Virginia in the Orange Bowl. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP (2019) ]

Though Mullen hasn’t lived up to UF’s championship expectations — his only title is an SEC East crown — he hasn’t been disastrous, either. He’s 33-12 (.733 winning percentage) through three-and-a-half seasons. That’s much better than McElwain (22-12, .647), Muschamp (28-21, .579) and Zook (23-14, .622).

In the past decade, only three SEC coaches have been fired with better records than Mullen: LSU’s Les Miles (.770 winning percentage), Georgia’s Mark Richt (.740) and Orgeron (.742).

Though the Gators haven’t been in the championship mix, you can argue they aren’t far away, either. Florida joins Oklahoma, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia as the only programs to appear in a New Year’s Six bowl or the College Football Playoff each of the last three seasons.

Related: Anthony Richardson? Emory Jones? Florida coach Dan Mullen still isn’t saying.

Aside from the Cotton Bowl blowout to the Sooners, Mullen’s other six losses since the start of 2020 have been by a combined 28 points. They include a walkoff field goal at Texas A&M, the thrown shoe against LSU, a botched two-point conversion against Alabama and a blocked field goal at Kentucky. Four of those teams finished in the top 15 nationally or are ranked there now.

Mullen has made up for his lack of recruiting success through the transfer portal, where he plucked five-star talents defensive end Brenton Cox and receiver Justin Shorter. Mullen has compiled the nation’s seventh most talented team, according to 247Sports. That’s good enough to be in the title hunt.

What’s the financial situation?

Mullen signed a three-year extension in the offseason after there were rumblings about him pursuing a job in the NFL. The new deal pays him about $7.6 million annually and runs through January 2027. The Gators owe him a $1 million retention bonus if he remains the coach on Dec. 1.

Mullen’s buyout is a flat $12 million (or whatever’s left on his contract, if that figure is smaller). That’s different than many other coaches, whose buyouts change based on how many years remain on the contract. Mullen’s buyout is the same now as it is next year or in 2024.

Related: Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson: ‘Right now, I’m a Gator’

What are some other internal factors to consider?

Athletic director Scott Stricklin hired Dan Mullen at Florida.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin hired Dan Mullen at Florida. [ MARK LONG | Associated Press (2017) ]

In December, the NCAA determined that Mullen “did not promote an atmosphere of compliance” and gave him a one-year show-cause penalty for the program’s recruiting violations. UF was put on probation for the first time in three decades; that’s a big deal for a program that traditionally prides itself on doing things the right way.

Though Mullen fits UF’s culture better than McElwain did, he can be prickly. Some of his antics — like wearing a Darth Vader costume after a brawl against Missouri — have not been well received.

The Gators, including athletic director Scott Stricklin, have been under scrutiny for how they handled allegations that now-former women’s basketball coach Cameron Newbauer mistreated players. Would administrators want to handle a football coaching search while they navigate any potential fallout from that scandal?

It’s worth remembering that Stricklin hired Mullen, and athletic directors are usually more reluctant to fire coaches they brought on than ones they inherited. It’s also uncommon for coaches to be fired so soon after signing an extension.

What are some other external factors to consider?

LSU and USC already are looking for coaches. Both jobs are as good as, if not better, than Florida, and could dilute a candidate pool that isn’t loaded with big names.

Who would replace Mullen?

We're not saying Penn State's James Franklin would take the Florida job. But Franklin would be one of the few home-run hires the Gators could make, if the job becomes open at some point.
We're not saying Penn State's James Franklin would take the Florida job. But Franklin would be one of the few home-run hires the Gators could make, if the job becomes open at some point. [ BARRY REEGER | AP (2019) ]

This is the ultimate question. Whether Mullen is a great coach is debatable, but he’s at least a good one. How many coaches would be obvious upgrades, interested in the job and the right institutional fit? Mississippi’s Lane Kiffin is a hot name but wouldn’t match UF’s culture. Former LSU assistant Joe Brady’s next step is probably a head coaching job in the NFL, not in college. Former Oklahoma coach (and UF assistant) Bob Stoops doesn’t seem ready to unretire. Miami native Mario Cristobal has a top-10 team at Oregon and might not want to leave.

Because the list of feasible, strong candidates is short, the risk is high. Georgia gambled after the ‘15 season, replacing Richt with Nick Saban’s top lieutenant, Kirby Smart. Under Smart, the Bulldogs have played for a national title and are the favorites to win it all this year.

But LSU took the same risk a year later by firing Miles. The Tigers replaced him with … Orgeron, the coach they just axed.

How does Mullen compare to the other highest-paid coaches?

Florida head coach Dan Mullen, left, and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart greet each other at midfield after a 2019 game in Jacksonville.
Florida head coach Dan Mullen, left, and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart greet each other at midfield after a 2019 game in Jacksonville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2019) ]

Using USA Today’s database, Mullen is the nation’s sixth-highest paid coach. Here are the other coaches who make at least $7 million a year in total pay and his UF record against them:

1. Alabama’s Nick Saban: $9.8 million (0-2)

2. LSU’s Ed Orgeron: $9.0 million (1-3)

3. Stanford’s David Shaw: $8.9 million (0-0)

4. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney: $8.4 million (0-0)

5. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley: $7.7 million (0-1)

6. Florida’s Dan Mullen: $7.6 million

7. Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher: $7.5 million (0-1)

8. Georgia’s Kirby Smart: $7.1 million (1-2)

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