GAINESVILLE — Florida’s indefensible and inexplicable loss at South Carolina changed everything for Gators coach Dan Mullen.
The idea of losing some of his trusted assistants had already been weighing on him. But after watching his team get crushed by a middling SEC East team led by a first-year coach and third-string quarterback, firing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy became inevitable.
“I thought for the health of the program, for the health of everybody, you know you’re going to do it, let’s make that move now and get us headed in the direction we’re going into it in the future,” Mullen said Monday, a day after he got rid of them both.
Some of the short-term fallout has become clear. Linebackers coach Christian Robinson will call the defense for the first time in his young, promising career. UF promoted former Syracuse and UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni from Mullen’s special assistant to an on-field role. Graduate assistant Michael Sollenne will coach the offensive line.
But some of the ramifications remain unclear, like how the 4-5 Gators will respond to the changes over the final three games (Samford, at Missouri and home against Florida State).
“We’re going to find out,” Mullen said.
The uncertainty, however, was preferable to the unacceptable status quo. The Gators have lost eight of their last 10 games against Power Five opponents. Though most of them can be explained away due to bizarre circumstances (the LSU thrown shoe, Cotton Bowl opt-outs), great opponents (two losses to Alabama and one to Georgia) or bad breaks (the blocked field goal against Kentucky), those do not apply to the South Carolina debacle that Mullen still hasn’t wrapped his head around.
Worse, the program’s trajectory is, unquestionably, headed down. Mullen determined inconsistencies on the offensive line and the entire defense were at least partly to blame.
“We’re not better than we were earlier in the year. In fact, we’re worse than we were earlier in the year,” Mullen said. “At that point, I looked and I said, ‘We’ve got make some changes with what we’re doing and where we’re at.’”
After Saturday, it’s fair to ask whether Mullen should be a part of those changes. The hot-seat speculation is no longer premature. It’s justified.
Mullen said athletic director Scott Stricklin did not pressure him into firing Grantham and Hevesy, who had been with him for more than 25 combined years. Mullen said Stricklin is “pretty confident that we’re going to get this fixed” and that their conversations have been focused on long-term plans rather than this year or next.
Mullen acknowledged UF’s issues Monday and accepted the responsibility for them all, too. He also believes he can be a part of the answer.
“Everybody has problems,” Mullen said. “The key is to having solutions….What I’m pretty confident in is finding the solution.”
Step 1 is to figure out what happened at South Carolina in the worst loss of his career. Mullen remained dumbfounded because the team’s good week of practice didn’t translate onto the field.
He does not, however, think he has lost the locker room because his players competed well Monday-Friday and weren’t apathetic Saturday.
“There’s a lot of disappointment…” Mullen said. “We’re just trying to get things right.”
Mullen took one step toward that goal Sunday by firing two of his trusted assistants. We’ll see whether that’s enough to salvage what’s rest of this season — and his Florida tenure.
• Mullen said quarterback Anthony Richardson practiced late last week but injured his knee dancing at the team hotel Friday night. He was cleared to play against the Gamecocks, but UF chose to hold him out because of his limited availability in practice and the tweaked knee.
• Mullen will begin searching for new assistants immediately but does not expect to announce any hires until after the season. He does not expect questions about his long-term employment to limit UF’s options. “This is Florida,” Mullen said, “so there’s a long list of people that want any job they can get at the University of Florida in any aspect.”
• • •