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How can Dan Mullen save his Florida tenure?

We looked at recent parallels to see the odds of Mullen turning things around. It’s possible but unlikely.
Florida coach Dan Mullen is trying to salvage his Gators tenure after Saturday's debacle at South Carolina.
Florida coach Dan Mullen is trying to salvage his Gators tenure after Saturday's debacle at South Carolina. [ SEAN RAYFORD | AP ]
Published Nov. 9, 2021

Florida coach Dan Mullen fired two of his top assistants Sunday because he knew the moves were inevitable. If the Gators were going to lose defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy at the end of the season, why wait?

The philosophy sounds a lot like what former athletic director Jeremy Foley believed: What should be done eventually must be done immediately.

Related: Why Florida coach Dan Mullen fired Todd Grantham and John Hevesy

And that brings us to the $12 million dilemma facing Foley’s successor, Scott Stricklin. After the disaster at South Carolina, is Mullen’s dismissal something that will be done eventually? Or can he win back a soured fanbase and save a program that has lost eight of its last 12 games?

If you believe recent precedents, a turnaround is unlikely.

Will Muschamp couldn't turn the Gators around after sliding from an 11-win season to 4-8.
Will Muschamp couldn't turn the Gators around after sliding from an 11-win season to 4-8. [ Times (2014) ]

Like Mullen, Will Muschamp won 11 games in his second year at Florida. Foley gave Muschamp another shot after his 4-8 failure in Year 3 but fired him after a loss to South Carolina in Year 4.

Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M), Tom Herman (Texas), Clay Helton (USC), Mark Helfrich (Oregon) and Frank Solich (Nebraska) all had at least one top-10 season and major bowl win early in their careers before suffering a season with at least four losses. None of them recovered to finish higher than 19th or make another major bowl game.

Mark Richt took Georgia to three Sugar Bowls before going 14-12 in 2009-10. Richt had a pair of top-10 seasons after that but never again won the SEC and was fired in 2015.

There are, however, some success stories. LSU’s Les Miles totaled nine losses in 2008-09. Two years later, he had the Tigers back in the national title game.

Brian Kelly took Notre Dame to the BCS title game in his third year. His next four seasons: 9-4, 8-5, 10-3, 4-8. After that final flop, Kelly replaced his coordinators and changed his coaching approach. He has led the Irish to the playoff in two of the last three seasons.

Brian Kelly has put Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff twice in the past three seasons.
Brian Kelly has put Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff twice in the past three seasons. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]

Though none of these examples are perfect parallels to what’s happening under Mullen, they collectively give us some insight into his odds of turning things around. It’s possible but doubtful.

What Stricklin and the rest of UF’s administration must decide over the next three weeks is what, if anything, makes them think Mullen can reverse the trend.

They can’t point to in-season improvement. Mullen acknowledged Monday that his Gators have gotten worse, not better, this fall.

They can’t point to recruiting. Mullen’s 2022 class is ranked 22nd, which means Florida is looking up at South Carolina in the recruiting rankings and SEC standings. On Tuesday, the Gators lost out on a top-500 prospect when Clearwater Academy International lineman Isaiah Hastings committed to Alabama over UF. If Mullen couldn’t turn back-to-back top-10 seasons into elite recruiting classes, how is he going to do that now, with his long-term future in question?

Related: Florida coach Dan Mullen doesn’t want to talk Gators recruiting, still. Why not?

Instead, Stricklin and the rest of UF’s powerbrokers will have to argue that South Carolina was rock bottom, not the point of no return. They can blame some of the problems on an unlucky minus-9 turnover margin that will eventually progress to the mean. They can look at Anthony Richardson’s talent and see another transcendent quarterback for Mullen to develop.

Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson has shown flashes of being a transcendent player for Dan Mullen.
Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson has shown flashes of being a transcendent player for Dan Mullen. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

They can believe that replacing (at least) two assistants and opening a new football facility will fix the onfield problems and boost recruiting. They can argue that Mullen’s first two years (21-5) show he’s capable of leading UF to conference and national championships — a ceiling he has never reached in 13 years as a head coach.

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

They will have to convince themselves that Mullen is not the problem. Because if he is, they owe it to the program to follow the same philosophy as Foley and Mullen himself.

To do immediately what must happen eventually.

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