When Dan Mullen took the stage at Hard Rock Stadium in late 2019, Florida was a premier program again. The Gators had just won the Orange Bowl, securing a second top-seven finish and New Year’s Six bowl triumph in his two seasons. Mullen was 21-5, with bigger wins to come.
“I certainly hope all these underclassmen understand they’ve got to live up to that,” Mullen said that night in Miami, “... so we can get back here next January for the national championship game.”
It didn’t happen. Not that year. Not the next. And it never will, now that the Gators have fired Mullen, a day after losing in overtime at Missouri. Running backs coach Greg Knox will take over as interim coach for Saturday’s game against Florida State, while Mullen will get a $12 million buyout ($6 million in 30 days and the rest paid out in six annual installments).
Athletic director Scott Stricklin had several recent conversations with Mullen about the program’s future, but he didn’t realize he’d have to fire the coach he poached from his alma mater (Mississippi State) until Sunday morning.
“Once you get that feeling it’s time to do something different,” Stricklin said, “you need to go and do it.”
But how did it get to this point, where Mullen went from College Football Playoff contender to unemployed in 11 stunning months?
There’s no easy answer. It wasn’t one game. It wasn’t one decision. It wasn’t one persistent problem that never got fixed.
Rather, Mullen’s striking downfall played out the way this season did, with a series of disjointed mistakes spread over four wild years leading to one disastrous stretch: nine losses in 11 games against Power Five opponents.
“People look at losses as a cause to get rid of a coach,” Stricklin said. “But a lot of times the losses or things that don’t go right on the field, those are symptoms of other issues.”
Day 1 problems
Some of those other issues started at the beginning because Mullen took the same approach at UF as he did at Mississippi State. Six assistants on his first staff came with him from Starkville. It made sense; Mullen won the second-most games in Bulldogs history playing in the same conference.
But Mississippi State is not Florida, as Mullen should have known from his UF stint as a two-time national championship assistant under Urban Meyer. The Bulldogs had to win through player development, because they weren’t going to beat Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M on pure talent.
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The Gators could. They didn’t, however, because Mullen and his staff either didn’t or couldn’t put enough emphasis on talent acquisition — recruiting. All four classes he signed ranked between ninth and 14th. That’s solid. But solid doesn’t win championships. It makes you 1-3 against Georgia, 1-3 against LSU, 0-2 against Alabama and 0-1 against Texas A&M.
Mullen used one of the best trios in program history — quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney — to win the SEC East last fall. Mullen didn’t recruit Trask or Toney, and Pitts was already committed to UF when he took over for Jim McElwain.
The Gators could not replace them. The underclassmen Mullen highlighted after the Orange Bowl were not talented enough or weren’t developed enough for him to reload rather than rebuild.
The easiest recruiting moment to pinpoint was in Mullen’s first recruiting cycle. The Gators had a commitment from blue-chip recruit Matt Corral but instead plucked four-star prospect Emory Jones away from Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes.
At the time, it seemed like a coup. Not anymore. Jones is second in the SEC with 10 interceptions, while Corral is a Heisman Trophy contender at No. 8 Mississippi.
Mullen’s biggest mistake
Mullen’s biggest mistake was keeping defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (a Bulldogs holdover). Grantham did well enough to earn a new contract and NFL interest after Year 1 but fielded the Gators’ worst defense since World War II last season. Still, Mullen retained him, instead choosing to replace his defensive back assistants.
The problems remained. Blown coverages helped doom UF last year against Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma. The final play of Mullen’s tenure? A blown coverage on Missouri’s two-point conversion in overtime.
Some of that comes from an inexcusable lack of discipline that showed up at the worst possible moments. The most obvious was the thrown Nike in last year’s LS-Shoe loss, but that wasn’t the only one. UF penalties gave Alabama three free first downs in three early scoring drives last year in Atlanta. The Gators committed 15 penalties at Kentucky and nine Saturday against Missouri.
As things began to snowball last year, Mullen didn’t help himself with his public persona. With the pandemic raging, he wanted to pack The Swamp. He incited a brawl last year against Missouri, then conducted his postgame news conference in a Darth Vader Halloween costume. He said the Cotton Bowl blowout against Oklahoma was more of a kickstart to the future than a disastrous end to 2020.
A prickly personality that kept him from landing bigger jobs while at Mississippi State became Mullen’s dominant demeanor during UF’s 5-6 slide this season and soured the fanbase. His arrogant dismissal of a recruiting question after a 27-point loss to Georgia was one of the first signs that the job was too big for him.
Out of explanations
It wasn’t the last. If his Gators had only lost to Alabama, LSU and Georgia this season, Mullen would still be the coach today. But he lost at Kentucky because his underachieving special teams let the Wildcats return a blocked field goal for a score and because his once-high-powered offense disappeared.
He lost at South Carolina because the defensive players he recruited under the embattled coordinator he retained couldn’t stop the run. He lost at Missouri because the recruits he developed — physically and mentally — made careless mistakes and because his hand-picked quarterback couldn’t (or didn’t get the chance to) lead scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
As Mullen watched the season and his UF tenure slip away, he ran out of explanations. There wasn’t one. There were many. Too many.
The Gators that lost Saturday night to Missouri looked nothing like the team that beat LSU in Year 1. Or the one that celebrated that Orange Bowl 23 months ago in Miami. Or the one that was ranked No. 6 in the country 11 months ago. Or even the one that came within a missed extra point of tying the Crimson Tide in September.
“The hard part for me has been our inconsistencies throughout the year,” Mullen said in the aftermath of the South Carolina loss that became the beginning of the end.
The inconsistencies of this year — of four years — finally culminated Sunday in a decision that was simultaneously stunning and unsurprising, ending one of the most spectacular coaching collapses in state history.
Dan Mullen: By the numbers
.694 — Mullen’s winning percentage (34-15)
2 — UF coaches in the AP poll era (since 1936) who topped that: Steve Spurrier (.817) and Urban Meyer (.813)
.617 —Mullen’s SEC winning percentage (21-13)
5th — Mullen’s SEC winning percentage among the last six UF coaches, ahead of only Will Muschamp
4-9 —Mullen’s record against teams that finished ranked (or are currently ranked)
2 — Times Mullen lost to Kentucky (2018, ‘21)
0 —Times UF lost to Kentucky in the previous 31 years before the 2018 loss
2 — Five-star high school recruits signed (defensive tackle Gervon Dexter and defensive back Jason Marshall)
2 — Quarterbacks on NFL rosters (the Bucs’ Kyle Trask and the Falcons’ Feleipe Franks) Mullen coached at UF
6-1 — Mullen’s record in one-score games in his first two years
0-7 —Mullen’s record in one-score games in his last two years
3 —UF coaches who have been fired in the last eight seasons
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