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A decade later, Gators are still chasing that next great coach

John Romano | Sure, firing Dan Mullen was satisfying. But will it move the needle at Florida? The next crop of candidates is not exactly a Who’s Who of football brains.
Stick Jim McElwain in between Dan Mullen, left, and Will Muschamp, and you have 11 years of largely forgettable Florida football seasons to talk about.
Stick Jim McElwain in between Dan Mullen, left, and Will Muschamp, and you have 11 years of largely forgettable Florida football seasons to talk about. [ MIC SMITH | Associated Press (2019) ]
Published Nov. 23
Updated Nov. 23

He had to go. Of course, he did. The University of Florida absolutely had to fire football coach Will Muschamp on Sunday. Or was it Jim McElwain? Oops, latest headlines say it was Dan Mullen.

It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to keep up with all the fallen saviors littered around Florida Field. Turns out, not every would-be genius has a map to college football’s promised land.

We are now 11 seasons into the post-Urban Meyer world, and all the Gators have accomplished is to make millionaires out of a handful of coaches and their agents.

Between the money spent prying McElwain and Mullen from contracts at Colorado State and Mississippi State (about $5.5 million), the money spent in severance packages (close to $26 million for Muschamp, McElwain and Mullen) and the money spent on their collective salaries (in the $48 million range), UF has dropped about $80 million on head coaches since 2011.

Related: Florida Gators moving on without Dan Mullen, looking at FSU

And — checking the history books — it looks like they have zero SEC titles to show for it.

This isn’t an accusatory jab at Florida administrators, although giving Muschamp and Mullen raises and contract extensions shortly before firing them does seem a bit blunderful.

No, this is more of a gentle warning for what’s to come.

If some fans get their wish, Mississippi's Lane Kiffin will replace Dan Mullen as the next Gators coach.
If some fans get their wish, Mississippi's Lane Kiffin will replace Dan Mullen as the next Gators coach. [ THOMAS GRANING | Associated Press (2020) ]

Everyone has their own idea of the best name to stencil on the head coach’s door in Gainesville. Some would have UF go after Lane Kiffin, a brash, offensive-minded coach in the Steve Spurrier mold. Some prefer up-and-comer Billy Napier from Louisiana-Lafayette, catching him before his star rises like Florida did with Meyer. Still, others have ideas about coordinators, established stars and even long-retired legends.

And, chances are, none of those guys will remain hot commodities down the road.

Go back to this very week, four years ago. Florida was hiring a coach, and athletic director Scott Stricklin identified Chip Kelly as his preferred target. When he couldn’t land Kelly, there was talk that Scott Frost was next on the list. And when Frost expressed no interest, the Gators finally turned to Mullen.

Since then, Kelly has gone 17-25 at UCLA, and Frost is 15-28 at Nebraska. Mullen was 34-15 at Florida so, technically, the Gators came out ahead.

The point is there are no sure bets. There are no slam dunks.

Everyone wants the next Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney, but those guys are rare commodities. And yet, a lot of programs churn through coaches every few years because they’re certain the next one is going to be that winner.

Based on the current crop of candidates, I’m not sure any of them are significantly more guru-like than Mullen, but I can see why Florida administrators got antsy. Stick with an unpopular coach for too long, and people start wondering if the folks in the executive offices aren’t part of the problem, too.

But you also don’t want to be that program that is forever chasing yesterday by always promising a new tomorrow.

Does that mean firing Mullen was a mistake? Well, you can make a strong argument that his spotty recruiting history would prevent him from ever returning Florida to prominence, but Mullen’s resume is still better than a lot of the coaches supposedly in the running to replace him.

I guess the true answer lies in the next step. Did UF dump Mullen simply because the noise had grown too loud too quickly, or did officials in Gainesville actually have a succession plan in place?

Did they already know that Luke Fickell was willing to leave Cincinnati? Had they already been assured that Kiffin had finally outgrown the frat house in Oxford? Or did the fact-finding begin once they realized they were being punked by a coach with a light saber in Missouri?

Florida has been down this road before and came away with consolation prizes. When Spurrier left after the 2001 season, the Gators chased a coach with a national championship ring (Bob Stoops) and a coach with two Super Bowl rings (Mike Shanahan) and was rebuffed by both.

They ended up with Ron Zook.

That doesn’t mean this search will end badly, too. It’s just a friendly reminder that chasing a great coach isn’t the same thing as finding a great coach.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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