GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The cynics who had been through more than a few introductory press conferences at Florida gathered around Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin on Monday afternoon. Dan Mullen had just spent nearly an hour re-introducing himself in the place where he once served as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator on two national title teams. Now Mullen was back after nine years at Mississippi State to take over Florida’s football program and—Stricklin hopes—bring it back to the level it reached the last time Mullen had a 352 area code.
“He didn’t mention he had a dog,” a reporter cracked.
“He does have a dog,” Stricklin replied. “His name is Heisman.”
It is important that Mullen omitted this information from his press conference because the last time Florida introduced a head football coach, Jim McElwain mentioned that his dog’s name was Clarabelle. In the same sentence, McElwain claimed he could teach Clarabelle to run his offense. The humans McElwain coached at Florida never ran the offense particularly well, which is one reason Mullen—who has taught Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald to run his offense—was standing at the front of the room with the cameras trained on him.
Mullen played the hits Monday. He told Tebow-at-Thanksgiving-dinner stories. He challenged Steve Spurrier to a round of golf. He looked at ease in a place he worked for four seasons. And while Mullen didn’t work with Stricklin at Florida, Stricklin, who came last year from Mississippi State, was Mullen’s boss in Starkville. Stricklin, a Mississippi State alum, understands the degree of difficulty at his alma mater. That’s why Mullen’s 69–46 (33–39 SEC) career record doesn’t bother Stricklin. Mullen always had the Bulldogs outpunching their weight class. If a coach can make the Gators outpunch their weight class, he can win national titles.
Mullen won’t need to waste much time learning the lay of the land. That’s good, because he has a huge job ahead. Florida’s roster needs upgrading, and high-schoolers can now sign letters of intent on Dec. 20. Mullen has to figure out how many of Florida’s current committed players will stick. He needs to decide how many quarterbacks he wants to sign. The Gators have a commitment from Matt Corral of Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High, but other schools are sniffing around him. Will Mullen sign Corral and another quarterback? Will another school flip Corral? Are there quarterbacks Mullen tried to recruit at Mississippi State who might be more willing to listen now that he’s at Florida?
Mullen also has to revamp Florida’s strength program. This might be the most critical area of concern for any new coach, but it’s especially important for Mullen because the Gators’ strength program was in shambles near the end of McElwain’s tenure. Some players were going off campus to work with former Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery, who certainly knows about speed. But he isn’t employed by the school, and he isn’t working with the football coaches. If multiple players from any of college football’s elite programs were paying for their own training off campus, it would immediately raise red flags about the players’ view of the quality of the in-house program. Mullen is expected to bring strength coach Nick Savage from Mississippi State, and judging by what he told players in his first meeting with them, they may be too tired to leave campus to work with anyone else. “I told them to rest up over the month of December,” Mullen said. “Because when they come back in January, it's probably going to be something they have never even experienced in their life before.”
Florida flew a contingent that included Stricklin, his lieutenants and school president Kent Fuchs to New Hampshire on Nov. 19 in attempt to woo former Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The group met with Kelly for several hours. Both sides enjoyed the meeting, but when the administrators got back on the plane, they felt pretty sure Kelly would go another direction. He eventually took the UCLA job. Florida also made inquiries about UCF coach Scott Frost, who likely will be offered the Nebraska job after his regular season ends Saturday. Mullen, whose season ended on Thanksgiving with an Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss, was watching football at his house in Starkville on Saturday when his phone rang. It was Stricklin, who was then-AD Greg Byrne’s top lieutenant when Mullen was hired in 2009 and who was Mullen’s boss from 2010–16. Stricklin wanted to know how Mullen felt about the Florida job. Mullen, who also had looked at Tennessee’s job, felt very good. The men resolved to talk again Sunday morning. When Mullen awoke Sunday, he already had a missed call from Stricklin. When he got Stricklin on the phone, the pair began hammering out a deal that would make Mullen’s old boss his new boss.
Mullen will receive a six-year deal worth $6 million a year. With that salary will come great expectations, but Mullen knows that the expectations at Florida wouldn’t change if he only made a dollar a year. The Gators expect national titles. Mullen learned that quickly when he came to Gainesville with Meyer. Mullen was savaged by the fan base during the 2005 season. The anger reached its peak following a 21–17 loss at LSU in which Florida failed to cross its own 30-yard line on four possessions in the final quarter. The performance drove Meyer to tears and drove Mullen from the field to the press box for future games. But instead of complaining about the expectations, the coaches created a rudimentary scheme that better fit their inherited players’ strengths during their bye week and used that offense to upset Georgia the following week.
Unlike McElwain, who seemed surprised Florida fans expected him to win the SEC and beat Florida State every year, Mullen walks into the job knowing exactly what everyone wants. He also has years of playing and recruiting against Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West that have further educated him about the expectations at elite SEC programs. “I discussed with everybody, and I understand it,” he said. “I've been a head coach in the Southeastern Conference now for nine years, and I understand the scrutiny that you're under here and the expectation of a fan base. It's a lot of places in this league. … To plug the [SEC] network, it just means more. It's a way of life. It does. It just means more. And people that haven't been involved might not understand that. But having been an assistant coach in this league for four years and a head coach in this league for nine years, I certainly understand.”
As good as Kelly was at Oregon, Mullen’s experience as a head coach in the SEC might make him a better fit at Florida. He understands the pressure. He understands how hard he must recruit. Because he’s worked at Florida, Mullen knows the phrase “Florida recruits itself” is a lie. Florida, Florida State, Miami, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and dozens of other schools scour the Sunshine State for players, and the coach who thinks his school recruits itself is destined for unemployment.
Mullen also might be less likely than his predecessors to complain about the resources at Florida. He worked there when the Gators didn’t have an indoor practice facility. Heck, they didn’t even have a front door. Meyer helped solicit donations to build a museum section onto Ben Hill Griffin Stadium so recruits could walk through the history of the program instead of going up a back stairwell to get to the coaches’ offices. Mullen, who just left an almost new football operations building behind at Mississippi State, will hear “yes” a lot more than Meyer did because in the past few years, Florida officials have realized they do need to try to compete with their SEC peers instead of hoping the sunshine would do all the selling.
Mullen will sell. He unearthed gems at Mississippi State. He identified Nick Fitzgerald as a potential star at quarterback before Fitzgerald had even started a game at quarterback for his high school. Mullen won’t have to dig as deep at Florida, but to win consistently, he’ll have to routinely beat Florida State, Alabama, Auburn and the rest of the heavyweights for players. Too often recently, Florida has found itself beating North Carolina, Arkansas and the like.
Mullen knows he’ll have to change that. In fact, he already knows everything he’ll have to do. There will be no surprises. All he has to do is compete for the SEC East title every year, the SEC title most years and win a national title or three. If he does that, everyone will be happy. If he doesn’t, they’ll have another one of those press conferences in a few years.