I'll be honest, he wasn't my first choice. And very few Gator fans or Gator media members had coach Dan Mullen as their top choice for Florida's new coach, too.
Remember when Chip Kelly was on everybody's mind? What about Scott Frost? Dare I remind everyone when Willie Taggart was a name that people tossed around?
To me, and the vibe I got from everyone else around this program, was that Mullen was the fallback option. He was the primary candidate for a job that Florida fans view as inferior, like a Tennessee. But the former offensive coordinator? Coming back to be the head man? Be honest, he was probably your second choice.
The reason he was your second choice, like he was mine, was I felt he was the low-ceiling guy. I knew that a Mullen-coached team would never be god-awful like FSU or Tennessee are right now. I knew you were always good for 7-8 wins with him wearing the visor on your sidelines.
However, there were a few things that I didn't know.
I didn't know that he could add more than 1,000 yards to quarterback Feleipe Franks passing total in one season, going from throwing 1,438 yards in 2017 to 2,547 in 2018. I didn't know that Mullen could transform Franks's touchdown-to-interception ratio from nine touchdowns, eight interceptions to 24 touchdowns, six interceptions.
I also did not know that even when Franks suffered a dislocated ankle against Kentucky, he could have backup Kyle Trask step in and play even better.
And just as important as those, I didn't realize his ability to hire a staff.
I mean where do we start? Offensive line coach John Hevesy arrived at Florida with Mullen in charge of fixing a poor 2017 offensive line. Now the right tackle of that squad is an NFL starter one year after Hevesy coached him in Jawaan Taylor.
The Gators had a notoriously bad strength and conditioning program under former head coach Jim McElwain. Now? UF has arguably the best program in the country under strength coach Nick Savage. Look at freshman offensive lineman Ethan White. White came to Gainesville in the spring at 390 pounds. Now? he has lost close to 60 pounds and is a huge piece for the future of this line.
What about defensive coordinator Todd Grantham? To me, this is where Mullen separates himself from another coach that gave UF some early success to enjoy in Will Muschamp. I stand by to this day that Muschamp is a good football coach. He is also an elite recruiter.
But at Florida, he never hired an offensive coordinator that was even halfway competent, and it cost him his job. Mullen is an offensive guy, so it is crucial that he hires a really effective defensive coordinator, and he has one that had the Cincinnati Bengals calling him last season trying to get him to coach their defense.
Notice that you are at this point of the story and I have not said a word about recruiting. Yes, recruiting is a top priority in college football. Yes, Mullen has to recruit at least marginally better to take the program to where everyone thinks it can go as a title contender. No, it is not the most important aspect of a coach. No, it is not what athletic directors should look for during a coaching search.
Look three hours west to Tallahassee. If you recalculate last year's class to account for prospects UF lost, and look at the year before, Taggart has out-recruited Mullen. That is, at least according to sites like 247 and Rivals.
However, the results on the field are staggering. Mullen has the Gators at such a better place than FSU it is borderline unbelievable. Taggart may be one or two more bad games from losing his job, while Florida is making plans to keep Mullen in Gainesville long term.
This is all to say that, A.D.'s need to look at structure first. Recruiting matters in your coaching search, but before looking into it, before even sniffing the recruiting conversation at all, ask yourself this:
What type of program does he run? What are his assistants like? What have his former players thought of him? What has he meant to programs he has been at and what do the programs mean to him?
If you watched Mullen's return to Mississippi State last season, you saw the emotion between himself and his former players. If you pay close attention to the videos that Gators football puts out on social media, you've seen a clip of him after his first spring game back in the Swamp shocked that players didn't know the fight song.
Get you a coach that makes every player in the locker room know the fight song by heart. Get you a coach that recruits not just talent, but scheme and locker room fit. Get you a Dan Mullen.