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What Caused the Florida Gators and Dan Mullen's Relationship to Unravel?

After such a promising start through the first three years in charge, what went wrong with Dan Mullen as the Florida Gators' head coach?

The Dan Mullen debacle at the University of Florida came to its abrupt end Sunday.

Just one year removed from an SEC Championship berth that got the Gators over the hump, the program he rebuilt came crumbling down in 2021.

Mullen's fall from grace was a monumental one, defined by more than his 2-9 record to Power Five opponents since falling to LSU at home last season.

The once-revered partnership grew distressing over a short period in the public eye. As a result, he finds himself unemployed while UF scours the open coaching market searching for his replacement.

That marks the question: What went wrong for Mullen at Florida?

Winning two national championships in 2006 and 2008 as offensive coordinator, the Urban Meyer protégé was deemed a savior in his return to Gainesville.

He temporarily restored the excellence that is Gators football, and he did so quickly after grabbing the reigns of a 4-7 football team from Jim McElwain before the 2018 season.

Taking the team to three straight New Year’s Six Bowl games, winning the first two, Mullen was well on his way to being regarded alongside Meyer and Steve Spurrier as all-time great Gators coaches.

All it would take was elevating the squad into playoff contention.

His expertise as an offensive play-caller rekindled the offensive fire that had been absent for nearly a decade. He showed competitiveness and vowed to reinstall the “Gator Standard” in a program he seemed to genuinely cherish.

And if we’re being candid, I believe he did cherish his opportunity to return to where his career as an offensive coordinator reached its pinnacle. Believe it or not, at one point, Mullen burned with passion for UF.

The relationship was healthy and prospering. Expectations were that Florida was well on its way to returning to their championship ways in the near future. Unfortunately for both sides, the relationship grew sour even faster than it developed.

The honeymoon stage in 2018 created intense feelings of a long-term marriage. Mullen restored Florida as a top 25 team in the country and claimed they were on the rise with a blowout victory over Michigan in the Peach Bowl.

The 2019 season reaffirmed that sentiment. The Gators won one more game in the regular season and beat Virginia in the Orange Bowl, albeit not as convincingly as their previous bowl game victory.

In 2020, the Gators declared their love for Mullen amid a historically efficacious season from his offense. Following that junior campaign with a contract extension, the two tied the knot in a move that ignored the early red flags of detrimental loyalty, recruiting becoming an afterthought, and a dwindling competitive fire.

Those alarms were set off by his refusal to move on from struggling staffers – namely defensive coordinator Todd Grantham – questionable effort in their season finale against Oklahoma and a slew of misses on the trail during his time as head coach.

Instead, when the offseason rolled around, athletic director Scott Stricklin and the Florida athletic department looked to the glaring positives on Mullen’s resume, rewarding him for making them nationally relevant again on the gridiron.

As a result, he signed a three-year extension in June, and his annual salary was raised to $7.6 million a year, making him the fifth-highest paid coach in the NCAA.

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Adapting to the personnel on his roster, Mullen unleashed a historic offensive attack in 2020. However, it was unlike the offense we’d grown accustomed to.

Heavily utilizing the pass given the elite-level playmakers at tight end, wide receiver and pro-style quarterback, Mullen made his case as an adaptable offensive guru that could garner success by tailoring it to the skillset of players.

He would set out to do so again with a vastly different unit in 2021, reverting to his old smash-mouth spread style.

The trajectory of the program was heading upward. Or so we thought.

The 2021 season exasperated the already evident issues faced by the program under Mullen’s tutelage. 

He showed contentment as the head coach at Florida, presumably satisfied with recent mediocre performances on Saturdays and long-term troubles on the recruiting trail. The effort that he showed – or lack thereof – oozed through the cracks and into the ranks of his players, creating the narrative that opposing teams could break their spirit because they “don’t play hard” to begin.

On top of that, Mullen showed little trust in the offensive signal-caller, whether it was Emory Jones or Anthony Richardson (an issue of its own), to make the explosive plays that the Gators reigned synonymous with in the last few years. 

His offense was stagnant and conservative, a sign that the damages were irreversible for the coach whose calling card was winning with offense, no matter the personnel he was given.

But, this wasn’t a group he took over with. He brought in the majority of players on the 2021 roster into the program yet failed to replicate his brilliance of past years with his own unit.

A blowout loss at the hands of South Carolina was a sign of the end, a game Florida scored a measly 17 points compared to SCAR’s 40. Then, a last-second, one-point overtime loss to Missouri, which contained a rare strong effort defensively, was the final nail in the coffin.

His botches at multiple levels created relational problems beyond repair, making divorce the only viable option.

His abilities as a pure coach are unquestioned. In fact, it may be difficult to replicate the same in-game production he was able to bring when performing at his best with the next head coach that takes over.

Developing impenetrable game plans against some of the nation’s top teams during his four years, Mullen will go down as one of the best in-game coaches in Florida history.

As a result, his departure was unforeseen, even in the early parts of the season. A two-point loss to Alabama suggested he was on the cusp of breaking out in his role if minor changes were made.

It’s rare for a regime to crumble as quickly as Mullen’s did at Florida.

However, that’s a hazard of the job when expected to perform at a high level, especially when the feeling of apathy swallows the desire and competitive fire that made him beloved by the Gators fan base.

The departure puts Florida in a familiar position, as the school now searches for its fourth head coach since 2010.

Mullen, meanwhile, sits waiting for his next job opportunity to arrive, likely one without the attachments of demanding expectations.

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