Note: This story is in editorial format and includes the opinion of Sports Illustrated-AllGators publisher Zach Goodall.
With "Black Monday" quickly approaching and jobs at the next level set to open up, the NFL's yearly head coaching carousel is bound to be an exciting one.
In fact, it's already spinning with wild rumors. Namely, former Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer being linked to the Jacksonville Jaguars anticipated head coach vacancy. If not Meyer, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport shared that Meyer's Ohio State replacement, Ryan Day, could also be in the running for Jacksonville.
In response to that news, former NFL scout and current radio host John Middlekauff shared that he had heard of NFL interest from Florida's current head coach, Dan Mullen. Specifically, with an eye on the New York Jets' expected job opening. Middlekauff's report itself has not been confirmed elsewhere, but ESPN also reported in December that Mullen could entertain, and garner, NFL interest.
Mullen keeping an ear open toward the NFL would make sense. He's been asked by media multiple times since late 2019 if he would ever consider a jump to the pros, and questions of that nature. He's tried to, but hasn't exactly turned down any intrigue.
"It's not something I've thought about. But if it's something, as opportunities present themselves, like everything in the world, you take things as they come and you visit them and you sit down and reflect where you're at in your life." - Dec. 29. 2020
“No, I haven’t talked to anybody from the NFL. But they’re like in the middle of their season still. I’m just happy to be the head coach for the Florida Gators right now, getting ready to go to Atlanta and play for an SEC championship. That’s what we’ve worked really hard for. I’m going to really just enjoy that.” - Dec. 5, 2020
“When I said to someone who asked the other day about the NFL and I still haven’t had a second to even consider it and what it would entail, right? I don’t know. I know what I have here. I love being here. I think we’re building a championship program here. At some point in my life would it be something that if I wrote it all down, sat it down to consider it that it would happen? But it’s nothing I’ve even though of. I know how it works here. I like it here." - Dec. 16, 2019
The quote from 2019 indicated that Mullen could, perhaps, one day, be appealed to an NFL coaching job. But at that point, Florida was entering the Orange Bowl with momentum and Mullen was earning a lot of praise for rebuilding the program. And other than maybe the Dallas Cowboys, the five head coach openings after the 2019 NFL season weren't all that attractive, either.
Now, Florida is entering the offseason riding a disheartening three-game losing streak with a lot of roster turnover to deal with and defensive issues galore. He's losing a Heisman finalist at quarterback in Kyle Trask, and another top ten Heisman vote-getter at tight end in Kyle Pitts, to the pros, along with several other important contributors.
Mullen's "but if it's something, as opportunities present themselves, like everything in the world, you take things as they come," and "but they’re like in the middle of their season still," comments from last month, suddenly, sound a bit different.
It sounds as if the NFL would catch his attention if it came calling.
And while the season didn't end the way Mullen or the Florida fanbase wanted it to, that doesn't mean that NFL teams won't be interested in his services.
Sure, Mullen's Gators ended the year on a bad note. They also unseated Georgia in the SEC East and were six points away from unseating Alabama as the SEC Champion. UF appeared in its third consecutive New Year's Six Bowl, one for every year Mullen has been with the program. His record with Florida is 29-9; 2-1 in bowl games (career: 98-55, 7-3 in bowl games). Two Heisman candidates within his offense kind of speaks for itself.
There is precedent for a coach with Mullen's level of qualifications, and even less, making the jump as well. Kliff Kingsbury was fired after six seasons and a 35-40 record as Texas Tech's head coach in late 2018. Less than two months later, Kingsbury was named the Arizona Cardinals head coach, at age 39.
Matt Rhule had a 47-43 record as a college head coach. He established Temple as a legitimate football program in the mid-2010s before taking the same job at a crumbling Baylor program. After a 1-11 first season with the Bears, Rhule went 7-6 in 2018 and 11-1 in 2019, advancing to the Big 12 Championship and a New Year's Six Bowl.
Those are great accomplishments, but Rhule didn't actually win a ton of football games in seven years. Baylor lost both of those championship games in 2019. Rhule would take the Carolina Panthers' head coaching job less than a week after the Sugar Bowl loss.
Entering this offseason, there are more jobs expected to be available, including a few that would be enticing for an offensive-minded coach like Mullen. The Jaguars will have the No. 1 pick and are nearly guaranteed to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but will have their choice of signal-caller. The Jets will pick No. 2 and can take the next best QB, such as Justin Fields, who Mullen recruited immediately after taking the Florida job in 2017.
The Houston Texans, who have already fired head coach Bill O'Brien, have star quarterback Deshaun Watson, a true dual-threat who would mesh well with Dan Mullen's offensive philosophies, under contract through 2025. The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions are less appealing with aging quarterbacks tied down for the moment, but could be worth a look as well if the franchises looked to start their operations from scratch. Both teams fired their head coaches and general managers. And who knows if any other jobs could open up?
Another factor worth considering: Under Mullen, Florida hasn't recruited to the caliber that should be able to, and three years in, not much has improved in that department. Florida owns the nation's No. 11 recruiting class in 2021 (247Sports composite), a year removed from standing at No. 9.
The NFL would remove recruiting entirely from Mullen's plate, which is surely something that could catch his eye, especially after he was publicly penalized for recruiting violations in December.
Of course, this could all be for naught. Mullen is under contract with Florida for three more years, and could even use the NFL's marvel as a negotiating tool for a contract extension.
But by today's standards, Mullen is qualified for an NFL head coaching job. He's an offensive guru with a long history of developing good quarterbacks, which the NFL has prioritized in head coaching searches as the game has revolutionized. He's also won a lot of football games. He's got precedent too, and he's never flat-out said that he would prefer to remain a college coach over moving up into the league.
It takes two to tango. An NFL team would have to show and/or reciprocate an interest before Mullen could attempt such a move.
But if one were to, I wouldn't be surprised if he chose to hear it out.