Opinion: Dan Mullen's tenure at Florida has reached crossroads after lopsided loss to South Carolina
Before he became the coach at Florida, Dan Mullen spent nine years at Mississippi State — and it wasn't for lack of trying to get out sooner.
Year after year, Mullen would work miracles in Starkville, even getting the Bulldogs to No. 1 for a time in 2014. He raised the standard of the program from hoping to reach the postseason to expecting it every year to being disappointed when Mississippi State didn't get into one of the good bowl games. And yet, year after year, Mullen couldn't get much of a sniff on the coaching carousel. Why?
Well, part of it is his personality. Mullen isn't a bad guy, but he's not everyone’s cup of tea. Even in a profession full of control freaks and massive egos, he was perceived to be on the extreme end of the spectrum. Job interviews didn't go that well. There were questions about how he'd handle a bigger stage in a highly pressurized environment. He was thought of as a very good talent evaluator, but not a dynamic recruiter who could connect with people in their living rooms.
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When Mullen finally landed the big job that took him out of Mississippi State, it's not a huge surprise that someone he knew well — athletics director Scott Stricklin, who also made the move from Starkville to Gainesville — decided he was worth the trouble.
But now, as Mullen careens through a disastrous fourth season at Florida, all the flaws people worried about are coming to the forefront.
Florida isn't 4-5 right now after a 40-17 loss to South Carolina because Mullen is a bad coach. Most of the evidence in his career suggests the exact opposite. But this does feel like a crossroads moment for Florida because Mullen, in fact, might not actually be a good fit for the job he has.
At Florida, you can't just out-evaluate teams and expect to win national titles. You can't let your most important rival Georgia get so far ahead of you in recruiting that it doesn't even feel like your roster is in the same talent ballpark. And when you get asked about those key issues, you can't dismiss it with a "next question" sneer and expect it to play well with a furious fan base.
Though Florida fans have been turning on Mullen all season since the loss at Kentucky on Oct. 2, the floodgates are now wide open after the debacle in South Carolina. Mullen said after the game that a flu bug swept through the locker room this week, knocking a bunch of players out of practice. But that's not going to work as an excuse when you put up a non-competitive effort against a South Carolina team with a first-year coach that had been planted firmly at the bottom of the SEC this season.
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One snapshot of this disaster: Trailing 23-10 near the end of the first half, Mullen sent his offense out on its own 19-yard line with less than a minute to go and decided to let it fly and try to score. Instead, quarterback Emory Jones fumbled and South Carolina scooped up the ball for a touchdown. Any hopes of a comeback were gone right then.
This is now a trend for Mullen. Florida has lost eight of its past 10 games against Power Five opponents. And the formerly unthinkable — that Mullen might actually get fired this season — now seems like it has to be on the table.
Will Muschamp went 4-8 at Florida in 2013, was given another year and got fired after going 6-5. Jim McElwain went to back-to-back SEC championship games in 2015 and 2016 and was dismissed the next year after seven games.
Those are the standards at Florida. You don't get a bunch of years to figure stuff out. Losing this many games in this short of a time is a cause for major alarms.
If Mullen gets another year, will staff changes be good enough to fix this? We’ll see. But fan bases and administrations typically have a lot more patience with coaches that they like.
Mullen has never made himself particularly likable or cared that much about smoothing out his rough edges. That’s why it took him so long to get a job like Florida in the first place. The attraction with him is all about results. What happens, though, when the results start going the wrong direction? We’re about to find out.