For Gators, Dan Mullen is a good solution who wants to be great

Florida hiring Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State on Sunday is less about big splashes and more about steady ripples.

Because he was at Florida, working directly with Tim Tebow, when the Gators won a couple of national championships, all the good feelings and all the great players from those golden days will come rippling back to Gainesville now.

STARKVILLE, MS – NOVEMBER 4: Dan Mullen, former head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, talks with Nick Fitzgerald during a game against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Starkville, Mississippi. On Sunday Mullen was announced as Florida’s new head coach. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

“Thrilled that #GatorNation gets a coach who accepts our Championship expectations!” is how Tebow put it in a tweet. Oh, and also “Congrats and welcome home.”

The Swamp hasn’t felt very much like home lately to the players from Urban Meyer’s title teams. It has become a place where Florida State comes to relax, where Missouri scores 42 points, where even Georgia Southern can get a win. Florida fans feel it, too, a disconnect with the last two Gator coaches and a dismantling of the program’s mystique.

Mullen, the offensive coordinator at Florida during the sweet spot of 2005 to 2008, is more familiar, more established, more certain to stir up some high-scoring fun than Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain were. There is danger it won’t work, just as there is danger in any major move like this, but Florida athletic director wasn’t getting any action anywhere else.

He couldn’t get Chip Kelly, but hey, Mullen is from New Hampshire, too.

He couldn’t get Scott Frost, but Frost could hardly say no to Nebraska, where his own homecoming eventually lies, and yes to somebody else.

So Gator fans will try to get used to this marriage in a couple of ways.

The older ones will try to believe in Mullen as a coach who was tough enough to last nine years in the SEC West, and one who should be able to bring the same high class of quarterbacks to Gainesville that he brought and developed in Starkville.

The younger ones will sputter a bit, noting that Mullen has never won anything bigger than a Gator Bowl as Mississippi State’s coach and demanding that he present his extreme makeover credentials no later than Sept. 29, 2018. That’s the day Florida visits Mississippi State, a day when Mullen either shows the new Gator program to be ahead of his old one or comes off as no great improvement.

Frost would have been a better compromise between the two groups and a stronger guarantee of drastic and unconventional change in the Gator playbook. Would have been nice to get a taste of that. A chip off the old Kelly block but without the jagged, arrogant edges.

Sunday showed, however, that no AD’s selection ever goes completely unpunished. Florida will take a little grumbling, maybe even a little yawning, over the shouting and protesting in the streets that was ignited by Tennessee’s choice of Greg Schiano, a deal that was sunk before it was signed.

Mullen, at least, knows he won’t get the quick hook from Stricklin, who once was his boss and supporter at Mississippi State. That alone helps Florida, which has forfeited the vital continuity of recruiting and player development with recent firings.

What helps the Gators more is Mullen’s ability to grow kids with good arms into quarterbacks with great instincts and solid leadership skills.

I don’t think even he can fix Feleipe Franks, but the next wave of highly-regarded prospects who arrive in the Swamp will know that Mullen had great success with Chris Leak and Tebow at Florida, with Alex Smith at Utah, and with Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State. They’ll know that and they’ll expect to happen for them.

That’s the start to revving up the Gators again, just as putrid quarterback play was the start of Florida’s drop into the pit of mediocrity, with the loss of basic offensive principles wringing the life out of the Gators’ great defensive traditions as well.

Will the turnaround be instantaneous? Of course not. Think of how far Alabama had sunk before Nick Saban took over, and how the Tide went 7-6 with a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first season there.

Will ever Gator fan rejoice at Mullen’s hiring simply because he helped bring two national titles to Florida? Of course not. You can tell that by the fact that a great cheer of celebration went up in the Swamp Saturday when the videoboard showed Ohio State trailing Michigan. That was a rebuke of Meyer, plain and simple.

Mullen didn’t leave Florida for supposed health reasons, however, and then experience a miracle recovery in time to coach at his real dream job.

Mullen did a great job at Florida and got an SEC head coaching opportunity out of it. Now he has an even rarer opportunity, leaving Mississippi State for greener pastures. Normally coaches wear out their welcome there and get fired. Normally coaches don’t show themselves to be any better than those who came to Starkville before them.

The Bulldogs are better off, though, because of Mullen’s organization and ingenuity and psychological stamina. He will need all of that and more at Florida, but the good thing is he fully understands what it means to be a Gators coach and is not frightened of the challenge.

So UCLA gets the big splash with Kelly. He would have been a pain for SEC opponents to deal with, but he didn’t want to coach Florida and soon enough would have been a pain for Stricklin and the Gators brass, too.

Chip, remember, is the guy who cut Tebow from the Philadelphia Eagles roster. Instead Florida gets the coach who Tebow will greet with a big old bear hug, whether it’s at Monday’s official press conference announcement or soon thereafter.

Until the wins start coming in, that’s the most genuine celebration that Florida could hope to inspire.