Dan Mullen predicts a national title for Gators but doesn’t say when

Dan Mullen made a very public promise the other day. The Florida Gators are going to win a national championship in football with him as head coach, just like the two they won when he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator in 2006 and 2008.

At halftime of Florida’s Saturday afternoon basketball win over Baylor, Mullen took the microphone to brag about the school’s standards for excellence, highlighted by the reigning

FILE – In this Nov. 27, 2017, file photo, Dan Mullen, the new head football coach at the University of Florida, is introduced during a news conference in Gainesville, Fla.(Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner via AP, File)

national championship baseball team, and then, with voice rising and arms flailing, he added “On the football field, that standard is not just SEC but national championships. That’s what we promise we’re going to bring back to you here in the Swamp in Gainesville and put the Gators back on top as the most dominating team in the United States of America.”

Now it’s recruiting season and all, a time when the sales pitch never stops and the salesmen sometimes get carried away, but there’s really no reason for Mullen to hold back.

The Florida fan base was spoiled long ago by the bold promises Steve Spurrier made, and the success he had in keeping so many of them.

At his introductory press conference on Dec. 31, 1989, Spurrier said there was no reason that Florida shouldn’t take control of the Georgia series, which had been pretty much of a disaster in the previous two decades. That came true, and so did the previously unimaginable reality of Florida winning its first SEC title, and then stringing a bunch of them together.

Just prior to his first game as Gators coach, Spurrier wrote a letter to be published in the student newspaper, saying “We trail FSU and Miami heading in the 1990’s. We have the resources to catch and pass them and that is our target.” That also happened when the Gators won the 1996 national title.

At SEC media days, Florida was predicted by sportswriters to finish seventh in the league in 1990. In addition, there were no offensive players from Florida selected to the preseason All-SEC team. Spurrier guaranteed that would change by season’s end, and it did, with Shane Matthews as the highlight. Fifth on Florida’s quarterback depth chart in the summer, Matthews earned SEC Player of the Year honors that year and the next as the operator of Spurrier’s outlandish Fun ‘N Gun offense.

Of course, Spurrier said a lot of other things during his 12 seasons at Florida and infuriated a lot of people in the process. These are just a few memories of what he did and how he acted before coaching his first Gator game.

That’s where we find Mullen now. He doesn’t have his quarterback problem solved right off the bat any more than Spurrier did when he took this job. He doesn’t have a lot of momentum from the previous season, either, with the Gators coming off a 4-7 faceplant. Might as well say what people want to hear, though.

In short, like always, Florida has the resources to catch and pass everybody, and if Mullen doesn’t do it or at least come close, he won’t make it to end of that six-year contract.

It’s the same rock that Willie Taggart is pushing up the hill at FSU, and Jimbo Fisher is pushing at Texas A&M, and the one that Mark Richt continues to push at Miami. Oh, and let’s not forget Josh Heupel at UCF. That sounds like a sin of omission to many these days.

More power to any coach with the courage and the credibility to try.

And one day, when Nick Saban retires at Alabama, it will be a lot easier for all of them to reach that ultimate standard.

[Who knew Hoffman was bound for Cooperstown when Marlins traded him?]

[Only accomplishment remaining for LeBron James is player-coach]

[Eagles coach Pederson once saved Shula’s bacon as Dolphins’ QB]

 

 

 

Mullen and Gators need to join SEC’s parade of true freshman quarterbacks

If Dan Mullen doesn’t start Emory Jones at quarterback next season, the Florida Gators hired the wrong coach.

That’s because freshmen are all the rage in college football these days. No more waiting around to get the system completely down. These big, strong, smart kids are having systems built around them, improvisations and mistakes included.

Former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen gives the scoreboard in the closing seconds of the team’s 31-28 loss to Mississippi on Nov. 23, 2017. Three days later he was hired to coach the Florida Gators. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Is this any way to run a major college program?

Well, Nick Saban went 14-1 at Alabama in 2016 with true freshman Jalen Hurts. On Monday night he benched Hurts at halftime and got just enough from Tua Tagovailoa, another true freshman, to win the 2017 national championship over Georgia and Kirby Smart’s true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm.

Now comes word from FAU coach Lane Kiffin that Tagovailoa probably would have transferred if he hadn’t gotten into that title game. That’s insider knowledge from Alabama’s former playcaller, as announced on Dan Patrick’s national radio show.

What’s more, the Seattle Times is reporting that Jacob Eason, a former freshman starter at Georgia, is expected to transfer to Washington rather than sit the bench behind Fromm.

Young people are impatient by nature, of course. They want to play. They want to know that the promises they heard during recruiting were genuine, and that they won’t be left out when all the high-profile signees start stacking up at quarterback.

More important to this discussion, Mullen needs to shake things up at Florida with a bold approach that has nothing in common with the cautious offenses that Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain rolled out before him.

If Jones, the nation’s No. 4 dual-threat prospect, was good enough to get offers from Alabama and Ohio State and FSU, he’s good enough to start for the Gators against Charleston Southern on Sept. 1.

After all, Florida made a coaching change because 4-7 doesn’t work around there. Mullen was the choice because he develops dual-threat quarterbacks into big winners. Jones was Mullen’s choice in his first round of Gator recruiting because the top target of the former Florida staff, Matt Corral, is more of a pro-style quarterback.

Add it all up and there’s no reason for the Gators to look toward anyone but Jones, who as a January enrollee is already on hand and ready to dive into offseason workouts and spring practice.

Feleipe Franks is brawny and can run but his decision-making is spotty and often too slow. It figures that McElwain would have played any of the other underclassmen last year if they were ready, if only to save his own job. If this isn’t the time for a fresh look at a freshman quarterback, when will it ever be?

The need is not so urgent for Mark Richt at Miami. He’s got a returning starter in Malik Rosier who has flaws but also has wins over Notre Dame and Virginia Tech and the honor of clinching the program’s first ACC Coastal Division title. Still, N’Kosi Perry spent his freshman season watching from the sidelines last season and Jarren Williams, the highlight of a great early signing period for UM, may prove to be better than both of them if given a chance.

It’s a risk playing freshmen at quarterback, but a waste to keep the best ones idle.

Most have forgotten this, but freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity football or basketball until the NCAA approved the idea in 1972. The old Big Eight Conference voted against it at the time but in 1985 one of its members, Oklahoma, turned to true freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway when Troy Aikman broke a leg in an October game against Miami.

Holieway, a great option quarterback, led the Sooners the rest of the season, helping Barry Switzer to the last of his three national titles.

[Somehow, the latest national title in Bama’s dynastic run came as a shock]

[Richt next task is to surpass his Season 2 highlights at Georgia and UM]

[$10 million sure didn’t buy Dolphins much with Jay Cutler]

Before Mark Richt became available, Miami interviewed Greg Schiano and Dan Mullen, too

Miami Hurricanes administrators can sit back and grin, satisfied that they’ve got the right football coach in Mark Richt.

In just his second season at the school, Richt has Miami in Saturday night’s ACC Championship game against defending national champion Clemson, and a win there should lead to a spot in the College Football Playoff field.

Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano (center) with Mike Boireau(left) and Damione Lewis (right) after a 1999 practice. Staff photo by Allen Eyestone, Palm Beach Post.

Could it have gone this well with any other coach available to at the end of the 2015 season? Impossible to know, but Richt was not the only candidate who got serious consideration.

Greg Schiano interviewed with Miami back then. The opportunity came at a time in his life when the former UM defensive coordinator would have given anything to be the boss in Coral Gables. Schiano was between jobs, having been fired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. He was volunteering as a high school coach, as a matter of fact, at Tampa Berkeley Prep.

There was reason to believe that something would come of it, too, since former UM star Jonathan Vilma, who played for Schiano, was a member of the six-person advisory staff that athletic Blake James put together to assist in the search process.

It’s a matter of timing in these things, though. Earlier, when Larry Coker got fired at Miami, the Hurricanes were turned away by Schiano. That was in 2006, when he was building something of his own at Rutgers, and formally asked to have his name removed from Miami’s list of candidates.

Lately, Schiano’s name was turned toxic when Tennessee pulled back from a decision to hire him because of an ugly social media reaction, buoyed by campus protests.

The advertised reason for the uproar was an unsubstantiated narrative that the coach somehow ignored or condoned Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation crimes while the two were assistants at Penn State. More likely a ton of Vols fans just thought they could do better than Schiano and coalesced around a convenient rationale to scare Tennessee administrators away from what had seemed a fairly straightforward hire of a well-respected coach.

So who else did Miami interview in November and December of 2015 before Richt got the job?

Dan Mullen, freshly introduced as Florida’s new coach, talked with James and his search staff. At that time he was 54-35 in seven seasons at Mississippi State. Had he gotten the Miami job, he would have been just as enthusiastic about flashing the “U” hand signal as he was about doing the Gator Chomp in Gainesville on Monday.

Butch Davis also interviewed with Miami before the Richt hire. He had been out of coaching for a couple of years and was eager to a second stint as head coach of the Hurricanes. These days Butch is coaching at FIU and waiting to see which minor bowl assignment his 7-4 Golden Panthers will get.

All questions were answered, and quickly, when Georgia fired Richt on Nov. 30, 2015. Four days later he was announced as Miami’s coach.

No need to be smug when one of these frantic coach searches works out. For every athletic director who nails it there are 10 who regret ever being put in the position to choose, and scores who fear the moment when they will be out there scrambling to find the right man again.

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

[Because hiring Chip Kelly wasn’t easy for Florida, nothing else would have been]

[Hurricanes finally bring out the beast in antiseptic Hard Rock Stadium]

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.

 

 

 

First order of business on the Gator coach search is finding a guy who’s not afraid to give it a try

For years now I have been clinging to the same philosophy when it comes to coach searches at Florida.

You don’t get a guy who has no SEC experience to step into a pressure cooker like the Gators job. He needs to know the region and its recruiting rhythms. Needs to have been a big winner as a head coach already. Needs to have a ton of confidence and the ability to snatch up and develop a championship quarterback or two or three.

ANNAPOLIS, MD- OCTOBER 21: Head coach Scott Frost of the UCF Knights stands with his players during the play of the Navy Midshipmen fight song following the Knights 31-21 win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on October 21, 2017. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

So when the Gators hired Urban Meyer, I had major doubts about going with a flavor-of-the-month from the old Mountain West. (Wrong about that)

And when the Gators hired Will Muschamp, I felt pretty good about it based on SEC roots and recruiting power and was willing to overlook the lack of head coaching experience. (Wrong about that, too)

And when the Gators hired Jim McElwain, I was somewhat ambivalent but satisfied that at least with a reputation for building a quarterback at Colorado State he probably could do it again. (Wrong, wrong, always wrong)

So what’s the proper combo for 2017? The only right answer now is whatever makes fans and boosters happy in the moment because they’re just about ready to shred their season tickets right now.

The Gator program has jettisoned too much of its cachet with this constant coaching churn. Whoever gets the job now will be lucky to keep it for three years. McElwain couldn’t, and he won the SEC East title in each of his first two seasons there.

I’d probably be wrong, under the circumstances, to eliminate Scott Frost as a candidate because he is winning big in the American Athletic Conference and hasn’t even been doing that for long. (Florida wouldn’t want anything to do with playing Central Florida right now or anytime soon).

Probably wrong about crossing off Dan Mullen, too, just because he got rolled by Georgia and Auburn this year and is about to get rolled by Alabama, too.

Probably wrong about doubting Willie Taggart for being 5-5 in his first year at Oregon, or Mike Norvell for being at little ol’ Memphis, or Matt Campbell for pulling off a few flashy upsets in the Big 12 but being 9-12 at Iowa State overall.

The only thing that might feel just right, at least at this very moment, is Justin Fuente, but Miami just slowed his progress at Virginia Tech with a thorough whipping of the Hokies on Saturday night.

The whole thing will have to be wrapped up, one way or the other, by Dec. 10 or so. Got to get the next recruiting class coming in. Got to find a guy who is willing to do more than just play Florida for a bigger contract at his current job. Got to prove to Gator boosters that the program didn’t peter out the day Tim Tebow left.

Whatever happens, the reaction column I write can’t possibly be as strong and as certain as they used to be. Nothing about Florida is certain anymore, including the idea that any ambitious young coach would die to be there and to stay there for years and years to come.

That may be true again one day, but for now, with even UAB a major threat to stick it to the Gators in a few weeks before a half-empty stadium, what’s happening at Florida may actually be enough to scare some pretty good candidates off.