It’s the sign of a successful football program when other colleges raid your staff to find their next head coach. After producing two Southeastern Conference championships, one national championship and one Heisman Trophy winner in just four seasons at Florida, Urban Meyer said good-bye to one assistant coach Wednesday and could soon be saying good-bye to some others.
Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, whose first crossed paths with Meyer at Notre Dame as a graduate assistant and then followed him to Bowling Green, Utah and finally to Florida, will be introduced Thursday morning as the new head coach at SEC West Division rival Mississippi State.
The 36-year-old Mullen arrived in Starkville, Miss., late Wednesday afternoon with Mississippi State Athletic Director Greg Byrne, who concluded negotiations with his new head football coach Tuesday in Gainesville. Mullen gave Byrne his positive answer Wednesday morning and they flew to Starkville, where they were greeted by Bulldog fans.
“I love it! I love it!” Mullen exclaimed after hearing the cowbells ringing upon arrival at Bryan Field, according to Michael Wardlaw of Gator Country.com’s ESPN Insider fellow affiliate, BulldawgJunction.com. “We’re going to make sure everybody’s got one and they’re ringing ‘em as loud as possible every single game.
“I can’t wait to get going, get on the road and get guys who want to play for us and get this program back on top,” Mullen continued. “The talent in the state of Mississippi is unbelievable. We’re going to put a great product out there on the field.”
Mullen was exactly the kind of coach Byrne was seeking – a young offensive-minded coach who loves to recruit and knows the conference – to replace the SEC’s first African-American head football coach, Sylvester Croom, who resigned Nov. 29 following a 4-8 season. Croom, who was one of the first African-Americans to play at Alabama for coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, went 21-38 in five seasons in Starkville, winning SEC Coach of the Year honors in 2007 after leading the Bulldogs to an 8-5 season and a Liberty Bowl victory over UCF. But his teams struggled offensively.
“We feel like (Mullen’s) the right fit for our football program,” Byrne said.
There are strong signs, meanwhile, that Meyer’s defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who was an assistant coach at Notre Dame with Meyer, could be on a short list of candidates when and if UCF decides to jettison its ties with coach George O’Leary.
O’Leary is under fire after a 4-8 season which included the death of one player prior to the season and the collapse of another afterward during offseason. UCF President John Hitt is expected today to address what an investigation learned about the offseason collapses. UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble, a former player and graduate of Florida, has said he would not discuss O’Leary’s future until after the investigation. O’Leary, who guided the Knights to their first Conference USA championship in 2007, has eight years remaining on his contract that includes a $5 million buyout.
Two other members of Meyer’s staff – offensive line coach Steve Addazio and defensive line coach Dan McCarney – recently have been mentioned as possible candidates at two schools with openings: Addazio at Syracuse and McCarney at New Mexico. Former Florida and Illinois assistant Mike Locksley got the New Mexico job, while Syracuse is still interviewing candidates, including Skip Holtz of East Carolina, the son of Meyer’s former boss at Notre Dame, Lou Holtz.
This is not the kind of news which Florida fans want to hear this holiday season, particularly with the 12-1 Gators, winners of nine straight, less than a month away from playing 12-1 Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 8.
There is no word whether Mullen will help the Gators in their game against Oklahoma. After Florida named Meyer its head coach following the 2004 regular season to succeed the fired Ron Zook, Meyer was allowed to coach Utah in its game against Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. When Zook was named head coach at Illinois, Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley picked Strong to be the interim coach for the Gators’ Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl game in Atlanta against Miami. The Hurricanes won 27-10.
“It’s all too fresh,” Meyer said. “The most important thing is whatever gives the University of Florida and our players an opportunity to be successful on that night and I have not had a chance to evaluate that yet.”
A source has told Gator Country.com that Mullen would like to help the Gators against the Sooners, much as Bo Pelini coached the LSU defense last year in the Tigers’ BCS National Championship Game victory over Ohio State after being named the head coach at Nebraska. But the final decision rests with Mississippi State, according to the source.
Addazio and wide receivers assistant coach Billy Gonzales could be candidates to replace Mullen in the game Jan. 8 and next season.
Meyer, who was in south Florida Wednesday for a press conference with Sooners coach Bob Stoops, was sorry to see Mullen leave for the Bulldogs.
“A lot of people get in this profession and when you have head coaching opportunities, they’re very rare,” Meyer said. “A head coaching opportunity in the Southeastern Conference at a young age is a great honor. Tim (Tebow) had the same exact reaction that I did: Doggone it. But we wish you well.”
Tebow, who learned Wednesday he is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy which he won last season, and Mullen have been close since the 6-3, 240-pound enrolled in January 2006 after a standard career at Nease High School near Jacksonville.
“They are going to get a coach who likes to work, who will do a great job,” Tebow said. “They will have success because of the way he is.”
Mullen’s departure also throws into question whether Tebow will return for his final season in Gainesville or elect to enter the NFL Draft if he projected to be a first-round choice.