When Scott Stricklin started his search for the next head football coach of the Florida Gators he was determined to keep his circle tight. He warned of false information leaking out and wanted people he trusted around him.
That included an early conversation with Tim Tebow and something that the 30-year old said in his first conversation with Stricklin after McElwain was fired resonated.
“He said Scott it’s a great job and it’s a dream job but we have to be honest about what kind of job it is. The two most successful coaches in the school’s history have basically, they got burned out or there was a sense that they got burned out. We’ve got to be honest that it’s a hard job and it’s a challenging job,” Stricklin recalled of his conversation with Tebow. “You’ve gotta have somebody that has the right mindset. Tim says they’ve got to have a steady hand but nerves of steel.”
With that in mind Stricklin began the search. The Athletic Director who has been at Florida for just over a year and was making his first head football coaching hire knew he needed to get it right. They cast a wide net but, at a school like Florida, the people qualified for the job isn’t that deep.
“The fact of the matter is, when you look at really qualified guys for these jobs, it’s more like a puddle, and you start running out of names that can actually do these jobs because they are hard, complex jobs,” Stricklin said.
There was the initial interest in Chip Kelly. When Kelly’s name was floated out it took Gator Nation by storm. Social media and messages boards were flooded with intoxicated comments dreaming of what Kelly could do with Florida athletes. The fever reached critical levels when Stricklin, UF President Kent Fuchs and four members of the University Athletic Association, flew to New Hampshire to meet with Kelly in person.
Surely you wouldn’t bring the school president to meet with a coach unless you were already talking dollars and cents and close to a deal, right?
Before Kelly left Oregon for the NFL there was an issue were the NCAA alleged that Oregon paid a 7-on-7 coach coach $25,000 to steer players to Oregon and the school was sanctioned. Kelly, himself, was hit with a show clause penalty.
“We probably took a larger team of folks to that meeting than we normally would because there’s some unique circumstances in the past with that candidate that I felt like if it was going to have any chance of being someone we ended up with we needed Dr. Fuchs to have been face to face and some other things there. So that was a unique circumstance,” Stricklin explained.
Kelly to Florida didn’t pan out and Stricklin couldn’t get Tebow’s words out of his head.
The pressure of coaching in the SEC is immense. The pressure of coaching at a school with the prestige and expectations at Florida can be spine crushing. As Tebow said, the two most successful coaches in program history burned out despite their success.
Being from Mississippi and part of the team that hired Mullen at Mississippi State Stricklin thought about the perception, publically, which would naturally occur if he hired Mullen. He and his wife are also alumni of Mississippi State. Taking the most successful coach from his alma mater wouldn’t make his friends and family back home too happy.
Still Stricklin stuck to his criteria. Did Mullen check the boxes that he wanted in his first head football coaching hire?
“The only way I was going to hire Dan is if I thought he was unquestionably the best person. And it’s probably fair to say, not because of Dan but because of my connection to Mississippi State, I was hoping to find somebody I thought was better than Dan,” Stricklin said. “Again, that’s not because I don’t wan to work with Dan, or Dan’s not the perfect fit here. It’s because there’s a personal price for me to make this decision, with my family, and that’s going to be a challenge going forward. The only way I could rationalize that is I am paid to make the best decision for the University of Florida. I said at the press conference a few weeks ago, if you remember, I said ‘We’re going to hire the best person for Florida. We’re not going to do what’s best for me or anybody on staff. We’re going to do what’s best for Florida, and that’s what we eventually did.”
Stricklin first reached out to Mullen on Friday after Mullen’s Bulldogs final game of the regular season. The familiarity they had having worked with each other already allowed them to skip past he normal formalities. They talked briefly Friday and then again after Florida’s loss to Florida State the following day.
That’s when things started to heat up.
“All of a sudden, I pick up my phone and there’s Scott and he said — we spent some more time on the phone together,” Mullen said. “I said, “I would like to move this forward and get serious about it.”
Mullen, more than any coach not named Meyer or Spurrier, knows what will be expected of him. He’s lived through those expctations once before and, most importantly, he relishes them.
That much was evident with his emphatic Gator chomp seconds after peeking his head out of a private jet at Gainesville Regional Airport. It was evident when he agreed to leave his job of nine years at Mississippi State where his job security was probably second in the SEC to only Nick Saban. It was evident in his press conference.
“I’m thrilled to be here. I’m thrilled to be your coach. I’m thrilled to represent this university. I’m thrilled to represent all the student, the faculty, every Saturday on the football field. I’m thrilled to represent the fan base,” said Mullen. “I’m thrilled to represent the State of Florida as the premiere university in this state and all of these people in this state and the Gator Nation everywhere to be your football coach and to give you a team that you’re going to be proud of every single Saturday in the fall.”
That, ultimately is the most important thing. As Stricklin said the pool of coaches qualified to lead the Florida Gators is more pond than pool. Mullen is qualified. Was Kelly? Sure, but Mullen wants this. He wants the pressure. He wants the spotlight. He knows there will be criticisms for eight win seasons and maybe even nine win seasons. That’s ok. He’s going to be harder on himself than anyone else will because he genuinely wants the Florida Gators to win championships.
“You have to really want to be at the University of Florida to be the head coach at the University of Florida,” Stricklin said. “All the limelight and the notoriety and all the distractions that could come if you’re not paying attention, managing the right way. You’ve got to really want to be here and know what you’re getting into. I’m not sure every coach we talked to had the same zeal to step into that situation.”
That was the last box and the most important box that Mullen checked off for Stricklin and it should be the most important one for Gator fans as well.