No one would have guessed back in August that both Florida and Florida State would be replacing their head coaches at year’s end. And yet, Dan Mullen and Willie Taggart are now the head coaches on the two sides of the UF-FSU rivalry.
It has happened once before that the teams got new coaches in the same year. In 1960, Ray Graves took over in Gainesville while Bill Peterson went to Tallahassee. They faced each other ten times, with Graves going 7-2-1 before he retired.
Though both are major figures in each school’s history and Florida Sports Hall of Fame members, their series is not remembered like a Bo versus Woody kind of matchup is. FSU was still a young program trying to establish itself, while Florida was decades away from even its first conference title. Though Graves’s Gators and Peterson’s Seminoles finished ranked in the Coaches Poll a combined seven times between 1960 and 1969, it never happened in the same year.
Mullen versus Taggart figures to be a much bigger deal for a number of reasons.
The most obvious factor is that the two programs have much higher profiles now than they did back in the ’60s. Both have won three national championships, and each fan base believes, not entirely without reason, that its team should be in contention for its respective conference title just about every year.
The circumstances of the two coaches’ hires will certainly play into it as well considering the processes didn’t happen concurrently.
Florida got to go first, having fired Jim McElwain in early November. The closest thing we’ll have for a while to an official story of what happened next is Pat Dooley’s chronicle in the Gainesville Sun.
According to that account, Scott Stricklin’s initial top two candidates were Mullen and Scott Frost. Chip Kelly then came into the picture when one of his people contacted UF. After a rather public flirtation with Florida, Kelly decided the west coast would fit him better than the fishbowl of Gainesville.
Frost never showed as much interest in Florida as it did of him. The main reason is that he was in contact with Nebraska earlier than was publicly reported at the time. An account from ESPN’s Mitch Sherman reveals that Frost first met with his alma mater two days before the famous flight that included UF President Fuchs to visit Kelly in New Hampshire. Not wanting to wait out the AAC title game for a coach who didn’t seem high on UF — and concerned that Tennessee might swoop in and hire his other top guy first — Stricklin locked up Mullen the evening after Florida’s final football game.
Nowhere in Dooley’s story does the name “Willie Taggart” appear. There were various reports and rumors about UF being interested in him, but it would appear that Taggart was never a top candidate.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M throwing an ungodly amount of guaranteed money Jimbo Fisher’s way then gave FSU the opportunity to find a new coach. With far less time to work with, the school acted quickly. It went out and hired Taggart in just a few days, though media reports had the school doing its homework on him before Fisher officially fled.
The fact that Florida State hired someone that Florida never considered to be a top tier candidate raises the rivalry’s stakes. If Taggart ends up outperforming Mullen, there will be a rightfully large amount of second guessing regarding Stricklin’s process. Taggart’s resume and ties to the state of Florida were all well known.
Furthermore, there is a different kind of story that could be told about the hires.
Mullen is a throwback to glory days for Florida, though as I pointed out, he generated legitimate glory days at Mississippi State in the meantime. Still, Bruce Feldman has mentioned a few times that Mullen interviewed for bigger jobs but failed to land them, including Miami twice. If someone wanted to, they could craft a story about Florida reaching for a guy who other power programs have thought about but ultimately not wanted. Stricklin’s competition for Mullen’s services this year was Tennessee, and its rollicking disaster of a coaching search doesn’t inspire confidence in that competition.
Meanwhile, Taggart is a riser who now has been hired as head coach by four different programs. The place he’s coming from, Oregon, has a much higher prestige level than Mississippi State does. Taggart’s job hopping has kept him from proving something over the long term at a single school. However, it also sends a signal about him being a desired commodity in a way that Mullen trying and failing to get out of Starkville for years does not.
To be clear, Mullen proved something of value by building and sustaining success for so long at MSU. In my judgment, that combined with his history at UF and excitement about having the job make him about as good a hire as could be made this year. It’s especially true once it was clear that Kelly and Frost — who have their own upsides and downsides — were off the board.
However, it will always be true that Florida could’ve made a big run at Taggart but didn’t. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes; maybe Taggart’s people discretely told UF that he wasn’t interested for some reason (such as him growing up an FSU fan and the early rumblings of Fisher possibly departing). I would need confirmation from legit sources to believe that, though, considering how quickly his FSU deal came together.
Unless that confirmation appears, I’ll have to believe that, on the way to getting Mullen, Florida looked at and then took a pass on the guy Florida State eventually hired. While the fates of UF and FSU coaches are always linked in a certain way, Mullen and Taggart are now in a position in the rivalry that no two coaches have ever been in before.