Five thoughts on the Mullen firing and the coaching search

After weeks of the program spiraling downward, athletic director Scott Stricklin finally pulled the trigger on Sunday, firing coach Dan Mullen.

Here are my five thoughts on the way Mullen’s tenure ended and who I would target as the next head coach.

1. The way the Gators lost to Missouri sealed Mullen’s fate.

If they had lost another 49-42 shootout, I think Mullen would still be the head coach through at least the Florida State game.

The offense had played well for most of the season despite heavy personnel losses from last year. So, I can see how Stricklin might’ve thought, “All we need to do is get the defense fixed, allow Mullen to work his usual magic with the quarterbacks, and we’ll be right back in championship contention next year.”

But only gaining 360 yards and scoring 23 points against one of the worst defenses in the SEC and some of Mullen’s questionable game management decisions completely killed that line of thinking.

It became very obvious to me during the Missouri game that there wasn’t anything Mullen could’ve done to fix this program quickly, and it looks like Stricklin felt similarly.

Mullen’s offensive prowess was the only thing that could’ve saved his job. So, once that side of the ball cost them the Missouri game, he was toast.

2. Mullen is a very, very good schematic coach and quarterback developer, but he’s not a great program builder.

He can call plays better than almost everyone else in college football and the NFL. He’s an offensive genius that any Power Five school would love to have as its offensive coordinator. And then, obviously, he didn’t send Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask to the NFL by accident.

If all his job consisted of was game-planning and coaching the quarterbacks, Mullen would’ve been one of the best coaches in UF history.

Unfortunately for him, though, there’s much more to being a head coach at a powerhouse like Florida than that.

You’ve got to recruit at a high enough level that your elite game-planning can work. You’ve got to instill discipline in your team so that they don’t keep making the same sloppy mistakes in every single game. You’ve got to be able to identify and address potential issues before they surface instead of waiting until after the damage has already been done to react.

You’ve got to be willing to adjust the way that you rotate your players at various positions to get your best players on the field more. You’ve got to be able to handle all of the outside criticism without letting it change your attitude or the way you do things.

Mullen wasn’t good at any of that stuff, and that’s what led to this disastrous season and his firing.

3. Mullen was their best coach since Urban Meyer, and it’s not particularly close.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen some comments on our message board about how Mullen was worse than Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain.

No, he wasn’t. I get that everybody’s angry and frustrated with the state of the program right now and there’s probably a recency bias involved, but can we please stop romanticizing the Muschamp and McElwain eras?

Not counting interim coaches, Mullen exits Florida with the fifth-best winning percentage in school history. His 49 overall wins are the seventh-most in school history.

Plus, Mullen got the Gators closer to the mountaintop than Muschamp or McElwain ever did. The Gators made the SEC Championship Game twice under McElwain, but that had more to do with the East being awful than it did McElwain being a good coach. They got blown out by Alabama both times. Under Mullen, the Gators came very close to beating Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Obviously, Mullen had a bunch of flaws and deserved to be fired, but let’s not lose sight of reality here.

4. Mullen didn’t have that killer instinct that you need at this level.

After the Missouri game, Mullen made comments about how they’ve lost seven straight one-score games and that they were just a few plays here and there away from the perception of the program being entirely different.

I think that’s a terrible way to look at things. One-score games are going to be streaky for every team, and they generally even out over time. So, instead of talking about trying to create better mental toughness and focus to win those tight games, how about you just kick the other team’s butt and bury them by halftime, especially when you’re playing a team that you’re better than like Missouri and Kentucky?

Then there were those passive decisions he made in the Missouri game, such as kicking a field goal on fourth-and-2 at the 16 and running the clock out instead of trying to get into field goal range at the end of regulation.

You can’t coach like you’re scared that something bad is going to happen. You’ve got to be aggressive and trust that your players are better than the other team’s players.

5. Billy Napier is my No. 1 choice.

Louisiana’s head coach has the complete package. He has a background on the offensive side of the ball, he’s a former quarterback, he has experience working for three different Power Five teams, and he’s considered an excellent recruiter.

He’s also just 42 years old and has never been a Power Five head coach before, so he’ll have that passion and fire to prove himself at this level. He spent four years as Alabama’s wide receivers coach, so he’s witnessed firsthand what greatness looks like. And yet, he’s developed an identity separate from Alabama from his time at Arizona State and Louisiana, so I don’t think he’s going to be another one of those Nick Saban assistants that ends up being a bust as a head coach.

Napier has posted a 38-12 record in his fourth season with the Ragin’ Cajuns, including just two losses since the start of 2020. They’ve won four straight division titles and are favored to win their second consecutive Sun Belt Championship.

Although money shouldn’t be a factor for UF, Napier is also one of their cheapest options available, as his buyout at Louisiana is only $3 million, which will help make up for the $12 million that they’ll have to pay Mullen.

There aren’t any guaranteed slam dunk hires – there really never are – but Napier is the closest thing to it in this cycle.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.