Dan Mullen has successfully led the Florida Gators out of the dark ages and into a new era in three seasons as head coach.
With three years of relatively consistent Top-10 play in the books, it is easy to forget the pair of four-win seasons with mediocrity sprinkled in between that took place before he took over.
But one question seems to still remain: Has Mullen reached his ceiling at Florida?
In this reporter’s mind, the answer is no. Or, maybe it is yes. That really depends on his willingness to make the changes necessary to take the step from good to great.
Of course, this all becomes a moot point should Mullen take an NFL job. But for now, it is safe to assume he will be the one to lead the Gators out of the tunnel in 2021.
1. Leave the buddy system behind, go get some recruiters
Mullen is a great football coach, but it seems he is an even greater friend. What a friend he must be to risk his own future and the success of his team for the sake of loyalty.
Coaches of top-tier programs around the country did not get there by retaining friends despite subpar performance. They got there by knowing when to cut ties.
Alabama and Nick Saban seemingly hire new coordinators on both sides of the ball every year, and last time I checked, they are doing all right. No, Florida is not Alabama and Dan Mullen is not Nick Saban, but this proves that continuity among assistant coaches is not needed.
What is needed is coaches who can clean up on the recruiting trail. It is well documented that recruiting is not Mullen’s favorite part of the job, and it doesn’t have to be with a strong staff to support him.
The few on staff right now are not enough. Until he is willing to do whatever it takes to bring on more recruiters, Florida’s roster will continue to lag behind SEC rivals.
This is not to say Mullen needs to go on a firing spree, but sometimes even things that worked in the past get stale. A few changes could be all the Gators need to freshen things up.
2. Clean up the public image
Whether Mullen coaches at Florida next season or somewhere in the NFL, he might need to sit down and take a few PR lessons.
Postgame press conferences tend to go unnoticed, but Mullen put himself in position to be heavily scrutinized several times this season.
The media is often blamed for trying to “catch” coaches, and often times that criticism is deserved. The media is not perfect, and neither are coaches, but the ones making millions of dollars in this scenario are expected to maintain composure.
When Mullen expressed his frustration with Texas A&M’s apparent attendance violation following the loss to the Aggies, his “pack the Swamp” comment did not go over well. In the middle of a pandemic, those words were not taken lightly.
Dressing up as Darth Vader for his postgame presser despite the brawl that took place at halftime of the Missouri game three weeks later probably wasn’t the greatest choice either, but that one can be overlooked.
Acting clueless in regard to the infamous shoe toss after the LSU loss didn’t do him any favors, but again, turn a blind eye.
His comments following the 55-20 beatdown from Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl were by far the most concerning from a football standpoint. Without quoting him directly, Mullen essentially said that the game did not matter much and that is the way Florida treated it.
Bowl games do not carry the weight they used to (even New Year’s Six games), and the Gators were down a number of top players, but making excuses for coming into a game underprepared effectively made Mullen and Florida the laughing stock of the sports world.
Every coach is going to make inadvisable comments at some point, but things got a little out of hand for Mullen this season. And it is much harder to brush it off when the team is losing.
3. Stop trying to outsmart everyone on the field
I am not a football coach. Dan Mullen has forgotten more about football than I will ever know. But I know a guy trying to outsmart himself and everyone else when I see one.
The same can be said about Todd Grantham on defense, but this is about Mullen.
Mullen is a master play caller. He is rightfully credited for being one of the best in the game. However, he appears to go away from what is working at times to try to catch opponents sleeping.
He looks like a genius when it works, but not so much when it doesn’t.
For example, running Kyle Trask with Emory Jones twiddling his thumbs on the sideline or trying to force the run after marching down the field with an unmatched passing game. Of course, the run has to come into play for any offense to be successful, but it stalled drives in the process on a few occasions this season.
Along the same lines of overthinking the play calling, under thinking clock management proved costly to Florida in certain situations. None more memorable than the horrific blunder in the final minutes of the SEC Championship Game.
After failing to take enough time off the clock before scoring late in the first half, the Gators took far too much time to score while mismanaging the clock late in the second half.
For reasons unknown, Mullen burned his second timeout before attempting the two-point conversion that brought the game within six points in the final minutes. With just one timeout remaining and 2:07 on the clock, even the perfect defensive stand the Gators made did not leave enough time for a realistic scoring drive.
Mullen admitted to his mistakes following the game, but those are the lapses championship-winning coaches cannot afford to have.
To wrap this all up, Mullen resurrected this team from perpetual mediocrity. Maybe that is all he has to offer and someone else will have to lead Florida to the playoff and ultimately a chance to compete for a national title.
But I tend to believe that if he wants to stick around for the long haul, he has the ability to make the Gators contenders once again.
The current system in place is not quite enough, though, or Florida would have already taken that next step. Or, at least come closer to taking it.
It is on Mullen to make a few small changes moving forward for the good of the program.