Stricklin searching for sustained excellence in new coach

As the Gators’ season unraveled over the past six weeks, athletic director Scott Stricklin stood behind head coach Dan Mullen, who he hired away from Mississippi State in November 2017. The two of them had several conversations about improvements that need to be made and the plan for getting the program back on the right track.

However, after Saturday’s 24-23 overtime loss at Missouri – the Gators’ ninth loss in their last 11 games against Power Five competition – Stricklin woke up on Sunday morning believing that a change in leadership was needed. The Gators announced Mullen’s firing several hours later.

“I was fully supportive of him, but, once you get that feeling it’s time to do something different, you need to go ahead and do it,” Stricklin said. “I woke up this morning with that feeling, so we moved ahead.

“Dan did a lot of good things and won a lot of games here, and, in his short time as head coach, was part of record-setting offense, first-round draft picks, Heisman Trophy finalists, all those kinds of things. Dan did a good job in a lot of areas, but what we are seeing this year is kind of symptomatic of some things we’ve got to get cleaned up moving forward.”

Stricklin met with Mullen in his office on Sunday morning and informed him that he was going to be fired. Stricklin offered Mullen the chance to coach the regular season finale against Florida State, but Mullen declined by stating that he didn’t want to be a distraction for the players as they prepare to play a big rival.

“I just told him I felt like we needed to go a different direction for the Gators and our football program,” Stricklin said. “He understood. It was actually a very productive conversation.”

Stricklin and Mullen then informed the team at a 1:30 meeting, and interim head coach Greg Knox followed by outlining the plan for the week.

“Greg has served as an interim in the past and has worked with kids on both sides of the ball and is a well-liked figure in our building,” Stricklin said. “I think he’ll do a good job. We’ve got a veteran, experienced group of coaches, and they’re going to wrap around our kids and make sure that they’re in as good a position as possible to go out and compete and win a big game against an archrival this weekend.”

Stricklin will now begin the second football coaching search of his tenure at Florida.

Coaching changes have become commonplace for the program in recent years. Whoever the next coach is will be the Gators’ fourth head coach since 2014.

It’s fair to wonder whether the high expectations that fans have for the program have contributed to this instability. The Gators won three national championships in a 13-year span from 1996-2008. So, Gator Nation expects the team to compete for championships on an annual basis. When that doesn’t happen, things can spiral out of control quickly.

The two best coaches in school history, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, both resigned and eventually accepted jobs elsewhere. Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Mullen all enjoyed differing degrees of success early in their tenures before collapses in year three or year four.

Mullen took the Gators to New Year’s Six bowls in each of his first three years, and they won the SEC East and were in playoff contention for most of 2020. Still, criticism of Mullen started to mount after the three-game losing streak to end last season, and it ramped up to another level following the LSU loss this season.

By the end of each of their tenures, Muschamp, McElwain and Mullen all seemed burned out and overwhelmed by the outside noise.

Are the expectations so high at Florida that it prevents the head coach from performing to the very best of his abilities, and, if so, does that make the Florida job less attractive to potential candidates this time around?

Stricklin believes the answer to those questions is a resounding “No.”

In fact, the opposite is true – Stricklin wants a coach that expects the exact same things out of the program and has a clearly defined plan to get them there. He thinks the fact that you can win championships here makes this job extremely attractive.

“We want someone who has high expectations and big aspirations that match the University of Florida,” he said. “It’s a place that’s a top-5 university. It’s easily a top-5 athletic program. We want someone who wants to be a part of that and feels like they have a plan and want to achieve at a high, high level and do so for a long period of time.

“One thing that doesn’t get talked a lot about, we have incredible alignment among our university hierarchy, from the board of trustees to Dr. [Kent] Fuchs, myself, the University Athletic Association Board, Gator Boosters Board. You guys probably see things from other schools where trustees are trying to get involved in the decision-making process, and who’s really calling the shots? That doesn’t happen here at the University of Florida.

“So, you look at that alignment on top of the incredible resources, the incredible fan support, the facilities, the new facilities that are coming down the line, the conference we play in, where we live – a state of more than 21 million people that is one of the fertile recruiting grounds in the country – we should have high expectations.”

Recruiting seems to be a high priority among fans. The Gators have only signed three top-10 classes since 2014, and the 2022 class is shaping up to be perhaps the program’s worst since the invention of recruiting rankings.

While Stricklin declined to get into the specifics of what he’s looking for in the next coach – after all, he doesn’t want to tip his hand to the other big schools in the coaching market – he did mention some general qualities that he believes a successful head coach much possess, and recruiting is part of that equation.

“I think when you look at what makes a successful coach, there’s three main components,” he said. “One is their ability to lead a group, a team. One is their ability to put that team together, and the third is their ability to coach that team. When you look at recruiting, that’s a really important part of that second function, putting that team together. We want somebody that can attract the best staff to coach the best group of players and take advantage of all the incredible resources and advantages that are here at the University of Florida.

“[We have] an incredibly passionate fan base. Give young people a chance to come play in one of the great home-field advantages in all of college football in the Swamp. We’re opening a brand-new $85 million training center, the Heavener Training Center, here in a few months. There’s a lot of elements, a lot of pieces there that someone’s going to be able to come in and take advantage. We want someone who has a plan to maximize that.”

Stricklin said that the goal is to find someone who is capable of fielding a consistent winner. Muschamp went 11-2 and made the Sugar Bowl in 2012. McElwain won the East twice. Mullen won the East, nearly beat Alabama twice and produced a Heisman Trophy finalist. But they weren’t able to sustain it, which led to their departures. They need someone who can build a program, not just catch lightning in a bottle with one or two individual teams.

“You’ve got to put really good structure, culture in place in order to sustain at a high, high level over a long period of time,” he said. “That’s, going forward, what we’ve got to focus on.”

He said that they don’t have a timetable for making a hire but that the goal is to hire the right person as soon as possible.

Despite the ever-increasing financial costs that it takes to change coaching staffs – UF owes Mullen a $12 million buyout plus whatever it costs to buy out their next coach from his current school – Stricklin said that the University Athletic Association will use however much money and resources it takes to conduct this coaching search the right way. He wouldn’t rule out the possibility of hiring an outside search firm to assist in the process.

“I think you try to utilize all the resources available,” Stricklin said. “Whether it’s analytics, whether it’s results on the field, whether it is input from people who have other observations or may know some of the candidates. We’re going to look for a cultural fit. We’re going to look for somebody who believes in creating a championship experience with integrity. We’re going to look for someone who has a plan of how they can come in and use all of the incredible resources to him here at the University of Florida to put us in the best position to be successful.

“We’re going to put the resources necessary into making the right decision and getting the right person and the right structure around that person for us to be successful. We’re very blessed to be at a place that we do have some resources. I get it. The market is what the market is, and the University of Florida is obviously committed to being highly successful as Florida football.”

And with that, the Gators have embarked on their fourth coaching search in the last 11 years. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm.

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.