The two words that maybe best define the decade that was 2010-19 for Florida football are what if? In a roller coaster of a decade that saw the Gators go from 57-10 with two national championships from 2005-09 to a run through six coaches (if you count interims D.J. Durkin and Randy Shannon), it is impossible to look back without wondering what might have been.
Start with the first what if. What if Urban Meyer had taken medical advice and gone on a one-year sabbatical to get a grip on his health? Would the Gators have fared worse than the 8-5 they posted in 2010 with Steve Addazio running the program? And when Meyer returned to the helm, could he have reversed any damage to return the Gators to a perpetual reload and constant championship contention?
Of course, the next what if is would Meyer have remained at Florida beyond 2011 when the Ohio State job came open? After all, this is a man who cut his coaching teeth at Ohio State and had a portrait of Woody Hayes in his Haile Plantation home.
Then there is the what if regarding Dan Mullen. What would have happened to the Florida program if Jeremy Foley had gone after Mullen in 2010 when Meyer hung up his whistle? At that point, Mullen had two years of head coaching experience at Mississippi State, having pulled off a surprising 5-7 record in 2009 then an even more surprising 9-4 in 2010. Mullen had the direct connection to Meyer and Florida, serving as the offensive coordinator from 2005-08 and the quarterback coach for Heisman winner Tim Tebow. He knew the recruiting landscape in the state and quite a few of the players still on the UF roster were there when he was in Gainesville.
The rumor of the day was that Bob Stoops was ready to leave Oklahoma to take the Florida job, but for the third time – 2001 was the first when Steve Spurrier left for the NFL; the second was when Ron Zook was fired in 2004 although the hire of Meyer seemed to be a done deal – Stoops stayed at Oklahoma. Stoops would have been a home run hire, but he would have been in 2001 and 2004 as well. Mullen wouldn’t have been the sexiest of hires, but he had a track record, knew the state of Florida and the Southeastern Conference.
Instead, Foley elected to go with Will Muschamp, who had never been a head coach at any level. Muschamp had one really good season (2012, 11-2), but he also had a losing season (4-7 in 2013 that included a loss to D1AA Georgia Southern) and was gone in 2014.
Another opportunity for Mullen presented itself. By now, Mullen had gone to four consecutive bowl games (41-24 after that first season at MSU), which is unheard of in Starkville, had elevated the Bulldogs to a nearly monthlong run at #1 in the nation, and was a far more proven commodity than he was in 2011. The Stoops to Florida rumors persisted once again only to be silenced. Foley hired Jim McElwain, a former Alabama offensive coordinator who had rebuilt Colorado State and was 10-2 in 2014. McElwain, it turned out, did not fit in well with the Florida football culture and was a poor recruiter whose staff had problems establishing connections in the state. By the time his UF career cratered in 2017 with an unsubstantiated tale of death threats to him and his family, Foley was now the interim AD and Scott Stricklin was the new boss at Florida.
Stricklin made a well-publicized run at Chip Kelly, which raises one more what if. What if Kelly hadn’t used the Florida interest to jack up interest and money from UCLA? Gauging by Kelly’s two losing seasons at UCLA and his lack of recruiting, it seems probable he would have taken Florida to even greater depths.
When Kelly said no, Stricklin turned to Mullen, which was the perfect fit since Stricklin was the associate AD at Mississippi State when Mullen was hired there and then Mullen’s boss from 2010-16 when he left for UF. Mullen’s success at Florida – 21-5 in two seasons, two New Year’s Six bowl games, two top ten finishes – raises the question once again what if Mullen had been the head ball coach at UF from the time Meyer departed until now?
What we’ve seen is the ultimate quarterback guru who has resurrected the career of Feleipe Franks in 2018 and then transformed Kyle Franks from the penultimate bench warmer into a legitimate star in 2019.
We see the success of Mullen, the hope for the future and the string of what ifs that are in his wake and we wonder what might have been if only?