Updated: Dec 5, 2020
I’m ‘All in on Mullen.' Except Christmas lights, maybe.
Three games into Urban Meyer’s tenure at Florida, back in 2005, I told my radio broadcasting partner Brady Ackerman: “I’m all in on Urban Meyer.” He looked at me like I was nuts.
It took me three years to finally say this now, but: “I’m all in on Dan Mullen.”
Let the record show from the start I heartily endorsed Scott Stricklin’s hiring of Mullen. Thought it. Said it. Wrote it. I felt certain Mullen was the right hire at the right time – no divine wisdom here -- but it wasn’t hard to visualize. I probably underestimated him, as did most people. Now he’s 34 games into that deal and 28-6, a game away from clinching the SEC East.
“Did you just decide to go ‘all in’ after Coach Mullen won his 28th game and passed Coach Spurrier and Coach Meyer?” asked my fellow talk show host Shane Matthews, referring to the fact that Mullen’s 28th came one game earlier than the two legends. Well, yes and no.
Anytime you are in same sentence with Spurrier and Meyer it’s a good thing. Remember, though that Urban won a national championship in his second season at Florida and the HBC landed his first SEC title in his year two.
Still, very impressively, Mullen has brought national respect back to the UF program. Just how far he can go remains to be seen, but right now the wind beneath his wings has him ascending and the next corridor is Knoxville.
On the once-sacred ground where immortals like Spurrier and Meyer etched their legacies in forever, Mullen has evolved into the perfect descendant to inherit the crown jewels. Part Spurrier. Part Meyer. If Steve and Urban had a football clone together, it would definitely be Dan. And the only reason it has taken a moment to elevate his prospects is because of the difficulty of following in the footsteps of two legends. How could he ever match their feats?
Three years later, looking in the rearview mirror, Scott Stricklin must feel like he hit the football coaching lottery. At the same time, members of the Gator Nation are collectively breathing a huge sigh of relief that Florida wasn’t able to hire Chip Kelly. I will go to my grave believing he was first or second choice.
We know for sure the Gator brass made that stealth flight November 2017 (as first reported by sources on our show) to the northeast for a clandestine meeting with contract in hand with intention Kelly would sign it. He took the UCLA gig. A week after that Mullen signed a six-year, $36.6M contract with Florida.
Just so I’m not accused of being a bandwagon jumper – and please don’t mistake my belated-but-total endorsement for a kiss-up – the only difference now is I can see Mullen’s pathway for a championship. He will definitely win multiple SEC East titles, an SEC championship or two and be in the hunt for a national – maybe win one. If he stays. And lord knows Gator fans don’t want to go the Temp route again, like they did with Muschamp and McElwain. Not after the big tracks left by Spurrier and Meyer.
Look around, Gator fans. There’s smoke in Knoxville, TN, Columbia, S.C., Happy Valley, PA and Ann Arbor, MI where the dumpster fires are burning. And count your blessing. Mullen has carved out an amazing body of work in this challenging year where mere survival is worthy of a participation trophy.
That night in late November when my old radio colleague and former coach Max Howell introduced the idea that “the first phone call should be to Dan Mullen,” I knew he was right. But I didn’t realize HOW right.
On my nightly streaming Buddy Martin Show/podcast and in my GatorBait column, I have consistently defended Mullen against critics who constantly complained about Mullen’s “poor” recruiting, his choice of assistant coaches and, in general, whined that he’d never beat Georgia, let alone win a championship.
I remember a few nights in December 2017 when doomsayers were running amok, that Brenden Martin mandated the formation of the “Gator Nation Kingdom” as an act of sovereignty. (It now has more than 6,000 members.) Some of the downtroddens had been bemoaning that a pox was about to fall on the Gators’ house and would result in the demise of football as we know it in Gainesville. Instead, it proved to be a renaissance. Voices of optimism began to emerge.
Then one day we became “homers” on the show. So much so, others online sometimes tagged me and my compadre Franz Beard as “Sunshine Pumpers.” I find that term amusing, given my onetime reputation as hard-hitting columnist who didn’t always play nice. I sometimes fought hammer and tong with certain coaches, supported the “radical” thoughts of my friend Carlos Alvarez, was labeled a “liar” by a certain university president because I wrote UF was under NCAA investigation (it was) and might have once been considered an enemy of the state. Sunshine pumper? OK, I’ll take that as a badge of honor because I find it a lot more fun and interesting covering a team with a fighting chance of being in contention.
It has not been without hiccups. Naturally the emotional strain of a pandemic will take its toll. Football is already tough enough this time of the season when battle fatigue can set in, especially when you’re up against yet another SEC opponent every game. Aside from the obvious health concerns and some defensive deficiencies, plus the helter-skelter pace of rapidly changing routines at a moment’s notice, there is high expectation of being a coach where almost unreasonable demands are placed on a program. Mullen, his coaches and players have shown an amazing capacity for adaptability.
Among other hiccups have been the sideline optics of Mullen getting in the face of Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham over a call which allowed Kentucky a long gain for a first down. I’d stop short of saying it was a “meltdown,” and we know sideline spats are common among competitive people, but it looked ugly and quite contentious. They appeared to gotten pasta in 48 hours later, displaying impressive resiliency.
Later in their press conferences the following week, Mullen and Grantham both played it off as a routine tiff at the office, using Mullen’s bogus infraction for “premature Christmas decorations” as an excuse. If it weren’t for the untimely lapses that Grantham’s defense already was drawing fire about -- like sleepwalking into their position or failing to wrap-up tackles -- maybe it would have been funnier.
OK, with that out of the way, let me get to this point: We don’t always agree with Dan Mullen’s decisions. For instance, I think he could occasionally participate in the support of Kyle Trask as a very worthy Heisman Trophy contender, if nothing more than just mentioning his name in the same sentence of Tim Tebow or Danny Wuerffel – or even Mac Jones. Not stumping for him, just an awareness campaign.
I get it. He says he’s not a “pat-on-the-head guy.” That’s not Mullen’s style. I’d say that style has worked well. And for a guy who’s already admitted he was “all-in,” I will stop short of telling him how to run his business. But if he needs some advice on his Christmas lights, I’ll send my wife Joni over, because I am pretty sure she invented the Christmas Rulebook.