If coaches have an expiration date, Dan Mullen may have just extended his for ‘along, long time.’


BY: BUDDY MARTIN

I’ve been around coaches all my life -- the majority of the last century. I’ve always found members of the profession mostly well-meaning, generous, bright, fun-loving, intelligent, giving, committed people. For the moment, we’ll sidestep the phony, egocentric, under-handed, cheatin’, hypocritical fakers/takers that we’ve all known. You know who I’m talking about, right? Well, meanwhile I’m getting a little concerned about the good ones. Because in addition to them fading away, so many seem on a collision course with self-inflicted pain and possible self-destruction. And while I’m not going to label them all as disasters, I’ve seen my share of coaching expirations and expulsions. Volatility comes with the profession today. Max pressure accompanies the mega-salary. There are no gold watches. Bear Bryant doesn’t live here anymore. The poster boy for modern coaches is Lane Kiffin, who just took his fifth head coaching job in 12 years at age 44. Steve Spurrier didn’t land the Florida job until he was 45. I take no joy in the site of a Mayflower van outside the home of an assistant coach or head coach packing for the next destination. And I can never forget the night I was attending a goodbye party for Florida assistants when one of them picked up a photo of a player on his piano and began weeping at the thought of not being able to coach him anymore. In recent years I have witnessed it from an up-close vantage point. It was while I was putting the finishing touches on writing Steve Spurrier’s autobiography, “Head Ball Coach,” that I learned he was stepping down at South Carolina. One day he went to his office, couldn’t remember the combination to something and decided he had reached his “expiration date,” as he called it. There were, of course, other extenuating circumstance -- like going 6-5 and nearly losing to his first non-Power Five opponent. But he knew it was time to go, even though he would take a mulligan for a year with the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football. Bobby Stoops was willing to walk away from huge dollars at Oklahoma over mostly personal reasons. And he was weary of recruiting teenagers. Urban Meyer’s meltdown at Florida caused him to step away, then come back, then resign from a program that, despite setbacks, was still on point to win more championships. I had just finished writing his biography. Nerves and exhaustion brought him to the mat, but in two years he was back up on the horse in Columbus, about to win another national championship. Until he wasn’t. All that did was make him the most desirable candidate for every job that came open. I was asked almost every week this season if Meyer was going to Southern Cal. And I couldn’t answer if Meyer would ever coach football again. I dunno, the Dallas Cowboys? There seems to be an abundance of jobs and paydays available. So let’s not have a pity party for these guys. Upon further review, we are not so much killing our coaches but maybe they are killing themselves. Some are falling by the wayside. Some are hanging on. And some are flourishing. Which brings to mind another reason for the coaching churn. Money. It gives them freedom to move about, to take a sabbatical, come back, retire and unretire. So far in 2019, 14 coaches have been replaced, some of their own doing. The other day, the highly regarded Chris Petersen resigned from Washington for personal reasons with no intentions of coaching again. All the signs of burnout were there. He admitted he had lost his love for the game. “It becomes a lot of frustration and anxiety and stress. And some of the excitement and positivity and optimism can be pushed away, and that's never a way to lead your life," Petersen said. Who will be the next Meyer or Petersen? And how tough is it for a guy to step aside from the profession he loves when he’s getting millions just to show up? And now this rush of new talent. Drinkwitz. Pittman. Lake. Never heard of them? Neither had I until they became head coaches of Power Five teams this week – two of them in the SEC. And so it also occurred to me: What happens when we run out of good coaches? That, of course, is a rhetorical question, but you get the idea. There are no more Belichicks, Sabans or even Mullens coming through that front door. Right now, Scott Stricklin is in Fat City at Florida. He hired the right guy two years ago and has a good chance of keeping him a while – unless, of course, Jerry Jones decides he wants Dan Mullen to be Dak Prescott’s head coach. Think about it: Though they got jobbed with a No. 9 ranking by the Selection Committee and low-balled with an Orange Bowl opponent in Virginia, Mullen’s team has a shot at winning a New Year’s Six bowl game and winding up in the Top 5-6 at season’s end. And Stricklin is cashing a big-time check after the SEC takes its chunk. No wonder the Gator AD looked so happy and sounded so giddy last week. We all know the story how Stricklin was torn about hiring Mullen away from Mississippi State, his old employer, after being turned down by Scott Frost and Chip Kelly. “No way Stricklin will take him from his old employer,” a UF employee assured me in late November 2017. Until he did. “Everything works out for a reason the way it’s supposed to,” Stricklin said in an Orlando Sentinel story by Edgar Thompson. “I’m really grateful that Dan’s at the University of Florida, and I’m grateful on a personal level that I get to work with him again.” Stricklin went on to ballyhoo the new $85 million James W. “Bill” Heavener Football Training Center set to open following the 2021 season and talked about upgrading the schedule with home-and-home series with Power Five opponents. “I think Dan’s going to be the head coach of the Florida Gators for a long time,” Stricklin said. And then Stricklin began to feel really, really good about the future at the University of Florida. Because he’s got his man. Maybe, as he says, “for a long, long time.”

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