The state of Florida football: What’s gone wrong and how it can be fixed

Dan Mullen has been fired at Florida, and another big job is now open. Where did things go wrong for the Gators? And how can they return to their national-championship-contending ways? Our experts break it all down

What was the biggest reason for Dan Mullen’s downfall?

Alex Scarborough: Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin put it best about what was missing: consistency. Like his predecessors Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, Mullen had some success, coming within a touchdown of knocking off Alabama in the SEC championship game last season. But creating the kind of program that could sustain high-level success proved elusive. As soon as Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney left, the bottom fell out. And that all goes back to recruiting. It’s an open secret in the SEC that, when compared to his conference brethren, Mullen just isn’t that tenacious of a recruiter. It was that way at Mississippi State, where it was accepted, but expectations changed dramatically the minute he returned to Gainesville. Claiming top-10 classes each year from 2019 to 2021 was nice, except that every year Florida finished behind its top competition in the SEC: Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. The current 2022 class ranking is 23rd. That’s just not good enough, and ultimately it cost Mullen his job. Because when the product on the field started slipping, he had nothing to point to, no obvious influx of talent on the way, that could stabilize the program or even threaten to challenge Georgia’s supremacy in the East.

Chris Low: Recruiting, or lack thereof, is the obvious reason. Florida missed out on too many elite players, especially when you compare the way the Gators have recruited the past few years to what Alabama and Georgia have done on the recruiting trail. It’s not like Florida was devoid of talent. It’s more that Mullen took on a laissez-faire type of attitude about recruiting with some of the things he said publicly, and that grated on administrators, boosters and fans at Florida. Mullen has always been one of those guys who was a bit unconventional and would get himself into trouble with some of his ill-advised comments. Those things have a way of coming back on you when the bottom falls out the way it did this season for Florida. Ultimately, Mullen’s undoing was the way his team performed down the stretch this season. The Gators just didn’t look real enthused about playing, a telltale sign that a coach has lost his team.

Adam Rittenberg: Mullen isn’t the easiest guy to have in charge of a program, but Florida could look past some of his personality quirks as long as he won and produced incredible offenses. Trask’s progression showed why Mullen got the Florida job and why Mullen will keep getting chances to run college programs, if he wants them. But two things started to leak out about Mullen: He didn’t love recruiting, and he wanted to get to the NFL. That doesn’t help when trying to compete with Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and others on the recruiting trail. The state of Florida is as vulnerable as it has been in quite some time, with Florida State way down, Miami meandering and UCF not in the Top 25. Florida had a great opportunity to take full advantage on the recruiting trail. Instead, the talent level went the other way. The speed in which things fell apart for Mullen is truly stunning.

Andrea Adelson: Let me take you back to a foggy night in Gainesville nearly one year ago, when Florida ranked No. 6 in the country and its long-shot College Football Playoff hopes were still alive. Depleted LSU waltzed into the Swamp and came away with a 37-34 win after Marco Wilson threw his shoe — resulting in a 15-yard penalty that set up the winning field goal. Ever since the shoe toss, Florida is 2-8 against Power 5 opponents. Now, I am not saying the shoe toss changed everything, but something within that program has not been the same since that LSU game. First of all, Mullen proved to be too loyal to some of his assistants, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Secondly, and honestly what makes it even worse, is that Mullen failed to build on his early accomplishments with his very own players. Quarterback Emory Jones was the handpicked QB of the future and waited his turn to start. He was supposed to deliver the type of consistency that Mullen promised. When Florida narrowly lost to Alabama in September, I was on the postgame Zoom when Mullen and his players said they wanted another chance at the Crimson Tide. Little did anyone know that an unprecedented implosion was about to happen, and Mullen could do little to stop it. He made the situation worse with his failure to accept accountability and also his demeanor. He very clearly lost the team, but it also looked like he lost himself in the process.

Mark Schlabach: Not only did Florida lose to Georgia by 27 points, but the Gators are also getting their tails handed to them by the Bulldogs in recruiting. Smart and his staff are among the best recruiters in the country, and while the talent gap might have narrowed with Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts last season, it was only temporary and is now as wide as the Suwannee River. Smart has flipped a couple of the Gators’ high-profile committed players in recent weeks, and he’s on his way to another top-three recruiting class. Florida’s class for 2022 is currently ranked No. 23 in the FBS, behind teams like South Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia Tech. Mullen might be one of the best offensive playcallers in the country, but if he doesn’t have similar talent on the field, it’s not going to matter. To not have a top-10 class in talent-rich Florida is inexcusable, especially at a time when Florida State and Miami are struggling. Additionally, Mullen has an abrasive personality, which rubbed some people in the administration the wrong way, and it caught up with him in the end.

What is the single most important thing Florida needs to find in its next coach?

Scarborough: A tenacious recruiter is a must, but that’s too obvious. The Gators had a great recruiter before. His name was Will Muschamp, and that didn’t work out. Nor does it make sense to say Florida must go after an offensive- or defensive-minded head coach. Again, Muschamp was one of the best defensive coordinators in college football, and he was fired. Mullen is one of the best offensive playcallers in college football — a fact that Stricklin said during a news conference announcing his firing. That should tell you something. It should tell you that what Florida needs is someone who sees the big picture, who can rebuild recruiting relationships, reestablish Gainesville as a destination and then understand what to do with all those four- and five-star recruits once they arrive. They need a program-builder who has a clear vision for talent acquisition (see: the transfer portal in addition to high school recruiting) and development, as well as every other step along the way. It’s a lot to ask, but Florida is asking for a lot when it says it wants to contend for championships year in and year out.

Low: Some in Gator Nation would tell you it has to be a dogged recruiter. Others would say somebody who can come in and provide a steadying presence, while others would tell you that in this age of dizzying offensive numbers that it has to be an offensive guru. The truth is that the Head Ball Coach, aka Steve Spurrier, ain’t walking back through that door, at least as the Gators’ head coach. But finding someone like him who checks all of the different boxes would be ideal, as in an offensive-minded coach whose teams are balanced and consistently score points. A coach who’s going to put together a staff of assistant coaches committed to developing players and recruiting players. A coach who’s comfortable doing all of the different things that it takes to manage a program that perennially resides in the spotlight. A coach who wakes up every day driven to beat Alabama and Georgia (on the field and the recruiting trail) and remains hungry no matter how many times the Gators go to the SEC championship game or play in big bowl games.

Rittenberg: A ravenous recruiter who can compete with Smart, Saban, Jimbo Fisher and others who recruit arguably the nation’s top state for talent. Smart was right when he recently said, “There’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting. I don’t care who you are.” This is especially true in the SEC. Florida never will be a developmental program, even if player development was Mullen’s biggest strength as a coach. The Gators need a coach who will focus on recruiting year-round, even if he’s not quite as strong with in-game coaching elements. Florida State is gradually making strides under Mike Norvell, a strong recruiter throughout his career. FSU currently has ESPN’s No. 15 class for the 2022 cycle. Still, a top-end recruiter in Gainesville could truly capitalize right now. Florida has the resources to attract top assistants, but it must prioritize recruiting after Mullen didn’t do enough in the end.

Adelson: The recruiting part is obvious, but there was also a clear disconnect between Mullen and his players, who looked as if they would rather be anywhere but the football field, starting with the Kentucky game. Let’s not get it twisted here. Florida is not devoid of talent. The Gators have signed solid recruiting classes under Mullen. But the issue for me is that many of the players this season have regressed, and there has been not one key development on the offensive side of the ball as a reliable option — when the Gators knew full well that was a priority headed into the year. Mullen’s mismanagement at the quarterback position remains one of the biggest mistakes he made all season, and it may have cost him his locker room. So yes, obviously recruiting is a priority, but Florida also needs a coach who can connect with his players — who can instill belief and hope and optimism and confidence that he and his staff have their best interests in mind. So much of coaching is building a winning culture. It might start with recruiting, but ultimately the players on the roster are responsible for the direction that takes. And it all starts with the man in charge.

Schlabach: Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. The Gators are about to have their fifth different coach since 2010, and Stricklin has to get this hire right. The Gators need to target someone who is familiar with recruiting the state of Florida, but also someone who can attract a staff of young, energetic coaches to compete with staffs at Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Texas A&M. Mullen didn’t particularly like recruiting, and a few of his key assistant coaches didn’t love doing it, either. Florida was behind the rest of the SEC in facilities for quite a while, but that’s no longer an excuse with upgrades coming next year. There’s no excuse for the program to take a nosedive like it did.

Who would you hire for the next coach at Florida?

Rittenberg: I would check with Bob Stoops first, and if he says no, I would move on to Mario Cristobal, Billy Napier and Luke Fickell. Cristobal brings an incredible combination of recruiting chops and local ties as a Miami native. He also would emphasize a physical style, built around the line of scrimmage, and he has a good history with hiring coordinators. Napier seems more than ready to lead an SEC program and also has strong regional ties as a Georgia native who attended college in South Carolina and started his coaching career there. He has worked under both Saban and Dabo Swinney and brings the combination of pedal-down recruiter/offensive mind that Florida typically craves. Fickell’s background is on defense, but that shouldn’t stop Florida from pursuing him. He has been a strong recruiter throughout his career, and not just in and around his native Ohio. He also worked under former Florida coach Urban Meyer and would immediately instill a brand of toughness that seemed to be lacking at times for the Gators.

Scarborough: I agree with Adam that Stoops would get my first call. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t blink if I heard Stricklin called his brother, Mark Stoops, who has done great things at Kentucky. He has shown the ability to build a program, which is exactly what Florida needs. But the guy I’d really look long and hard at is Billy Napier. I understand the hesitancy of some who say that it’s too soon, that Florida is too big a job for a Group of 5 coach who is only in his fourth season as a head coach. But I’ve spent time with Napier before. He’s different. His résumé includes time as an assistant under both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban. Where else are you going to find that? He’s young and has a history of fielding quality offenses, but he’s got a lot of that CEO mentality in him. He sees the big picture and is obsessed with the details, asking his staff at Louisiana why they don’t list heights down to the quarter-inch. He could have jumped at other opportunities, seeking more money and more prestige in the Power 5, and he has stayed put. That says something to me about patience and pragmatism. But most important: he’s won. While his résumé as a head coach might be thin compared to others, the fact that he has won four straight division championships and posted three consecutive double-digit-win seasons speaks volumes about his ability.

Low: The fantasy coach thing is always a lot of fun, but rarely jibes with reality. Bob Stoops is certainly worth a call, even though it’s hard to see him jumping back into college football in the world of 24/7 recruiting and the transfer portal. Mark Stoops has worked wonders at Kentucky and consistently developed players who weren’t five-star prospects. Lane Kiffin’s offense would be a great fit, but I don’t see Scott Stricklin hiring Kiffin. Billy Napier has been Mr. Patient. He has turned down several SEC head-coaching opportunities and has done a terrific job at Louisiana. He has worked for Nick Saban and for Dabo Swinney. He’s an offensive guy who loves to recruit and has the energy and blueprint to add to the Gators’ championship collection. Napier seems like the most likely choice.

Schlabach: If Bob Stoops says no, I’m calling Lane Kiffin. It’s scary to think of what he might be able to do with the talent that was on Florida teams coached by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Kiffin is about to lead the Rebels to a 10-win season — which is about as rare as Ole Miss losing the party — and he might have already hit his ceiling there. He loves South Florida, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s involved in the Miami search if Manny Diaz is fired. Stricklin would be sticking his neck out a bit by taking a chance on Kiffin, given his off-field conduct in the past, but he’s one of the most innovative offensive minds in the country and could assemble a staff to compete with Alabama and Georgia in recruiting.

Adelson: Do you know why Kiffin wears a visor on the sideline? STEVE SPURRIER. Is that enough? I agree with Mark that Stricklin is under an inordinate amount of pressure to get this hire right because he has come under fire recently — not only for giving Mullen an extension but for the inexplicable way he handled misconduct allegations in the women’s basketball program. But he needs to try to bring the fan base together, and Billy Napier is not going to be a guy who is going to get the fans fired up. Mark Stoops probably won’t, either. But Kiffin will, and among the Gators fans I know, he is right at the top of their lists. Yes, he does have some red flags in his background, but he has not gotten himself into off-field trouble in recent years and seems to have learned from past transgressions. He’s got the visor, he’s got the innovative offensive mind, and he’s got the SEC recruiting background. Stricklin has to take a chance here.

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