Florida’s journey to a football coaching hire

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Florida football coach Dan Mullen speaks Monday at his introductory news conference at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer]

One week ago, Florida hired the 27th football coach in school history in Dan Mullen. The hiring came four weeks after a news conference to announce the departure of coach Jim McElwain immediately. What follows is the UF path to this hire based on interviews with multiple people.

The day before had been disruptive, to say the least. Any time there is a coaching change at a major Power Five school in the middle of the season, it can feel out of control even when control has been established.

But on Monday, Oct. 30 — a day later — it was one of those beautiful Gainesville mornings and there was work to be done. It was time for the search to begin in earnest as the tide went out on the emotional uncoupling with the head coach. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin had a mental list of who might be a candidate for the suddenly vacant Florida football job, but nothing set in stone.

On that Monday after Jim McElwain and UF parted ways, it was time to start chiseling out a serious list.

Stricklin met with his top lieutenants at the University Athletic Association — executive associate athletic directors Laird Veatch, Lynda Tealer, Mike Hill and senior associate AD Steve McClain — to discuss the possible targets.

Names came up and some were dismissed. By the end of the meeting, there were two names that were at the top of a short list — Dan Mullen and UCF’s Scott Frost.

Some of the other potential candidates had buyouts that made them less attractive than they normally would be. Matt Campbell at Iowa State had a $9 million buyout. Justin Fuente, the Virginia Tech coach, has a $6 million buyout and might be reluctant to leave after only two years with the Hokies.

Stricklin spoke with several former UF players — Tim Tebow, Danny Wuerffel, Kevin Carter, Steve Spurrier, Jesse Palmer and Chris Doering among them — to get their input on what kind of coach would be right for the Gators.

The following day, agents began to pepper UF with calls. One of them was intriguing. A representative of Chip Kelly called to say the former Oregon and NFL coach was interested.

Initially, Kelly had been crossed off the list because of his show-cause penalty from the NCAA. But after making calls to a handful of people, Florida thought it might be a possibility.

One of them was Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who spoke highly of Kelly. Florida also checked with several people who were involved in the Oregon case with the NCAA and were assured that the issues were more about overseeing the program rather than any actual violations.

On Thursday, Nov. 2, the UAA brain trust met again and Stricklin announced that Kelly was back in the picture. At that point, Florida had three coaches in mind as serious candidates — Mullen, Kelly and Frost.

Had Stricklin not had special ties to Starkville, Miss., it would have been a one-man race and Mullen would have been the target. But leaving his alma mater behind had been tough enough. Reaching in to swipe the best coach in Mississippi State history would be brutal for people he cares about.

And there was this — Kelly was especially inviting because Florida could engage with him before the season was over because he wasn’t coaching.

On Nov. 6, after daily discussions with Kelly via phone, Stricklin, Tealer and Veatch took a commercial flight from Orlando to Boston, rented a car and drove to Portsmouth, N.H. The next morning they met with Kelly for five hours.

They found him fascinating, but there was time to continue the process because no working coaches could be contacted.

After more telephone conversations, six UF officials, including president Dr. Kent Fuchs, took a private plane Nov. 19 from Ocala to Portsmouth. They knew this flight would probably be tracked and joked about whether or not there would be media waiting upon their return (there was).

Dr. Fuchs was on the trip because of the NCAA issues. If Kelly decided a couple of days later he was willing to take the job, Florida wanted to already have the meeting between the school president and Kelly taken place.

Still, at the end of the visit with no agreement reached despite erroneous Internet reports, Florida’s contingent returned home and continued to do its homework on Mullen and Frost.

On Tuesday, Kelly called to say he had decided that Florida’s fish bowl was not for him. A few days later, he decided to become the next coach at UCLA, describing it as “the best fit.”

Florida turned its attention to the other two candidates, but another name had popped up. A successful Power Five head coach had let it be known through a third party that he might be interested (according to multiple reports it was Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State). He and Stricklin had several phone conversations, but Stricklin could never get the feeling that the interest was legitimate.

A representative for Frost had reached out to Florida, but UF was concerned about two things — 1. Frost might want to wait to see what Nebraska — his alma mater — was going to do; 2. Frost only had two years as a head coach, none in the Power Five.

Stricklin and his staff knew how vital it was that Florida get this hire right after UF had made a pair of risky hires post-Urban Meyer (McElwain and Will Muschamp), neither of whom had worked out. If the Gators waited for Frost too long and Mullen went elsewhere (such as Tennessee), they would basically be starting from scratch again.

UF needed the closest coach to a sure thing. In a staff meeting, Stricklin let it be known that he had no doubt Mullen would be a big winner at Florida, but the thought of stealing a coach from his alma mater where he had so many deep relationships made him queasy.

So Florida continued to flesh out Frost, while also sending word to Mullen there would be conversations after his final game, the Egg Bowl, on Thanksgiving night.

On the Friday before Florida’s season-ending game against FSU, Stricklin called Mullen and the two former co-workers had a 45-minute conversation. They planned to talk again after the FSU game. Mullen had other suitors, but Stricklin asked him to hold off until UF’s season was completed.

Late in the FSU game, Stricklin let Mullen know he would call after visiting the Gator locker room. During a series of Saturday evening and night conversations on the phone, Mullen accepted the job, agreed to terms and Stricklin worked things out with Mullen’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, later that night.

After discussions about logistics and staffing Sunday morning, the plan was to wait until after players from both Florida and Mississippi State were informed Sunday at around 6 p.m. But the story leaked sometime after noon that Mullen was UF’s top target.

By that evening, Florida released the news that Mullen was the new Gator coach.

Finally, on Monday, Florida’s plane flew the Mullen family to Gainesville and Stricklin couldn’t help but have a surreal feeling wash over him.

Nine years ago, he was on a jet as an associate athletic director at Mississippi State. That jet flew to Gainesville to pick Megan Mullen up at the private Gainesville airport to take her to Starkville, Miss., where her husband was waiting to have a news conference that would introduce him as Mississippi State’s new coach.

Here Stricklin stood on the tarmac at the same airport, welcoming her back to Gainesville.

“This is where we met for the first time,” Stricklin told her.

Everything had come full circle.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

82 COMMENTS

  1. Great Summary Pat! 20-20 hindsight, Dan Mullen was the best fit/choice this time around. He “feels right” for UF. When it came down to a “reality decision” (IE. This is real and I will have to live with it and make it work), Chip Kelly made the right decision. Frost just doesn’t yet have the big league experience for UF. Maybe Nebraska will take care of him. He will need much help that only age and wisdom can provide.

    Like the UT fans veto last Sunday, in the end, you had better make sure life’s big decisions “feel right”. I’m facing one now. Much prayer before making a decision.

    UF nation is genuinely excited about Dan Mullen. Totally different feel than MacElwain and Muschamp.

    • Agree totally, DeWayne. I always “felt” Mullen was the highest choice from the beginning, the self imposed prohibition about premature contact c coaches still coaching in the existing season explained to me why Mullen wasn’t mentioned higher and earlier….but I did not know the behind the scenes stuff and neither did most of us. Of course, the media still explains it as Kelly saying “no”, not that we had moved on from him before that, but that’s just the way they play things in high profile. We’ve got a winner, and best of all, a former Gator who wants to be here instead of just taking a job.

      Hope all works out right in your big decision bud. Prayer works, believe me.

    • Mullen checked off more boxes than anyone else out there. Credit to Stricklin on moving fast to hire him before he slipped away and the Gators would have been back to square one without many good options. Besides, you got to love a guy who’s doing the chomp as soon as he’s getting off the plane!

    • Norvell has seemingly been on Arkansas’s radar for a while now, but I think (like Frost) the lack of Power 5 experience is hurting and has hurt him with some major programs. But I think he gets the Arkansas job if the Auburn coach turns them down. And Memphis is also reworking his contract to try and keep him. He therefore might not leave Memphis this year, which is probably the right move for him at this time.

    • honestly, he is playing with Fuentes players…mostly juniors and seniors so he still has to prove he can recruit and win with his players. Frost on the other hand is winning with mostly freshmen and sophomores he recruited. The future is bright for UCF and Frost would have been a star @ UF.

      • Might have been a star here is more like it. Hell, probably 75% probability of it, or better. Not sure the future is so bright for UCF though, they do have the players to sustain things for a couple more years–that’s part of it–but who’s the coach going to be? That’s the other part. As for me, I’d like to see UCF do well. Read today that they are looking at Kevin Sumlin. That would be a great choice….he actually is a good coach and a good recruiter to boot, c experience in the AAC as well. Doesn’t really matter tho, we’ve got a star right here at UF.

      • Actually more than half of the starting roster for UCF is upperclassmen. 15 of the 22 starters are RS Soph, Juniors or Seniors. Yeah some of the skill position players were recruited by Frost, but the majority of the starting roster wasn’t. I was a firm supporter of Frost to UF, but I love the SEC experience Mullen brings.

  2. Great article Pat. Scott Frost was clearlyy #1 choice. Mullens was 3 or 4 starting to get excited about him. Excellent first week on the job.
    Never cared much for Kelly. UCLA is good fit for him.
    Very impressed with AD Scott Sticklins approach to the search and hire. Florida has a real keeper with him. Two thumbs ups.

    • Skip. Did you even read the article? Mullen was Stricklin’s first choice from the beginning, but his close ties to MSU clearly delayed his hiring. Kelly was clearly, from reading the article, the alternative choice to Mullen, and only that because of Stricklin being hesitant to hire him from MSU.

      • You believe this article? Wow. Unbelievable how if you put something in print that the people in this country believe it blindly. This article is nothing but a collection of things told to one person by some other people about different things in the process. That definitely doesn’t mean its all true. In fact, Id bet a huge some of money that the info in this article is at least partially inaccurate. It basically amounts to hearsay.

    • Mullen was NOT Stricklin’s first choice. Dooley’s article is a “fagazzi”… you don’t fly to NH twice if Kelly wasn’t number one choice. And brought President on one of those trips. The only reason Stricklin even jumped on Mullen was because Jimmy Sexton (Mullen’s agent) told him Tenn was calling.. Mullen then knew he had to step up quickly.. the scary thing is, even after working with Mullen for 7 yrs he was Stricklin ‘s 3 rd choice..

  3. Had Stricklin not had special ties to Starkville, Miss., it would have been a one-man race and Mullen would have been the target. But leaving his alma mater behind had been tough enough. Reaching in to swipe the best coach in Mississippi State history would be brutal for people he cares about.

    UF needed the closest coach to a sure thing. In a staff meeting, Stricklin let it be known that he had no doubt Mullen would be a big winner at Florida, but the thought of stealing a coach from his alma mater where he had so many deep relationships made him queasy.

  4. The hefty paycheck Stricklin gets from UF should have settled that “queazy” feeling right from the start. It’s not professional to work with considerations for your alma mater. His job is to get the best coach for UF, period. Not impressed with his handling of this entire situation.

    • I disagree. Stricklin hoped he could find someone better than Mullen so he wouldn’t have to hire him away. He couldn’t so he did what was best for the University of Florida and offered him the job.

    • Being up front about a conflict of interest goes both ways.

      Meaning, he was high on Mullen because he had first hand knowledge of him. Other candidates would have merely the research and interviews.

      Lots of folks can fake a good interview. It’s when you work with a guy for a couple years that you really know if they can do the job.

      So, it’s better to fully disclose that you know a candidate better than others, and that you are conflicted about gutting your alma mater. Allow the associate directors to speak up and test your bias.

      The optics of Stricklin only considering Mullen would be far worse. The last time we had an administrator with a prior connection to a coaching hire was the Machen and Meyer, that turned out well. And it’s that connection that enabled UF to keep them on the hook while still looking at other fish.

      Also, queasy is Pat’s choice of word for storytelling.

      Just be thankful we aren’t Tennessee.

      I like these deeper dive stories, and appreciate the writing voice being allowed to surface. I prefer these to the rehash AP wire facts or remix of quotes from Monday’s press conference. No offense, Robbie Andreu, but repackaging those quotes with little added than a clickbait title, falls flat when compared to your behind the arc or takeaways series.

      So kudos to the Sun for putting this kind of article up. Not that my vote matters, but I vote for more stories like these.

    • mtn2. Maybe you should read the article again. Stricklin’s search and hire was thorough and professional in every way and served the best interests of the U of F completely.

    • Well mtn2top, there’s professional, and then there’s “professional”. Many nuances to this situation, more about relationships when you get right down to it…..nothing to do c loyalty per se. Clearly, Stricklin would still be at MSU if he didn’t believe this was a better place to be, even a “better fit” if you will. Think you’re off on this one, that’s all.

  5. Reported details of Scott Frost deal with Nebraska – 7 year deal that will pay approximately $35 million. He is to be introduced Sunday in Lincoln. Also reported he will continue to coach the UCF team through their bowl game.

    • Pretty good salary for first time Power-5, he’s home, and at a school c tons of tradition. Sounds like from what I’ve read so far, both he and UCF handled this in a very first class way. Wish him the best…..

  6. “They found him fascinating, but there was time to continue the process because no working coaches could be contacted.” I suspect that if Florida was more assertive with Kelly at this point he would have felt Florida was “the right fit”. I don’t think think UCLA approached Kelly with this wait and see attitude. No wonder he is their coach not ours. Foley did not have that approach with Meyer. He just flew out to Utah and hired him right there. Yes, an insightful article indeed. I hope Mullen can take us back to the top of the mountain, I really do. But with Kelly on board I feel our chances would have been better to get there.

    • I lived in Gainesville and live in L.A.

      And while I loved the college town vibe when I was in college, living in Los Angeles is very different animal. I have to think the city had something to do with Kelly’s decision.

      Gainesville is beautiful, but very much a college town. LA LA Land is at the other end of the spectrum. It is on a different scale.

      • Totally agree. I’ve been to both schools and Kelly made a personal decision as much as a football one. He is a 52 year old bachelor. Where is the dating pool deeper? That’s a no brainer. Weather and lifestyle were huge factors.

      • I agree, L.A. is fantastic. I lived there for four years and loved it. I certainly understand why Kelly would want to live in Los Angeles, Westwood, etc etc. I get it.

        My point, however, was that Stricklin and co. had an opportunity to go all in at this point before anyone else. They did not, and this MAY have made all the difference.

        I am a firm believer that the schools that are wiling to do the things that no one else does are the ones that get the big coaches. You have to go all in, and Stricklin did not.

        • Tom, no matter how hard you go after the prettiest girl in school, she often will still say no. Get over it. We aren’t necessarily the number one job to every coach in the country.

    • Tom. I deducted from reading the article that the UF president was not entirely sold on Kelly and no agreement could be reached, and that failure to agree most likely involved multiple concerns not addressed in the article for good reason. And I believe Florida wanting to keep several coaches on staff was just one of those disagreements. Obviously, Mullen agreed to that one and is the new Florida head coach. And the right man for the job from my perspective of things I have read.

    • You mean just like how he hired Ron Zook, Will Muschamp, and Jim McElwain? Be reflective when using our previous AD as the benchmark for evaluating how this one performs in hiring football coaches.

    • Lot of people agree c you, so I wouldn’t proclaim you way off base. I’m among those who think Kelly would not have pulled off the miracle other people expected from him. Sure, great college coach based on his tenure at Oregon, but that doesn’t always translate from conference to conference either. Don’t think he would have bought in to this culture and in particular, this university. Always had a sense of “mercenary” from him.

      • they are all mercenaries. I will never forget when tommy tubberville said as much when he changed jobs. To paraphrase, don’t fall in love with a coach or think the coach loves you more than he does. He loves the power and the money and as soon as another university offers more….that’s were he will be going. It is a business and we are all mercenaries that will work for the highest bidder.

        • Let’s see…..money is all about numbers…..engineers are all about numbers….hey, this must be “Mike”. (again, insert smiley face here). So in retort, let me both agree and disagree c you. To clarify, of course you’re (mostly) right, Mike, but there are degrees of mercenaryhood. Take two legends we both know, Bobby Bowdon and Bear Bryant….if either of those guys was just out for money, they could have taken any number of offers to double and triple their salaries. But they didn’t, they loved their institutions too much to even think of such a thing. Huah.

    • You Obviously didn’t read the part: “Tuesday, Kelly called to say he had decided that Florida’s fish bowl was not for him. A few days later, he decided to become the next coach at UCLA, describing it as “the best fit.”’ Trust me Kelly would not have lasted here being the main and only big story in this town, he didn’t handle Philly very well, either, where the Eagles hail above the other sports. Me is attention is not Kelly’s forte or desire. Glad Mullen is here, regardless of how.

    • Nothing to do with money. If he can not be professional enough to keep his personal feelings out of a decision like this, he does not need to be an AD anywhere outside of a high school. And if he is dumb enough to admit such a thing to people out loud (much less a member of the media) then he’s definitely not smart enough to be AD at UF. That sort of Bush league garbage belongs at UT. Hopefully Dooley made it up to sound like he’s on the inside.

          • Didn’t say those thoughts shouldn’t have entered his mind. They would enter anyone’s mind. Dooley said that it would have been a one man race if it wasn’t msu. That is not just entering his mind. That is acting on those thoughts. Highly unprofessional. If he thought that he could not do something that was in the best interest of an entity that he owed a duty to, he should have recused himself and let someone else make the decision. Or… be a professional and do the job you were hired to do.

            I’m highly disappointed, not that stricklin had those thoughts, but that he didn’t make it a one man race if he thought that was in our best interest. Hence why I am hoping dooley just made it up to sound like he’s on the inside.

            I’d like Dooley to clarify if he knows that stricklin abandoned his duty to uf, or if he was just taking a little poetic license.

      • AD’s duty includes due diligence, which means that no opening is a one-man race, even if saban suddenly decides he can’t stand alabama and loves gainesville. have a feeling that due diligence ruled kelly out, and both sides didn’t feel it was the right fit, not that it was a matter of uf didn’t pursue him hard enough.

        • That’s not the point. Dooley didn’t say it wasn’t a one man race due to due diligence. Dooley said it wasn’t a one man race due to stricklin’s queasiness because of msu.

          If he doesn’t have the stomach to make the best decision as UF AD he doesn’t need to be UF AD.

          I understand him having some feelings. Everyone would. But he acted (or in this case failed to act) due to those feelings.

          Not acting in the best interest of the entity that you legally owe a duty to because you got queasy is completely unacceptable.

          I know Dooley will not clarify, but he should. We (those who actually pay the man’s paycheck) deserve to know whether he really failed to act because of his feelings toward msu or whether Dooley was taking artistic license in his writing of the story. I hope it is the latter.

          • You make a good case for your argument, Blake. I suspect you’re an attorney. I still disagree c you, but good job.

  7. Chip Kelly would have been a very splashy hire but looking at the past two weeks Kelly has been with UCLA and the single week Mullen has been here is like night and day. Kelly is still piecing together his staff, several of them aren’t even currently coaching. There has been zero articles about Kelly on the recruiting trail. Mullen WANTS to be here and it already shows. Maybe UCLA dootball doesn’t have the same press coverage but there are dozens of national articles about Mullen embracing the UF job and almost none about how happy Chip Kelly is. Go Gators.

  8. It never made sense to me why UF would go hire a former OC who won titles at Bama over one who won then at Florida.

    Mackle-who?

    Muschamp made no sense either, but at least he wasn’t a total slouch.

    The day Stricklin gave his press conference I was thinking “please let it be Mullen.” At least one reporter was thinking along those lines too as Mullen was the only coach Stricklin was asked about.

    Some people say the offense was Meyer’s but what I saw was a Tebow up the middle three times and punt for field position offense in 2009, the season following Mullen’s departure, and Florida hasn’t been the same since.

  9. How about hiring a DC who had won titles at Bama? A DC with no HBC experience? Kirby Smart has Georgia has his team in the NC.
    “Personal feelings out of a decision?” Really? IMHO great men always allow personal feelings into decision-making. Conflicts of conscience indicate a personality has empathy–a quality sorely missed in today’s scorched earth style of negotiating. With so many high profile coaching jobs available, it could be that Stricklin realized Mullen would end up somewhere other than Starkville anyway. Why deprive him the opportunity to come to Gainesville?
    Also, it’s important to credit Stricklin for his decisiveness in cutting Mac loose at the first opportunity. Apparently, he saved the AA $5 big ones by pouncing when he did. No lollygaging as is the usual practice. Compare to the debacle in Knoxville.

  10. I am happy the way things are going at Florida. My last post till Orange and Blue game. To all of the Gator fans, I hope each and everyone of you have a MERRY CHRISTMAS.

  11. “Reaching in to swipe the best coach in Mississippi State history would be brutal for people he cares about.”

    This is the best line in the whole article. Another way of putting it would be, Mullen got the “tallest available midget”, or “the fastest man in a race of one legged men”. He got the best coach in MSU history. Classic.

    He may turn out to be great but ANYONE who says that knew it because of his work at MSU is just silly.

      • Nothing in life is a certainty. But there are precedents. Saban before he had access to elite athletes in Louisiana, then Alabama. Even Mack Brown at NC to TX. The recruiting pool in your back yard matters. If analogies count, think about this. You start with round steak and I’ll take ribeye. Wonder who’s meal is going to turn out better?

  12. In interview with ESPN Chip Kelly said Florida never offered him the head coaching job.
    I personally think Chip Kelly was afraid of SEC competitions. He faced Auburn and LSU while at Oregon lost both games. Who knows. Chip Kelly could wind up to be Charlie Wise at Notre Dame or Butch Jones in Tennessee. Time will tell.
    UF could have dogged the bullet.

  13. I read that Coach Mullin has hired the special teams/running back coach from Mississippi State. I’m ecstatic about the special teams coach position but does this mean that Seider is going to be out of a job? I hope not because he did a great job with our running backs and recruiting. I also hope that Coach Davis and coach skipper stay on as well because they are good coaches and even better recruiters. Just because they’re on the staff now does not mean that Coach Mullin is going to keep them permanently. I’m looking forward to the Florida gator revival And many championships in the future. Go gators!!!

  14. I wish I could’ve ignored the past weeks’ worth of speculation, hearsay, twitter dorks who are related to a guy who knows a guy and just have read this article. I’m sorry to say that I fell for the CK hype. In hindsight, Mullen is head-and-shoulders above the list of very respectable candidates.
    Now, I’m going to go out on the highest limb on the Crazy Tree and say that Feliepe Franks will win a Heisman trophy in his final season.

    • “Now, I’m going to go out on the highest limb on the Crazy Tree and say that Feliepe Franks will win a Heisman trophy in his final season.”

      HAHAHA!!! How’s the view from way up there? Please CLIMB down – a fall from there would be deadly! 😉

  15. That is a stretch but so was Jared Goff leading his team to the playoffs this years. Coaching matters. I talked to several FSU fans this weekend that were happy to see Jimbo go. Grass isn’t always greener and we have lived that for the last several years. Go gators

      • I think you might have something there Blake. In any case, IMHO, Coach Mullen staying nine years at MSU does nothing but bode well for the Gators. Pretty sure he learned a few things about being a HBC in the SEC that a shorter tenure wouldn’t have allowed for. In any marriage, everybody’s in love during the honeymoon. I’m sure seven years into the job, he learned a few things about sustainability that will serve him well here in Gainesville. It’s now our job to do our part as true fans to support him (PATIENTLY) during the rebuild. And make no mistake, it is a rebuild, not a reload.

  16. While I love the Mullen hire, the reason he wasn’t a slam-dunk first choice is that he never exactly dominated at MSU in his 9 years. No West titles, and he had 3 good years of 10-3, 9-4, and 9-4, and then 8-4 this year (no bowl coaching this year obviously), while his other five years were 5 to 8 win seasons. I know the West has been brutally competitive, especially Satan/Bama, and that winning was harder at MSU, but the point is that not winning the division once would have to give pause to any hiring decision. That said, I think Coach Mullen, with a step up in player talent and university resources, will do great! GO GATORS!

  17. Hiring a HC is an art not a science. As a Freshman at Florida in 1959 I have cheered and died with the arrival of each new HC. The coaching landscape for all HC in 2017 was a desert. Florida had to choose its best option. It will not be the best because Mullin has not shown the quality or the number of wins to be successful at Florida. To be a winner the HC has to have desire, ability, a great staff and great players. Mullin has some of these requirements but not enough to win consistently in the East with Georgia coming in with Smart. From 1990 to 2009 was the Golden Age of Florida Football I hope we are not continuing the Dark Ages of Florida Football. Mullin may get the program but I have my concerns about the long term future.

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