The Back Nine: Mullen rebuilding a damaged program

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File photo inside the UF Weight room. [File]

The Back Nine comes at you after an amazing vacation that included swim-up blackjack at the Tropicana, the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, a trail hike in Sedona and it may take a few weeks to get the sound of slot machines out of my head.

10. So what looked like an uneventful summer came crashing down hard while I was away. The news on Justin Watkins was a blow to a Florida football program that has now lost three recruits (when you include Randy Russell and James Robinson, who had medical issues) in the last year who never suited up for the Gators. (Before you @ me, I know that two guys had heart conditions and the other was arrested and they are not related, but my point is that UF has lost three guys in a year who didn’t even play a career down). And then the story broke about the players involved in the altercation in May who certainly have to be smarter. When it comes to Watkins, one of the core values for Dan Mullen is to respect women. Watkins obviously has some issues and UF had no choice but to cut him loose. The most alarming thing about the players involved in the altercation was the association with someone described as a “known gambler.” That’s a large red flag for Mullen and his staff to get a grip on. Interesting that while all of this bad news was breaking, Urban Meyer was being condemned in Big Ten country for his handling of assistant coach Zach Smith, eventually fired when a series of domestic abuse allegations became public.

11. At any rate, any time you lose players or have players get in trouble during talking season, that is what people will be talking about and Gator fans are ready for something good to happen. And they aren’t really happy with what they are seeing on the recruiting trail. I’m a big believer that you can’t get too caught up in where a class ranks in July, but with the new early signing period, Florida being in the 30s is alarming. This is about Mullen recruiting to a damaged program and until he can show what his team is capable of on the field it will remain damaged. Florida is hardly irrelevant, but the Gators are on the verge of becoming Tennessee (I said this on Mike Bianchi’s radio show Monday morning and it caused quite a stir). It isn’t easy to recruit to a program that has two four-win seasons in the last five years, no offense for the last eight years and issues off the field that have embarrassed the school. Mullen has inherited a program that is limping and it will take time and rehabilitation to get it walking in a straight line again. When ESPN’s GameDay show hasn’t been to your campus for a game since 2012, you have a problem. And perception is often reality.

12. Dude, so you come back from vacation and everything is negative right off the bat? Sorry. Let’s be positive. I missed Gainesville. I missed flat-old Florida. I missed reasonable prices for beer and gas. I mean, I saw some amazing things, but it was good to come home. The Grand Canyon reminded me of Augusta National. Stay with me on this. You see it on TV or in pictures and you think you know what it looks like, but then it takes your breath away the first time you lay eyes on it. And I found a new level of hot out there in Vegas. On Wednesday, the high was 117 degrees. Landing in Gainesville and getting off the plane felt like it was spring. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that was marred by the news that my wife’s brother, Bobby, was in a terrible car accident and is fighting for his life in a Chicago hospital. He is one of the greatest guys I’ve known and a huge Gator fan. Please send your prayers his way.

13. So I didn’t get to comment on the British Open because I was gone and it was really cool to watch so early in the morning out there and be done at 11 a.m. This Open made up for the two previous dull majors even if the guy you were rooting for didn’t win. But all we really ask for is a great leaderboard on the final day. And to have Tiger Woods in the lead on a major Sunday certainly sent people scurrying to their TVs. But methinks Tiger isn’t Tiger anymore. The old Tiger didn’t spit out leads with awful shotmaking the way this Tiger did on the final day.

14. One story that got a lot of Twitter play during my break was ESPN’s rankings of the last 21 national championship teams. Most of the gnashing of teeth involved Miami’s 2001 team being third instead of first (behind No. 1 Texas 2005 and No. 2 Florida 2008). When you get analytics involved in rankings, these kinds of things happen because those ’Canes were penalized for their schedule, including an overmatched Nebraska in the title game. Whatever. Interesting that after the top five, the next four teams were Nick Saban’s Alabama teams. And that Florida’s 2006 champions were ranked next to last. That team tends to get overlooked because the ’08 team produced so many pros (19 were drafted), but that was an amazing team when it came to finding a way to win close games. And the trophy is just as valuable as any of the others.

15. One of the popular talking points during the summer on radio has been this — if you could have the four favorites or the rest of the college football Power Five teams to win it all, which would you take? I’d take the favorites (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia) in a heartbeat, but it says a lot about the sport I love so much that I think most people would do the same thing. Is it becoming too predictable? And yet, if you’re like me you might have been watching the top 25 games from last year on ESPNU this summer and remembering what a great season last year was even with its predictable national champions. I don’t think Georgia can win it all this year and I thought about placing a bet when I was in Vegas on Wisconsin to win the title. In fact, take Ohio State and Georgia out and put Wisconsin and Washington in and I’ll bet you a Diet Coke.

16. Watching Chipper Jones go into the Hall of Fame was another one of those moments where you remember the past and wish you could relive the 1990s. But unless Stewie from “Family Guy” really invents a time machine, all I will have is the memories of a great decade to be alive with the Braves’ amazing run and Steve Spurrier taking Florida to a level we had never seen around here. This year’s Atlanta team has at least made me pay attention for the first time in a long time, but that bullpen isn’t good enough to think about a playoff run. Or even get them into the playoffs. Anyway, forget that Chipper is naming his newborn son Cooper after Cooperstown. Naming his kid Shea after the way he owned the Mets in that stadium was the biggest diss of all time. And it always makes me laugh when I see it in print.

17. The Tweet of the Week comes from Florida wide receiver Trevon Grimes and will make Gator fans feel a little better heading into fall camp — “I like all 3 of our QBs this year…. y’all just don’t know!! I’ve seen it in practice daily.” Of course, what you do throwing against air is only a part of whether or not you can play the position against live action and guys who want to cause you bodily harm.

18. There was a lot of listening to tunes on some long drives around Arizona and Nevada and some long days sunning by pools on the vacation. This playlist was one of my faves:

• “Tesselation” by Mild High Club.

• “Big Toe” by The Growlers.

• “Pictures of Girls” by Wallow.

• “Preacher Man” by The Driver Era.

• And for an oldie, “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young, which elicited some strained high notes during our sing-along on the highway as we sailed past dozens of Joshua trees. Maybe I should have chosen something from that album.

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

33 COMMENTS

  1. Where to start…..where to start. How ’bout welcome home, glad you had a good time, and we’ll include your brother-in-law in our prayers.

    The world didn’t actually end while you were away, despite me telling Leland that it had, but it sure felt like it for a while nonetheless.

  2. Pat, I would have worded it differently concerning the Watkins thug. You said one of Dan Mullen’s core values is to respect women. That is saying it way too mildly. How bout saying one of the core values of Dan Mullen as head coach is no physical violence against either gender. One can be disrespectful to a woman by verbal speaking words but as Spurrier always said the second you physically attack a woman like Watkins did you’re kicked off my team. In my opinion, that is as cowardly and low as a male athlete can go.

  3. Gator Nation has been freaking out over recruiting on multiple sites. You are SPOT ON to place the blame on poor performance and coaching in the past for current recruiting woes. Yes, Florida is a “damaged” product, and other schools can use the abysmal offensive performance against us in recruiting. I disagree that “the Gators are on the verge of becoming Tennessee.” I think until Mac left, UF was headed there. Do Gator fans realize that “Mullen has inherited a program that is limping and it will take time and rehabilitation to get it walking in a straight line again.” However, if he can find a QB to make drives, score points, and keep the defense from doing all the work, this year could be a shocker! Landing Jefferson, Grimes, and Krull this year was HUGE for DM!!! Whoever is QB has an array of weapons and no excuse for producing. I hope we don’t have to keep watching three and outs and the defense being the only unit that plays well. Hopefully, Dan can make an offensive statement this year, because, if things don’t change radically soon, we won’t be able to play with Georgia much longer.

  4. Hopefully Franks will have a big year making huge plays running the ball. I can see this providing some offense. Maybe one of the new backs will do something- I don’t see Scarlett doing much of anything special and there isn’t much indication passing is going to do well. The D may have one more season of decent personnel before major turnover but still lost some key guys from last season. I want to be optimistic but there really need to be signs in year one of a positive trajectory or else UF can definitely be in Tennessee territory with little options for turn around.

  5. So sorry for your family in the aftermath of Bobby’s accident. We’ll join in with prayer for his recovery and rehabilitation.

    Watkins was a first big test of Mullen’s leadership in our program. The new coach handled it well.

    We’ve likely got one of the most improved teams in the country this year. Once the offense gets rolling and the scoring soars the recruiting will follow suit. Not discouraged in the least.

  6. I share Dooley’s realism about the program, as there are even more things draining all of the big schools in Florida now. It’s not as bad as credit card fraud but the gambler thing, the gun thing even though it’s fake and then the alleged domestic violations really are yet another stain on the program.
    With the 8 players lost from the credit card deal plus three this year, in the past losing this many players from the roster shows up with multiple additional losses, since so many games are so tight due to the lack of f offense you really need h ell from special teams where the young players really count.

  7. Welcome back Pat. So glad you had a great vacation. We had a similar vacation 10 years ago…we jumped on I-40, drove to the pacific ocean, up the coast, and down trough the west and mid-west. We it multiple tourist spots, national parks and monuments, etc. And I agree, of all of it, the Grand Canyon was a cut above…. truly spectacular.

    I’ll keep your brother in law on my prayer list.

    I agree that Gator Football is a damaged brand. We’ll need to be patient with Coach Mullen as he rebuilds the team and culture as well as upgrading facilities. It will require winning games we’re not supposed to win in order to turn around recruiting. Given the current state of the program, we will probably fall even further behind (sorry TampaGator) in recruiting until Coach Mullen pulls a rabbit or two out of his hat. In a couple of years or so, I foresee 5 stars falling all over themselves to sign with UF.

    My take on this is….even though we are light years from where we would like to be, let’s enjoy the process of rebuilding and growing Gator football. We have the perfect coach to make it happen. It begins in 32 days!!!

  8. Compare the strength of this team with last year. Everyone is buffed up 10 – 20 pounds and it’s NOT seriouds. Talked to guys in the new strength program and it’s like Navy “Seal training of a Green Bertet A team of the 101st Airborne Rangers. A lot of players reportedly wanted out but CeCe Jefferson stood taLL AND said :”You’re going thru me first. If you beat me, goodbye. I if whip you, you stay. no reported drop outs.\\\

  9. For years all I have read about is how Florida fans were spoiled and Mushbrain was the most awesomest coach that ever lived. I kept reading articles less than a year ago comparing Yellow Teeth to Steve Spurrier, saying he’d won almost as many games and proclaiming him the best coach in the SEC when it came to winning close games. All the while, any fan who refused to worship these clods was derided as a “spoiled fan.”

    Now, I read this is a damaged program reeling from the four win seasons these coaching wizards conjured up? Hmmmnnn. Seems like it may be time for the Sun to redefine “spoiled fan” to people who live in the real world. Thanks for finally admitting what many of us have been saying for years!

  10. it was the media that hung “spoiled” on our fans. After eight years of mediocrity or worse it’s more appropriate to describe Florida fans as frustrated, disappointed, some of us cynical, virtually all of us hopeful.
    Our programs has been in the hands of poor stewardship of what had once been the best in the SEC and arguably the best in the country. Mullen has more on his hands than a typical rebuilding project with a team. He has to reconstruct the entire program. His ability to meticulously organize and delegate matches his bigger vision for what Florida can be not far in the future. My hunch is that there’s enough talent on hand for these Gators to turn in a good, exciting season, but that the team on the field this year might well be better than the program as a whole. Mullen is having to address so many areas of need from strength and conditioning to recruiting, installing a new offense and defense, changing the national image of Florida football, reversing the lack of discipline that has characterized our roster in recent years, re-engaging our fan base. Good grief, the man needs our full support and plenty of patience. Spoiled? No, Gators are tired of poor coaching and lack of leadership in our once premier football program.

  11. Unfortunately, the current version of Tiger does not have the “eye of the tiger” that the earlier versions did. New Tiger bears (and feels) the burden of having previously been old Tiger. That burden may be to much for Tiger (or anyone ) to carry

  12. And still, no comment on the root and origin of the problem: Coach “Chest Pain” and his collapse of the program. Urban “Family Time” Meyer may be gone, but his stench remains. Those two titles were definitely not worth it.

    • I don’t know…..I feel pretty good about 2006 and 2008! Totally worth it to me 🙂

      I’ll give you that Urban fell down on the job at the end of his tenure, but overall he did a great job of providing high level football and picking up the pieces from the Reign of Zooker. As I said, he let the ball drop in recruiting and then issues with the administration or whatever it was caused him to leave and it all fell apart. Muschamp seemed like a good hire at the time but who knew he was allergic to offense and in hindsight, he just wasn’t ready for prime time. McElwain was just a badly vetted hire. Not to open old wounds, but while Jeremy Foley did a lot of great things for the UF Athletic Program, I still believe he did not know how to properly handle the beast that is a major D1 football factory. So lots of “blame” if you want to look at it that way, to go all around, but not just Urban’s fault (and I am NO fan of Urban Meyer anymore).

      Yeah, I’ll take those two national championships…..how many does UGA have in that time period >:O

  13. Well said Clyde. We can’t live in the past anymore. Time to build a new championship legacy at Florida.

    Sure there were problems here. It didn’t help to turn the program upside down in mid-season. I hope Coach Mullen continues to get unwavering support from the AD and fans, no matter how difficult the re-re-re-build. If it was easy to dominate in football it would have happened years ago and a couple of times already.

    • You know mtn2top, I re-read your comments a few times before I finally got that you weren’t stuttering at all. Re-re-re build! That’s it! What makes this so particularly agonizing, among other things, is that we have undergone re-building so many times in the last 8 years that it has only compounded our problems.

      And yet (no pun intended) you/we remain true to the cause and ever hopeful. Let’s hope this is the last time before some of this leave this mortal coil for good!

      • That’s it Gator-6, Just look at the two top teams in the league in each division. They both share a decade or more of coaching stability and continuity. Players come and go in college programs. It’s not a coincidence that the best college football programs always have these factors working in their favor.

  14. I love to hear how much time we need to rebuild the program. Muschamp needed time. McElwain needed time to get his offense going, until it didn’t. Zook needed no time to head south. Spurrier and Meyer needed only 1 and 2 years, respectively. Mullen may need time because the facilities for the Football Program are in a shambles and the administration is in no hurry put them up to par with the rest of the SEC, so that looks to be putting a damper on the quality of the athletes we can recruit. But, make no mistake about it: “If you’re a good coach, your players will play very close to how you teach them to play. This is one I tell our assistant coaches. Don’t come in here and say, “He made a mistake, he made a mistake!” Well, you’re a sorry coach if he keeps making mistakes all over the place. Teach him how to play and demand he does that.”—-Steve Spurrier.