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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.