Triple threat: Year 3 has not been kind to Florida football coaches

Florida head coach Dan Mullen is 21-5 in two seasons as the top guy in Gainesville. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

 Dating back to Steve Spurrier, there is a distinct and consistent pattern among Florida’s head football coaches.

 The Gators have experienced a bump in Year Two, followed by a dip in Year Three.

 It has been the same with every single coach — Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain.

 This becomes pertinent now because the Gators are transitioning from Year Two to Year Three under Dan Mullen.

 Mullen’s UF career path has started off similar to Spurrier’s. Spurrier won big his first year, leading the Gators to a 9-2 record (and best record in the SEC) in 1990. In 1991, he won even bigger, with the Gators going 10-1 in the regular season, winning the school’s first official SEC title and earning a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

 Then came a dip in 1992.

 Mullen also has had instant success, going 10-3 and beating Michigan in a New Year’s Six bowl game in Year One. He won a little bigger last season, the Gators upping the win total to 11, going 10-2 in the regular season then defeating Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

 So, what happens in Year Three for Mullen and the Gators? Do they experience a dip, like they have with past coaches? Or do they buck the trend and live up championship expectations and aspirations?

 To be determined, of course.

 As for Spurrier, he sort of predicted how his first few years would unfold. His prediction came during lunch with big-time UF booster Alfred McKethan on top of the Seagle Building downtown shortly after he was hired.

 “He finished up and looked at me and said, ‘Now, Steve, let me tell you something. I want to get this pretty straight. At the University of Florida we believe we’re supposed to be good in football. We’re going to give you a couple of years to get this thing rolling. But that third and fourth year, we’re supposed to be good and compete for the championship. We should be able to do that,’ ” Spurrier said.

 “I said, ‘Let me tell you something, Mr. McKethan, we’re going to be really good this year and next year, but the third year we’re going to be playing a bunch of freshmen probably. That’s not the year to shoot for. We’re going to shoot for one and two.’

 “He looked at me kind of funny, like, ‘We’re going to have a good team this year?’ I said, ‘Yeah, this team is loaded. He didn’t know what to say.”

 Spurrier inherited a team from Galen Hall that was top-heavy with proven junior and senior players. It was good to go from the get-go, Spurrier said. 

 “Most coaches come in and they say, ‘Give me four or five years to build this thing up,’ ” Spurrier said. “That team, all they needed was someone to tell them how good they were and let’s go do it. If we don’t do it, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.”

 It was a different story in Year Three. After the bump, came the dip — a 9-4 season and a bid to the Gator Bowl. As Spurrier predicted, the Gators ended up playing a bunch of freshmen that season, including at both offensive tackle spots.

 “The third year, 1992, we played Jason Odom and Reggie Green, two freshmen offensive tackles,” Spurrier said. “Shane (Matthews) had a good year, but not as good as his first two.”

 As for the Gators’ transition to Year Three under Mullen, UF will be replacing four talented and productive wide receivers, the leading running back and four dynamic defensive players — middle linebacker David Reese, cornerback CJ Henderson and ends Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga.

 So, heading into a season where there’s a lot of talk about making a possible national championship run, can the Gators avoid a dip similar to the ones experienced under previous head coaches in their third season?

 Here’s a look at those coaches and the bump to dip from Year Two to Year Three:

Steve Spurrier

 The bump (1991): The Gators go 10-1 in the regular season and win the school’s first official SEC title. The season ends with a loss to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

 The dip (1992): With QB Shane Matthews playing behind a young, inexperienced offensive line, UF loses four games, finishing 9-4 with a win over North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.

Ron Zook

 The bump (2003): The Gators have huge wins in the middle of the season —at LSU and Georgia in Jacksonville — and finish the regular season 8-4, then fall to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

 The dip (2004): After an upset loss at Mississippi State that put UF at 4-3 on the season, Zook is fired, effective at the end of the season. The Gators go 7-5, including a blowout loss to Miami in the Peach Bowl under interim head coach Charlie Strong.

Urban Meyer

 The bump (2006): After going 9-3 in his first season, the Gators finish 13-1 and as national champions after drumming Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game.

 The dip (2007): Playing all kinds of young players on defense, the Gators struggle for much of the season on that side of the ball and go 9-4, the year ending with a loss to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.

Will Muschamp

 The bump (2012): UF loses only one regular-season game and goes 11-1 on the year to earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The Gators finish 11-2 after an upset loss to Louisville in New Orleans.

 The dip (2013): After winning four of the first five games, the injury-depleted Gators end the season on a seven-game losing streak to finish 4-8. The low point is a home loss to Georgia Southern.

Jim McElwain

 The bump (2015): The Gators clinch a second consecutive SEC East title with a “home” win at LSU. They lose to Alabama in the SEC title game, then defeat Iowa in the Outback Bowl to go 9-4.

 The dip (2017): After a 42-7 loss to Georgia, which comes only a few days after McElwain says he and his family had recently received death threats, McElwain is fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Randy Shannon on an interim basis. UF loses three of its final four games to finish 4-7.

 So, there it is, evidence that the Year Three dip has been a real thing at UF under its past five head coaches — and something to be wary of as Mullen heads into his third season.

 NOTE: McKethan isn’t the only big-time booster Spurrier met with shortly after he was hired in 1990. He also hooked up for a few minutes outside of Florida Field with the man whose name is on the stadium — Ben Hill Griffin Jr. It was, well, a little bit awkward. 

 “He said, ‘Steve, I’m going to tell you the truth. If it was up to me we’d have Charley Pell here today. But it ain’t up to me. They tell me that’s not going to happen, so you’re my next pick,’ ” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘Well, thanks.’ He was just being honest.”

 Griffin died a few weeks later, on March 1, 1990. His second pick, of course, went on to become the winningest coach in school history, a man who took the Gators to new heights — six SEC titles and the program’s first national title. And Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is now the home of Steve Spurrier Field.