Gene Frenette: Heat on Gators' AD Scott Stricklin to find right coach in entitled SEC
The end of the Dan Mullen era, which really began with a shoe-toss penalty last year that cost the Florida Gators a win over LSU and maybe a College Football Playoff spot, had to happen.
It went beyond those nine losses in the last 11 games to Power 5 opponents and had spilled over into Mullen looking as if he was instigating his own demise.
Take your pick: his perpetual I’m-the-smartest-guy-in-the-room attitude, the looks of disengagement, especially leading up to and after the Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma, and continually pointing out after Saturday’s overtime defeat at Missouri — where Mullen’s offense looked so un-Florida-like in making no attempt to move into field-goal range during the final minute of regulation — how the Gators have lost seven one-score games in the past 11 months.
Contrary to what Mullen said about wanting to be the Gators’ coach, he never sounded convincing. His too-often snobby disposition and other things athletic director Scott Stricklin refused to divulge, but doesn’t take much ingenuity to figure out, is what got him fired Sunday.
Stricklin looked into the future and with all the recruiting ground Mullen kept losing to Georgia and Alabama, he concluded he was better off trying to find somebody else who could bring Florida that sustained success he insists is a top priority. Remember, it was Stricklin who gave Mullen a contract extension and raise last March after his coach got an NCAA show-cause penalty just three months earlier.
Now the heat turns up significantly on Stricklin, who clearly wasn’t totally up for firing Mullen until the Mizzou loss exhausted his patience, to find the right replacement.
Yeah, good luck with that in the Supreme Entitlement Conference (SEC), where at least nine programs — and soon add Texas and Oklahoma to that list — think it’s practically their birthright to have an elite team or no worse than top-15 every year.
SEC a different world
The SEC, inhabited as it is with coaches who want to crush their rivals’ souls and break their spirit, is simply a different football world. Much more so than the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, where patience at least still exists on some levels.
Look at Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, who is 0-5 against rival Ohio State and still gainfully employed with only minimal pushback. Stanford coach David Shaw is highly respected in college and NFL circles, but you think he would still be working in the SEC as one of the nation’s highest-paid coaches with a 29-27 record over the last five years?
Few places outside the SEC epitomize the what-have-you-done-lately mentality. There have been five instances in college football history where a coach was fired by the school he led to an Associated Press national championship. Besides Miami’s Larry Coker in 2006, the rest of them came from the SEC – Tennessee (Phil Fulmer), LSU (Les Miles), Auburn (Gene Chizik) and LSU this year (Ed Orgeron) — in the last 13 seasons.
Mullen, who helped Florida win two national titles as an offensive coordinator (2005-08), went to three consecutive New Year's Six bowls as the Gators’ head coach. Now after one bottomed-out season, he’s gone for reasons Stricklin was reluctant to discuss in specifics.
“Dan’s a really good football coach,” said Stricklin. “I think he’s as good on the offensive side of the ball as anyone in football whether it’s pro or college. But this is a place that should be able to have high level of sustained success over a consistent period of time. To do that, you have to have a lot of little things in place.
“People look at losses as a cause to get rid of a coach. But a lot of times the losses or things that don’t go right on the field, those are symptoms of other issues. I’m not going to get into all that because I don’t think that’s fair to everyone involved. . . . But what we are seeing this year is kind of symptomatic of some things we got to get cleaned up moving forward.”
Translation: Florida is getting their tail kicked in on the recruiting trail by Georgia and Alabama, and Mullen’s meh personality wasn’t going to fix that. So when his coaching acumen didn’t offset that disadvantage this year by beating average SEC programs, and then almost lost to Samford, the plug was pulled.
So here the Gators are, searching for their fourth coach in the last eight years, not knowing if there’s anyone out there who is any better a gamble to restore the Camelot years of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer than keeping Mullen.
Tough finding HR hire
No matter what anybody says before or after Stricklin makes his decision, there is no home-run hire. Not unless UF miraculously enticed an established Power 5 coach like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley to come to Gainesville, which isn’t happening.
Yeah, there’s a decent crop of qualified candidates. For one, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, a Miami alumnus who already has a good job and might be UM’s big target if Manny Diaz gets canned. You hear the names of Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops a lot, but didn’t the Gators just try and fail with a former SEC head coach?
Even Stoops’ brother, Bob, the former UF defensive coordinator who won a national title at Oklahoma and is getting some traction as Mullen’s replacement, is no sure thing. He’s 61, been out of the game for five years and would be walking into a far different college football world than the one he left.
How much desire would Bob Stoops have at his age to put on a full-court recruiting press? That’s what it’s going to take these days to push the established kings, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, off the mountaintop.
Maybe the most intriguing possibility is Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who worked for both Swinney and Saban. A former Furman quarterback and offensive-minded coach, Napier, 42, has become a hot commodity because of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ ascent the past four years and the feeling he’s ready for a big-time job.
But the pressure now shifts to Stricklin to make the right call because ADs rarely get third chances if they miss on two football hirings, as evidenced by Miami firing Blake James last week.
With Florida opening its $85 million football practice facility in the coming months, the expectations for the new coach will be even higher than they were for Mullen when he came over from Mississippi State.
The Mullen firing is a reminder to whoever his successor might be that Florida is no longer in the business of handing its football coach a mulligan. Those Will Muschamp days of going 4-8, or 5-6 now for Mullen, and getting another year are no guarantee.
This is the SEC, where entitlement to success and job insecurity are constant companions. Either do something about Saban and Smart kicking everybody’s behind or the next coach will also get the boot.
For Florida’s Stricklin, that means one thing: he better get this hire right.
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