By Robbie Andreu and Pat Dooley, Staff writers
In his quest to put the fun back in Florida football, UF athletic director Scott Stricklin has turned to someone he and the school are very familiar with — Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen.
Mullen, who helped lead UF to national titles in 2006 and 2008 as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, has been hired as the Gators new head coach, the school announced Sunday night.
Mullen will be formally announced as UF’s 27th football coach at a 3 p.m. news conference Monday.
“Megan and I are very excited to get back to Gainesville and the University of Florida,” Mullen said. “I have such great memories of the championships we won during our time there and have a love for Florida. We are happy to be coming back to such a supportive administration, staff, student body and fan base, which is the premier football program in the country.
“We will give relentless effort in everything that we do on and off the field. Our commitment will match the passion that the Gator Nation has for this program.”
Mullen, 45, emerged as Stricklin’s No. 1 target over the past few days and an agreement was reached Sunday afternoon. Mullen and Stricklin worked together at MSU, where Stricklin was the athletic director from 2010-16 and the senior associate AD from 2008-10.
“I strongly believe Dan is the most prepared candidate to have immediate and long-term success at the University of Florida,” Stricklin said. “Coach Mullen is one of the best offensive minds in all of college football, and has an unbelievable track record in tutoring successful quarterbacks.
“Coach Mullen will do a tremendous job in developing accountability and toughness through a well-coordinated strength and conditioning program. Dan will work closely with the coaching staff, academic advising staff and administrative team to give every student athlete he coaches the opportunity to grow and excel at a high level athletically, academically and socially.”
UF president Kent Fuchs praised Stricklin for the way he conducted the school’s search for a new coach.
“I’m pleased with the approach and process that Scott Stricklin and his staff had in place for this search that landed us the best candidate to move our football program forward nationally,” Fuchs said. “Coach Mullen has a very successful track record at Florida and the SEC, which includes his ability to develop student-athletes on and off the field at the highest level.”
In going with Mullen, the Gators can check off two key boxes: his innovative spread/option offense has been productive wherever he’s been and he’s had great success developing quarterbacks, two of whom are now in the NFL — Dak Prescott (Dallas) and Alex Smith (Kansas City). Mullen, of course, also helped develop Tim Tebow.
Florida’s three Heisman-winning quarterbacks — Tebow, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel — all are giving the hiring of Mullen a thumb’s up.
“The Gators are thrilled that Dan Mullen has accepted our offer to be the head coach at our University,” Spurrier said. “With his background here with Urban Meyer and his success at Mississippi State, he is well prepared to turn the Gators back into a top-10 football program in the country. We all look forward to his arrival here in Gainesville and to welcome him back to Gator Nation.”
Tebow and Mullen had a close player/coach relationship at UF and have remained friends over the years since Tebow graduated.
“I love that Coach Mullen is someone who understands the culture of the University of Florida and has won two national championships here,” Tebow said. “Dan understands how to coach and mentor quarterbacks and build championship level expectations and deliver them both on and off the field. He will not only be a great coach for the players from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but as a mentor for all the young men in the program.”
Said Wuerffel, who won the Heisman in 1996: “All of us Gators love to not only win games, but have fun along the way. I’m confident Dan Mullen will quickly get us back on track on both fronts.”
Florida’s offense has been in steady decline since Mullen left after the 2008 season to become the head coach at MSU.
UF’s offense this season ranks 111th in the nation. It is the third season in a row the Gators have finished outside the top 100 in total offense.
While the Gators struggled under former coaches Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp, MSU has thrived under Mullen, who has taken the program to new heights.
In his nine seasons, the Bulldogs are 69-45 and are bowl eligible for the eighth season in a row. Mullen is 5-2 in bowl games.
In 2014, MSU rose to No. 1 in the nation after beating No. 8 LSU on the road, No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 2 Auburn.
The Bulldogs, coming off a loss to arch-rival Ole Miss this past Thursday, are 8-4 this season and 4-4 in the SEC.
Mullen’s record against SEC opponents is 33-39.
Stricklin inherited Mullen as his head football coach at Mississippi State and the two had a relationship that was sometimes bumpy, according to several sources. But Stricklin also felt Mullen was one of the best coaches in the country.
His 69 wins are second only to Jackie Sherrill’s 75 wins at Mississippi State.
At Florida from 2005-08, Mullen was the offensive coordinator for two national titles and also coached Tebow to a Heisman Trophy in 2007. He accepted the job in Starkville after the Gators qualified for the national title game in ’08, but returned to coach in that win over Oklahoma.
Mullen’s offenses at Florida were among the best in school history. The Gators scored the most points in a season in 2008. That same season, UF averaged 7.1 yards a play, the second-best average in school history. In 2007, UF scored the second most points in school history.
In his four years as the coordinator, the Gators went 44-9, averaged 36.3 points a game and 6.5 yards per play. All ranked first in the SEC over that span.
Mississippi State, at 8-4, is headed to its eighth straight bowl game. Florida, of course, is missing a bowl game for the second time in five years.
Mullen has worked with some of the best quarterbacks in college football including Tebow, Smith and Prescott.
But there was a perception he wasn’t well-liked when he was at Florida because of his aloof personality. One high-ranking SEC official referred to Mullen’s issues with a “bedside manner.”
But Stricklin told The Sun recently that he felt that Mullen had matured both as a coach and a person during his time in Starkville.
Back in August, Mullen’s wife raised some issues with the fan base at UF on the Mississippi State Athletics website.
“The former school where we were at before, we won championships there, won practically every single game we played for four years there,” Megan Mullen said. “It wasn’t if we won or lost. It was if we didn’t score 43 points or more, I was going to the grocery store in Orlando where I worked with the Golf Channel and I was driving the groceries back to Gainesville, because it was that bad.”
When Florida hired Geoff Collins from Mississippi State to be the Florida defensive coordinator, Mullen referred to it as a “lateral move.” But apparently, that’s not the case at the top of the coaching food chain.
Mullen becomes the fifth coach to change from one SEC school to another following Bill Curry (Alabama to Kentucky), Gerry DiNardo (Vanderbilt to LSU), Tommy Tuberville (Ole Miss to Auburn) and Houston Nutt (Arkansas to Ole Miss).