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What’s Next For The Florida Gators?

  • The Draft Network
  • November 22, 2021
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Does anyone have a Neuralyzer from Men in Black? You know, one of those mind-erasing devices? Because Florida Gators fans could surely use one after a trainwreck of a season—one that ultimately led to Dan Mullen’s dismissal from the program. After all, they had sky-high hopes ahead of the season. And how could they not? 

Mullen came to Gainesville in 2018 with the promise of recapturing the glory days he helped create as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator. Mullen seemed to be delivering on that promise early in his head coaching career at Florida. He led the Gators to back-to-back seasons of 10+ wins, which included two New Year’s Six bowl wins. 

Then came 2020. Despite Mullen’s first trip to the SEC title game as head coach, there was a budding sense of disappointment following three losses to end the season. It seemed like the team checked out after a devastating home loss to LSU. While those feelings quelled a bit after a close defeat to Alabama in the conference championship, the concerns arose again when Oklahoma handily beat Florida in the Cotton Bowl. Fans and media alike began to question Mullen’s grip on the team. That included his refusal to fix one of the country’s worst defenses; the Gators ranked 83rd in the FBS in total defense. 

But a formerly stout unit-turned-liability was far from the only issue under Mullen. He was criticized for a lack of accountability, failure to recruit well, and a strange sense of loyalty. The latter mostly stemmed from Mullen’s commitment to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who helmed a defense that regressed hard in 2020. Mullen has also been known to stick with older players over younger players who were widely perceived as better. (Re: Emory Jones over Anthony Richardson in 2021, Marco Wilson over Jaydon Hill in 2020, etc.) 

Luckily for Florida fans, 2021 offered a chance at building on the good of 2020 that included a top-scoring offense, an SEC East title, and a Heisman campaign from QB Kyle Trask. Surely, the Gators could still be an SEC contender again, right?

Wrong. So wrong.

As it stands, the Gators enter their final game with a 2-6 conference record—their worst such record since the SEC expanded conference games to eight in 1992. Losses to Missouri and South Carolina leave Vanderbilt as the only SEC team with a worse conference record than Florida. Vanderbilt. And all those concerns mentioned above? They didn’t go away. 

The season went so poorly that even Mullen’s firing of Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy—much to the cheers of Gators fans—couldn’t save the team. Despite the shocking fall from grace, Mullen insisted he and athletic director Scott Stricklin have already set their sights on improving the team in the offseason. 

“We had meetings last week about what direction we needed to go in the future with assistant coaches and who we’re going to bring in and who the candidates are and changes we need to look to make,” Mullen said after a 23-point loss to South Carolina on Nov. 6. 

That direction will never be fulfilled, because two weeks later, Mullen was fired for the first time in his 27-year coaching career.

So What’s Next for the Gators?

The Gators will now be searching for their fourth coach in 11 seasons. Their division rival and the No. 1 team in the country, the Georgia Bulldogs, have hired just two head coaches in that span. The worst team in the SEC, the winless Vanderbilt Commodores, are in the first season of their third head coach since 2011.

Meanwhile, Stricklin must go back to the drawing board four years after hiring his first head football coach as Florida’s AD. Despite facing his own criticisms for mishandling abuse within the women’s basketball program, Stricklin said he was given full support from the school’s Board of Trustees and boosters in finding the next head coach.

So what can we expect from the next head coach at Florida? 

“To achieve at a high level for a sustained period,” Stricklin said at a press conference Sunday afternoon.

If you’re confused about what that exactly entails, you’re not alone. It’s a heck of an answer by Stricklin, though. To some Gator fans, “sustained success” may be consistent 10-win seasons. To others, it may be defeating Georgia every season. To others, it’s “living up to the Gator Standard.” 

Used as a slogan of sorts among the university, the Gator Standard was constantly referred to by Mullen during his tenure. To many, that simply meant bringing the Gators back to their championship ways seen under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer (in case you couldn’t tell, their shadows loom large in Gainesville).

Back in his first spring as head coach, Mullen explained his viewpoint of the Gator Standard.

“The Gator Standard is: Did we push ourselves to be the absolute best we can be and take ourselves to become the absolute best we could be?” Mullen said. “If we do that then you’re going to have the opportunity to go win the championships that we expect as part of this program.”

The Gator Standard is a great preaching point for competition and an even better look for branding and recruiting. Surely, it’s a good bar to set for any new head coach. The expectations at Florida must be meeting the Gator Standard, right?

But the question shouldn’t be, “What are the expectations at Florida?” Rather, the question must be, “What should the expectations be at Florida?”

This is a football program that has just two consecutive 10-win seasons this century. However, they are the 14th-winningest team since 2003 with a 68.5% win percentage. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Gators are one of the five teams to win two championships in the last 20 seasons.

That’s not even touching the success the Gators saw under Steve Spurrier during the 90s. They had the fourth-best win percentage of that decade, behind only Florida State, Nebraska, and Marshall. Like Florida, those three schools have struggled to replicate that success lately.

So back to the initial question: What should the expectations be at Florida? Well, it depends who you ask. Lifelong fans of the program will demand more championships, especially those who lived through the Spurrier and Meyer eras. It’s no question Stricklin’s goal should be to find a coach capable of winning a title. There’s no doubt that Florida is one of the most storied football programs in college football history. They may not be a Notre Dame or an Alabama, but you can’t write the story of college football without including the Gators.

But you know who may not be too familiar with that history? People who are too young to remember when the Gators ruled the college football world, a.k.a. recruits.

How can you sell a 17-year-old on a “storied” program when you haven’t won anything during his lifetime? Since Meyer left in 2010, 30 FBS teams have had a better win percentage than the Gators. That includes Florida State, UCF, Oklahoma State, Auburn, and TCU, to name a few. It’ll be up to the new coach to sell the heck out of a program that’s endured a roller coaster of a decade. 

Don’t get it twisted, the Gators brand still holds immense value, especially with a gorgeous new, $85 million facility under construction. But the point remains: Some high schoolers won’t care about what the team did in the 90s or 00s. That’s why the Gators’ next head coach has to be an all-star recruiter. Mullen never was. He was touted as a good coach and a quarterback whisperer, yet no one ever heralded Mullen as a great recruiter. And if someone did, show them Mullen’s last three recruiting finishes among the SEC, including the 2022 class (per 247 Sports): 

  • 2019: 5th
  • 2020: 6th
  • 2021: 5th
  • 2022: 10th

Possible Candidates

The next guy has to be a good recruiter. Dare I say he has to live and breathe it. Florida fans are already submitting wish lists of candidates, most of which feature Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin and Penn State’s James Franklin. Both coaches are currently under contract until at least 2024. Oregon’s Mario Cristobal may want a move back to the South. It seems like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley is always connected to big open jobs. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is coming off a down year. 

Sorry Gators fans, of those five coaches, only one seems to truly be a candidate for Florida: Kiffin. The 46-year-old coach spent a season at Tennessee in 2009 before jettisoning out west to USC. He lasted three full seasons before getting canned five games into the 2013 season. After spending three years under Nick Saban at Alabama, Kiffin bounced back on the scene with two seasons of 10+ wins at Florida Atlantic. However, his trip to South Florida was—shocker—cut short as he became Ole Miss’ head coach ahead of the 2020 season. 

On the surface, Kiffin is a fun, Twitter-loving energizer with a knack for developing potent offenses. But would he be that much better than Mullen at Florida? Kiffin is arguably a better recruiter, and he’s certainly proven his adaptability. There’s just one concern: What exactly has Kiffin accomplished?

Sure, an 11-win season at USC while under sanctions is an impressive feat. But like Mullen, Kiffin’s charm and charisma quickly soured those in charge. He was fired in his fourth season after failing to live up to lofty expectations. Sound familiar?

Kiffin would almost certainly be a better recruiter than Mullen because, well, who wouldn’t? But the Gators have done this dance before. If they can’t land a pipe-dream hire like a Swinney or a Riley—and I seriously doubt they would—then the Gators shouldn’t be dead-set on hiring Kiffin. Yes, he’d have better access to recruits, facilities, money, etc. at Florida than he did at Tennessee and Ole Miss. There’s just little to suggest Kiffin can compete with Kirby Smart and Saban every year. 

The Gators are better suited targeting a young, high-upside coach with lots to prove in the SEC. Someone with SEC ties. Someone who knows how to build and sustain a successful program. Someone who is touted for being “meticulous,” “passionate” and a good recruiter.

Enter Billy Napier.

Groans would be fair from Florida fans. After all, Napier has yet to run a program larger than Louisiana. Napier’s coaching path:

  • 2003–2004: Clemson (GA)
  • 2005: South Carolina St (QB)
  • 2006-08: Clemson (TE/RC)
  • 2009-10: Clemson (OC/QB)
  • 2011: Alabama (Analyst)
  • 2012: Colorado St (AHC/QB)
  • 2013–16: Alabama (WR)
  • 2017: Arizona St (OC/QB)
  • 2018–Present: Louisiana

Clearly, Napier is a bit more of an unknown than Kiffin. Folks, that’s exactly what Florida needs. 

Mullen spent four seasons at Florida enduring the same problems he endured for nine seasons at Mississippi State. Jim McElwain spent three seasons at Florida enduring the same problems he endured for three seasons at Colorado State. Napier’s only problem is his lack of experience. Obviously, there is no one true blueprint to being a successful head coach. But the same was said about a handful of recently successful coaches, like Swinney and Riley.

It’s time the Gators swung for the fences. Kiffin would be a fine hire, but Napier could do more than recapture the so-called Gator Standard set by Spurrier and Meyer. He could redefine it, just as he’s done at Louisiana.

Whoever ends up donning the Gator logo next is in for a huge challenge. They’ll be tasked with re-establishing Florida as a constantly feared winner. Winning 8-9 games a season won’t cut it. Neither will just contending for a conference title each season.

For the next head coach to be successful, he can’t just meet the Gator Standard. He has to redefine it.

A culture change is needed at Florida. The Gators should hire someone who’s proven capable of changing one.

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