Dan Mullen makes strong first impression in second go-round with Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s not that Dan Mullen necessarily expected or fixated on the possibility that he’d one day return to Florida, but when the opportunity came he sure didn’t need much time to consider his decision.

Mullen, who won two national championships in his four seasons as the Gators’ offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, said Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin called him Friday to gauge his interest, called again Saturday to advance the conversation and by the end of that night both sides were sold.

“I think we both felt great about it, and I think even more importantly, I think we both woke up Sunday morning and felt even better about it,” Mullen said Monday during his introductory news conference.  “I wanted to make sure I woke up Sunday morning and I was even more excited than I was Saturday night, and I was. I couldn’t wait to get going, and fortunately I woke up and there was already a missed call from Scott Stricklin and he was still really excited about me coming. So we made it work.”

Chip Kelly and Scott Frost generated more buzz during the month-long coaching search, but Mullen and Florida always made a lot of sense on a number of levels — be it Mullen’s past success at Florida, Mullen’s eight years working with Stricklin at Mississippi State, or simply his established strengths in the areas of the Gators’ most glaring weaknesses.

And listening to Mullen on Monday, well, the pairing made even more sense.

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Mullen will have to win games on the field — a lot of games — to satisfy Florida’s zealous and demanding fan base, but he certainly won the introductory press conference.

From his Gator Chomping arrival at the airport earlier in the morning to his statements later in the day, he made a strong first impression in his second go-round in Gainesville.

“There’s a lot of timing (involved) in what goes on in your life,” he said. “I know Megan and I have worked really hard over the last nine years at a football program at building it up and we certainly were ready and excited for a new challenge. That’s something we discussed and that we talked about — that we were in a good situation but we were ready and excited for a new challenge.

“And when the opportunity comes, to come to the University of Florida, I don’t know if there’s anywhere I’d rather be than here. I don’t know if there’s a better job in America than here. You know, when you have that opportunity, you can’t pass up the opportunity to come to the premiere program in the country.”

After nine years as the head coach at Mississippi State, Mullen found an offer he couldn’t refuse, signing a six-year contract with Florida worth $6 million a year — a $1.5 million annual raise from his previous contract.

Stricklin said the deal contains a flat $12 million buyout that will decrease when the money owed to Mullen drops below that threshold. Meanwhile, Mullen would owe Florida $2 million if he chose to break the contract and leave for another job. The Gators also paid $500,00 to Mississippi State to satisfy Mullen’s buyout there.

As for the money owed to former coach Jim McElwain, who was ousted midway through his third season back on Oct. 29, Stricklin said the separation agreement has not been signed yet therefore he could not provide financial details.

Regardless, the Gators are moving forward and Stricklin is doing it with a familiar and trusted coach. Stricklin was part of the process to bring Mullen to Mississippi State after the 2008 season while serving as an associate AD at the time, and he admitted there was a “personal price” for him to hire Mullen away from his alma mater and former employer.

In the end, he simply couldn’t find a better alternative.

“The only way I was going to hire Dan is if I thought he was unquestionably the best person,” Stricklin said. “And it’s probably fair to say, not because of Dan but because of my connection to Mississippi State, I was hoping to find somebody I thought was better than Dan. Again, that’s not because I don’t want to work with Dan, or Dan’s not the perfect fit here. It’s because there’s a personal price for me to make this decision, with my family, and that’s going to be a challenge going forward. The only way I could rationalize that is I am paid to make the best decision for the University of Florida. …

“When I got to that point where I realized Dan is the guy, he’s the right guy, I kind of cinched my belt and said, ‘We’ve got to do this, we don’t a choice.'”

Stricklin would not get into details about how far discussions went with Kelly, who ultimately took the job at UCLA, or Frost, who is in the midst of an undefeated season at UCF. And he was pressed in multiple ways about both.

He intimated that Kelly’s past show-cause penalty from the NCAA was the reason he wanted UF President Kent Fuchs a part of the six-person team that flew to New Hampshire to meet with Kelly. He also said this, responding generally to a non-specific question:

“Let me think of the best way to put this. You have to really want to be at the University of Florida to be the head coach at the University of Florida because of all the limelight and the notoriety and all the distractions that could come if you’re not paying attention, managing the right way,” Stricklin said. “You’ve got to really want to be here and know what you’re getting into. I’m not sure every coach we talked to had the same zeal to step into that situation.”

Mullen did, and he demonstrated it Monday in a news conference that lasted more than 50 minutes.

He addressed head-on the expectations that come with coaching a program that has won three national championships since 1996.

“I can promise you that I will give relentless effort in everything I do to make sure that we return the football program to a national championship level. That’s what it’s all about for us here is to be judged and win championships at the University of Florida and I’m committed to doing that,” Mullen said.

Mullen said recruiting will be his primary focus starting immediately, and that he hopes to have his offensive and defensive coordinators named within a couple weeks with the rest of the staff finalized after the new year.

He met with Florida’s current players Monday afternoon and told them they would get a fresh evaluation from the new coaching staff.

I told the team, I chose them. They didn’t choose me; I chose them. I guaranteed them that I will earn their respect.  But I promised them, they will earn my respect as well before they are able to put on that uniform and go represent our university out there on that football field,” Mullen said. “… Everyone has a clean slate to go start over and show what they can be.”

As for what the Gators can be, Mullen said he hopes there will be years where Florida is the fastest team on the field, or the biggest, or both. “But I do know this,” he added, “we will be the hardest-playing team every single Saturday when we take the field.”

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Dan Mullen arrived in Gainesville on Monday morning, giving the Gator Chomp on his way off the plane. (Jordan McPherson/SEC Country)

Mullen has a strong reputation for developing quarterbacks and his spread offenses averaged 36.3 points per game over his four seasons as Gators’ offensive coordinator from 2005-08, including the third and fifth-highest scoring teams in program history in 2008 (43.6 points per game) and 2007 (42.5).

Since then, well, Florida hasn’t been so good at scoring points. The Gators haven’t ranked higher than 56th nationally (30.2 points per game in 2014) since and have ranked in the 100s each of the last three years and four of the last five.

“Trust me, I know how important offense is here. I’ve been here and know what that’s all about, and I know everybody likes to score some points,” he said. “I love scoring points. That’s fun.”

The bigger reason he is here, though, is for what he did after he left Florida, resurrecting a Mississippi State program that won 4 games or fewer in seven of the eight seasons before his arrival.

During Mullen’s nine seasons in Starkville, the Bulldogs posted a 10-win season and two 9-win seasons (not counting the potential for his 8-4 2017 team to get there). At a program that had won more than 8 games only once since 1981 before his tenure.

He took one of the toughest jobs in the SEC and briefly got the Bulldogs to a No. 1 national ranking during their 10-win 2014 campaign. He went 69-46 overall and 33-39 in conference, battling with the Alabama’s, LSU’s and Auburn’s of the SEC West.

“What he’s done at Mississippi State is historic on so many levels,” Stricklin said. “And if you look at the historical context of what he’s done there, I know the raw numbers don’t look as good as what coach Spurrier did here, but from a historical context, at that place, it’s very similar. I mean, he changed the whole mindset of that program to one of being a winner.”

Now, he’ll try to return Florida to the same standard after the Gators finished 2017 with an adversity-marred 4-7 record for only their second losing season since 1980 (both coming since 2013).

“People ask for timetables. I have high expectations for next season, I do,” Mullen said. “And I have no idea what type of team we have. I haven’t seen anybody play or take a snap or run one step or tackle anybody.  But I’m going to promise you, I have extremely high expectations for our program next season, and I’ll continue to have them from one year to the next.”

Stricklin already had that confidence in what he thinks Mullen can build at Florida, and by the end of the new coach’s thorough introduction Monday, there were probably a lot more believers as well.

Again, he’ll have to prove it on the field, but Mullen gave Florida fans every reason to be excited about what’s ahead for the Gators.

“There’s no sure things, but I thought we had an opportunity with Dan to get as close to a sure things as possible,” Stricklin said. “…  I have no idea how long (it’s) going to take. I do know that we’re going to wake up one day and Dan Mullen’s going to be the football coach at Florida and we’re going to be winning a lot of games.”

The post Dan Mullen makes strong first impression in second go-round with Florida appeared first on SEC Country.

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