GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Dan Mullen touched down in Gainesville on Monday morning, Gator Chomping his way off the plane, smiling wide, shaking hands with fans and media and showing off the gleam of the 2008 national championship ring he won at Florida, it all seemed right.
“I’ve got the 2006 one in the bag,” he joked, as if anyone needed more proof of his credentials.
Watching athletic director Scott Stricklin mingle with reporters as everyone awaited the arrival of the Gators’ new head football coach at the airport, he seemed entirely satisfied with how this month-long coaching search ended.
Regardless of whatever transpired with Chip Kelly or didn’t transpire with Scott Frost.
At this point, fans should feel the same way.
To listen to sports talk radio or read social media and see divided opinions or even disappointment doesn’t quite make sense.
Whichever coach one preferred — and when this process started, I did view Frost as the best candidate and Kelly as a incredible get once the buzz shifted his way — Mullen is a good hire.
There isn’t a compelling argument to be made to the contrary. Whether or not he was the preferred hire for some fans, his credentials aren’t in question.
Start with those two national championship rings he won as the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer during the Gators’ last stay atop the pinnacle of college football.
His offenses averaged 36.3 points per game over his four seasons in Gainesville, and in his final two years he had the Gators ranking third nationally in scoring in 2007 (42.46 points per game) and fourth in 2008 (43.64).
Yeah, that happened in The Swamp. There’s a young generation of Florida football fans who only know the slop offenses of the last seven years, but once upon a time the Gators were one of the most exciting teams in the country and Mullen was a part of it.
And yet (sorry, force of habit now), what he did at Mississippi State was probably even more impressive.
Coaching performances must always be judged in relative perspective to circumstances.
Sure, Mullen went 33-39 in the SEC (69-46 overall) over his nine seasons in Starkville, Miss. Fans who want to short this hire because he’s not Frost or Kelly will dwell on the raw statistic and not the story behind it.
Here were the Bulldogs records in the eight seasons before Mullen took over, starting in 2001: 3-8, 3-9, 2-10, 3-8, 3-8, 3-9, 8-5, 4-8.
Here were Mississippi State’s records in nine seasons with Mullen, starting in 2009: 5-7, 9-4, 7-6, 8-5, 7-6, 10-3, 9-4, 6-7, 8-4.
That’s a 10-win seasons, two 9-wins seasons (and potentially another this year if he had stayed and won a bowl game). Before his arrival, the Bulldogs had just one season of more than 8 wins since 1980.
Along with Vanderbilt, Mississippi State is arguably the hardest place to win in the SEC. Sure, Mullen finished fourth or fifth in the SEC West in all but one season (placing second in 2014), but he also got the Bulldogs to a No. 1 national ranking during that 2014 campaign and made the program relevant.
Speaking of Vandy, maybe that’s an apt comparison to draw.
James Franklin worked similar wonders in Nashville, guiding the Commodores to a pair of 9-4 seasons to finish his three-year tenure there. His teams never finished higher than fourth in the SEC East.
Franklin left for a bigger job at Penn State and has won 21 games (and counting) over the last two seasons in Happy Valley.
The point is, Franklin’s peak potential at Vanderbilt does not match the potential he’s demonstrated at Penn State.
And Mullen’s performance at Mississippi State was reflective only of what he could do as an underdog competing against the Alabama’s, LSU’s and Auburn’s of the SEC West. Give him Florida’s recruiting pull and the backing of the Gators brand and see what he’s capable of in his return to Gainesville.
That’s the overall message. Kelly would have made a bigger splash, Frost would have appeased perhaps more fans, but Mullen brings plenty of upside on his own and it’s worth seeing what he can do and who he is in this position before deciding what he isn’t and what he won’t do.
I didn’t have Mullen at the top of my list at any point in this process mainly because I wondered if he was truly interested in the job. The comments his wife Megan made in August, comparing the comfort of living in Starkville with the difficulty of dealing with Florida fans’ unrealistic expectations, seemed like a lot to overcome for a reunion in Gainesville.
Mullen will address that in his news conference later today, but the smiling, Gator Chomping guy who walked off that plane Monday morning looked like he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
Stricklin, at ease and joking with reporters after a stressful month since parting ways with Jim McElwain, looked fully content in the outcome of his efforts.
There’s no reason for Florida fans to feel any differently at this point.
The Gators got the guy who wanted to be here, who has already had success here and who brings enough credibility and upside to believe that he will again.
That’s more than enough to warrant the buy-in of a beleaguered fan base.
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