Thanks to the baseless floating of rumors Sunday afternoon, we now enter Day Three of “Dan Mullen to the NFL hysteria”. Thus, I felt it was time for an updated version of the “calm down, Dan Mullen is very unlikely to go anywhere” article I published Sunday night, and re-make the case for why he’s extremely unlikely to leave the University of Florida- only this time, adding a little bit of sourced information to the connection of dots.
As I laid out on Sunday night, it simply does not seem rational to believe that Dan Mullen would leave what he’s building at Florida for an NFL job, where he would have to start all over again. Because, as we all know, NFL jobs come open for a reason. But having already laid out the reasons for why Mullen jumping to the NFL doesn’t seem likely in that hyperlinked article above, today I think it’s imperative to focus on the converse: why it does seem likely that Dan Mullen will remain the coach of the Florida Gators.
Let’s warm up with the quick and simple reason for him to stay: Emory Jones. Mullen is a man that supposedly does not care for recruiting- something that the “he’s leaving for the NFL” folks have often leaned on as a supporting data point. Well, fine, those of you who say that: you win. He doesn’t like recruiting. So now that he did all the work to flip Jones from Ohio State, and the subsequent work of developing him over the past three seasons, he may as well stick around and see that project through. Do remember that Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask were leftovers from the Jim McElwain era; Jones would be the first quarterback to play for Mullen at Florida that Mullen recruited himself. So one would have to think he’d be excited to have the chance to finally tailor an offense to someone that he recruited.
Of course, there’s more going on than just that. The above citation of Emory Jones is not to say things are all sunshine and rainbows in Gainesville, or that Mullen is a lock to come back to the University of Florida in 2021- as Matt Hayes laid out in an article yesterday– but they’re not quite as contentious as the ill-informed, internet trolls, or just plain idiots may want you to believe.
A source has told me that while the general thesis of his article is not incorrect, Hayes placed a little bit more emphasis on a couple pieces of his information than the reality dictated he should.
Per my source, the thing that has University of Florida administration the most irritated with Dan Mullen, by far, is his issue with PR. By “issue with PR,” I mean my source outright told me, “the guy is a potential PR nightmare.” And there’s public evidence that Scott Stricklin doesn’t appreciate one of Mullen’s press conference missteps in particular; back in October, when Mullen suggested that Florida “pack the Swamp” in response to Texas A&M’s seemingly egregious breach of the SEC’s 25% crowd capacity limit, Stricklin spoke up:
“I think based on his comments today that, you know, (Mullen) respects the importance of listening to the medical professionals,” Stricklin said in his video press conference. “Coaches sometimes say things that are outside their area of expertise. And, you know, they’re really good at what they do. Dan is really good at calling plays.
“I’ll share a story with you I mentioned, [chief of UF’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine department] Dr. Mike Lauzardo, earlier I had a conversation with him yesterday and he said, ‘Hey, since Coach Mullen is now getting into public health policy, I want to know can I call some plays.’ So, I told him I’d make a deal going forward, Dan will focus on calling plays and we’ll let Dr. Lauzardo focus on the public health policy.”
Stricklin, in contrast to Mullen, is one of the more PR-savvy guys in the world of college sports you’ll ever find. He knows it doesn’t behoove him or the university he works for to come out guns blazing and start firing back at Mullen like a chain gun. He was even gracious enough to bill the firing of Jim McElwain as a “mutual decision.” Which I have on very good authority that… yeah, sorry, no. He was fired. So when he does publicly criticize Mullen- a man he hired at Florida, and worked with for several years at Mississippi State before that- logic suggests that he’s really, really exasperated.
Quick aside here, and then back to the Stricklin/Florida-Mullen marriage: you know who else would be exasperated by that? NFL teams located in, say, Los Angeles or New York, where COVID numbers are currently running rampant. You think the optics of what Mullen said as someone who represents a program in Gainesville are brutal? They’d be infinitely worse if he made them as the head coach of the Chargers or the Jets, and regardless of how likely he is to repeat them, that’s a major red flag for both those teams- if they’re even interested in him to begin with. Now imagine Mullen outright saying he thought “our scout team played hard” in a five touchdown loss, or dressing up in a Darth Vader outfit for a press conference (personally, I think that’s hilarious, but other people with opinions that mean more probably would not) or running onto the field amidst a brawl, etc. as the head coach of an NFL team. Those optics would be apocalyptic.
But anyway: while irritating, this is something that can ultimately be fixed. Stricklin has a number of options that he could resort to in order to patch up this problem: he can sit Mullen down and outright coach him on what he wants him to say, or he can force him to spend a few hours with one of UF’s many respected PR professors and have him or her fine-tune Mullen’s approach, or he can even simply tell Mullen to just take the Bill Belichick approach and just give non-answers. It’s not a deal-breaker, it’s not a fireable offense, and the sum of Mullen’s PR blunders are nowhere near as bad as Jim McElwain painting the fan base as bloodthirsty vultures who clamor for blood and guts at the first hint of trouble in paradise.
Then there’s the other problem Hayes laid out in his article, and that my source addressed: the NCAA violations. This, per my source, was “a point of serious discussion between Mullen and Stricklin- but that discussion ended with Stricklin sternly, yet simply, telling Mullen, ‘don’t do it again,’ (paraphrasing) Mullen promising he would not, Stricklin nodding in acceptance and then changing the subject entirely.” Translation: Stricklin is most decidedly not happy that Mullen and someone on his staff (who is believed to be Ron English) committed an NCAA violation, but accepted Mullen’s response that he would not do such a thing again, and assuming he does not, the issue would become water under the bridge.
Stricklin’s public response to the NCAA violations indicated as such. To be clear: there’s not nothing there, and this is not complete and utter fake news, but what is there is relatively innocuous and, assuming Mullen stays out of trouble from here on out, not going to have any further consequences.
Here’s where you throw in the long history between Stricklin and Mullen. Stricklin was not the man who initially hired Mullen at Mississippi State, but he came aboard shortly after Mullen’s arrival and then made painstaking efforts to keep Mullen happy in Starkville as bigger and better programs beckoned. And then, as we all know, Stricklin hired Mullen to reunite with him in Gainesville. That’s a demonstration of over a decade of consistent and unwavering loyalty to a man with all the PR problems that supposedly-but-not-really have Stricklin enraged with Mullen and ready to look for his replacement.
And here’s where you throw in who Dan Mullen is. He didn’t just magically and suddenly start struggling with PR this year. He’s always been a brusque, stubborn and at times downright arrogant New England Yankee- and before you mistake that as an attack of Mullen’s character, that personality is paired with a man who is universally regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the game, a man who is generally loved by his players and assistants, and a man who will refuse to quit a film room session until he finds a particular mismatch he can exploit on game day. There are a lot of good things that come with that personality, such as, you know, wins. Mullen has more of them than any coach in Mississippi State history not named Jackie Sherrill, and he earned 28 of them in Gainesville faster than anybody else before him, including Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Stricklin- a man who has spent his entire life in the South- knows all this. And he obviously has no problem with it, given his long history with Mullen. Stricklin sees that Mullen, like every human being to ever walk the planet, is good at some things in life and bad at others. The thing he’s the best at, coaching football, is, obviously, the main criteria for him to hold the job he currently holds.
In no business does every single employee do every single task 100% correct 100% of the time, but there’s a reason why the overwhelming majority of foulups on the job do not result in a parting of ways. It’s because employers see that the employee brings far more good than bad to the organization. When the employee does screw something up, a talking-to is often necessary, and sometimes there’s even a formal warning involved, but the percentage of employee missteps that directly result in that employee losing the title of employee at that specific business are so microscopic because they were hired for a reason, and their net output at that business is (usually) a clear positive.
So the tl;dr of all that, because that’s the world we live in now: Scott Stricklin is not happy with some of Mullen’s actions and words, but is far more happy with the positives that Mullen provides than he is unhappy with those recent actions and words. Things are not all picture-perfect like they are in fairy-tales, but few professional relationships ever are, and this strikes me as the kind of conflict that is far more likely to be resolved without incident than with a parting of ways.
None of this is to say that what seems objectively unlikely won’t ensue. One of the several NFL teams with head coach openings and either a young, budding star at QB like Justin Herbert with the Chargers or a top draft pick like the Jaguars have to draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence could, in theory, defy logic, think outside the box, throw a hefty sum of money in Mullen’s direction and convince him to take over their franchise. We’re still not that far removed from a year where the catchphrase was, “it’s 2020, anything can happen.”
But it’s key to remember that characterization, based on all the information we know. That’s extremely unlikely to happen.
Welcome to 2021.