Dear Dan Mullen,
It’s crazy how fast time can fly and how quickly things can change. You were the guy who called the offensive plays for two of the three national championships the Gator football team has ever won. You were the guy who developed Tim Tebow into a Heisman Trophy winner, and nearly developed a second in Kyle Trask. You were the guy who vociferously did the Gator chomp while still on the plane before you’d taken a single step on Gainesville soil as Florida’s head coach. You were the guy who talked nonstop about The Gator Standard, and the relentless effort it would take to achieve it.
Most importantly, you were the guy who- at least for 2.75 years- seemed to be making good on all your promises, seemed to be justifying the hype surrounding the hire, and seemed to be living up to the standard that he himself set for the Gator program. In early December of 2020, you seemed on top of the world.
So what happened?
I can’t claim to know anything that’s going on in your head. From an outsider’s perspective, though, I can tell you at least one thing that seems to have happened: you got too big for your britches.
We’ve always known you were loyal to various coaches and players for reasons other than performance, and gave them more rope than most would when they failed to perform. Mississippi State beat writers told us that when you were hired almost four years ago to the day. And sure enough, it’s been on display throughout your tenure- only now it’s become such a severe hindrance to your program that we can’t even call it loyalty to a fault anymore.
This trait of yours has crossed into the territory of arrogance, stubbornness, and downright stupidity. Your unwillingness to go down any avenue but incumbency, where you prefer to lose games doing things your way than win games doing things any other way, has finally come home to roost. There’s no Kyle-to-Kyle connection to bail you out anymore, no ultra-shifty generational talent like Kadarius Toney to use as a security blanket to conceal the flaws in your stewardship. Nor is there an abundance of blue-chip talent waiting in the wings, because… well, we all know why.
Now your program is losing games and getting flat-out humiliated by inferior opponents. And in less than 365 days, you’ve gone from one of the top coaches in college football to standing on some of the thinnest ice in the sport.
Establishing a routine of making business decisions, regardless of how tough they may be, could have spared you from this downfall. It’s a domino effect, you see. Had you detached the cinderblock from your leg that was Todd Grantham from your program way back when you should have, when the water had first crept up to your toes— as opposed to when the water had already risen up to your nose— you wouldn’t be in this mess.
Personally, I’d seen enough of Todd Grantham after Bryce Perkins looked like Michael Vick in the 2019 Orange Bowl, but at least at that point it remained a fair argument to keep him onboard because the stats were good even while the tape was bad. So, OK; reasonable minds can differ, and that’s all that was at that point, a difference of opinion. Within three games of the 2020 season, it was obvious to most observers that he simply wasn’t working, and each game that played out from that point on made it seem more certain that Grantham would be gone by season’s end. As Oklahoma was wrapping up its 55-20 blowout win over Florida in the 2020 Cotton Bowl, Gator fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The loss was disconcerting, disgusting, and disgraceful, but at least now they could be sure that Todd Grantham was gone.
Except: despite libraries of information that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Todd Grantham was a cancer to an otherwise healthy football program, you brought him back and allowed that cancer to grow. And no, you didn’t bring him back because his contract only had one more year on it and Florida didn’t want to pay all two million dollars of his buyout. That’s been debunked by multiple boosters. You brought him back because you wanted to and because you could, not because you thought it was the best thing for the program.
Predictably, the results were horrendous. Your star coordinator didn’t do anything particularly egregious in the first half of the season, other than the standard failures to get his team to line up correctly, take the right angles or make tackles in the open field. But then came LSU, where he appeared completely perplexed by an elementary counter play that the Ask Madden feature from Madden 2010 could have told him how to stop (hint: not a 4-2-5 defense) as LSU’s backup running back, Tyrion Davis-Price, rode it for a school-record 287 yards. And even still, you continued to insist on standing by him.
Only after South Carolina (a school that, by the way, has an uphill battle to even reach a bowl game this year) hung 459 yards on you was action taken. And after talking to three high-level boosters, I learned to my horror— but not my surprise— that you still didn’t want to fire Grantham after that game (I mean let’s face it, is anybody really surprised by that?). You were forced to fire him to keep your own job. I’ll give you credit, you did at least come to the conclusion that you’d rather fire Grantham (and Hevesy) than be fired along with them. You did make the choice to chop off that piece of cinderblock attached to your leg once the water had risen up to your eyes rather than allow that cinderblock to drown you.
The problem, though, is that if you’d detached the cinderblock when the water first lapped up around your ankles (Virginia in the 2019 Orange Bowl) or even when it rose to your waist (Oklahoma in the 2020 Cotton Bowl), you would have had a real chance to jump out of the water, climb to higher ground, and allow the cinderblock to sink on its own (in this metaphor, I mean letting Grantham torpedo his own career someplace else and rebuilding your defense with a coordinator who is actually hired because he’s good at his job). In other words, the hire of Grantham would have been chalked up as a small misstep that nobody would have ultimately held against you if you got his replacement hire right. You would have had a chance to correct that mistake without losing much of the goodwill you’d bought with Gator fans from your days as the offensive coordinator, and in fact gain more. But nope.
Worse yet, your bullheaded refusal to disengage from Grantham was only a symptom of the larger problem: that you fundamentally don’t care about using personnel that gives you the best chance to win games, opting instead to roll with personnel that you’re either familiar with, is older, or that you simply want to use because you want to, you said so, and that’s the way it is.
I texted with four different former Gator football players, all of whom played at least one year for Mullen at Florida, in the week after the South Carolina debacle to get their reactions on Todd Grantham’s dismissal. All four of them affirmed that given everything they’d seen, it was not a move he made willingly. And all four cited the fact that heading into the 2019 season, Kyle Trask looked head and shoulders better than Feleipe Franks in summer practices and that Mullen chose to go with Franks anyway to back that sentiment up. That’s not a mistake.
And one of those former players (who was not on the 2020 team) was not exactly happy to see a certain cornerback play against Alabama the week after his fatal shoe toss. “Marco’s a good dude,” the former player told me. “A great dude, actually. He had no business playing in that SEC Championship Game, in my opinion. It’s called accountability. I’m not here to bash him; I’m thrilled to see him killing it for the Cardinals and wish him all the success in the world moving forward. He deserves a chance to move forward and let the rest of his career define him. I’m just saying he shouldn’t have played that next week because Dan Mullen needed to set an example out of him.”
Now, I should point out that this was just one player, with one opinion. I know for a fact that there were a lot of people in that locker room who wanted Marco Wilson out there with them in the SEC Title Game. That’s fine. That’s something for the consensus of the people in that locker room to decide, not those who watch from afar. But to this player’s point, the only example you seem to set, Dan, is that once you’ve set your mind on going a certain direction at a certain position, it’s going to take nothing short of a broken leg or the Florida booster base knight forking you for a change to be made.
Why has Dameon Pierce not touched the ball more than nine times in a single game this season? Why has Diwun Black, a kid who by the way would run through a brick wall for you, not been given a shot at least in some capacity on a defense that’s getting worse and worse with each passing week? Why did it take you until Florida was already 4-3 and out of the CFP race to decide to give Anthony Richardson a shot at the starting QB job— against the best defense in the nation, which is an excellent way to wreck his confidence?
And it’s not just a “this year” thing, either. Why did it take you so long to give Kadarius Toney an actual, consistent role in the offense? Why did you retain Ja’Juan Seider from the Jim McElwain staff, but then force him to switch from his natural role at RB coach to TE coach (where he had zero experience) so you could bring in… Greg Knox? Why did you watch Franks fling a squawking turkey into quadruple coverage with 4:20 left against Miami in the Camping World Classic and decide, “Yeah, this is my guy, no doubt, no need for an open QB competition”…?
Above all else, it just boils down to one simple question: why in the name of all things holy can you not get out of your own way?
The truth is that you do so many things well, and if you just made a few adjustments, you could thrive. When it comes to calling plays and developing quarterbacks, for example, there are few human beings out there as gifted as you. Countless former players of yours refer to you as a play-calling genius. As Gator fans, we could all see it for ourselves in your first stint at Florida. There was always something new, always evolution, adaptation, growth. One week it was the Bubba Caldwell reverse. Then it was the inside shovel pass to the tight end. That developed into the triple option. Next came the jump pass. The diamond look. And so on.
Your intelligence isn’t the issue here. The issue is that you still seem desperate to prove your intelligence by winning football games on the back of decisions that nobody other than yourself thinks will work.
Well, that may have worked in your first 2.75 seasons, but no longer. This “I know everything and you know nothing” ideology you seem to carry yourself with has run its course. The team has stopped winning. You’ve always thought you could do whatever you want, make whatever decisions floated your boat, and you could just get away with it by out scheming everybody. Which may be a winning strategy… until the day you don’t out scheme everybody.
Now, that water is still at your eyes, and you’re one more misstep away from earning your tenure as Florida’s head coach a nice deep-sea grave. You did rid yourself of Grantham, but because you waited so long to do it, this program that you claimed would give relentless effort to compete for championships is now smack-dab in a tailspin.
You like evaluating things, right Dan? Well, evaluate this: your Florida Gators are 2-8 in their last ten games against Power Five opponents. And one of those wins was over Vanderbilt, a school that— let’s be real— has no objective business playing football in the FBS at all. We got a good look at that when East Tennessee State walloped the Commodores 23-3 in a supposed payday game to start the season. And when your Gators aren’t losing to Power Five teams, they’re letting sub-.500 FCS teams walk into the Swamp and break records in bunches- and have to fight tooth and nail just to survive against teams they’re favored to beat by nearly 40 points.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s nobody in the country I’d rather have coach the Florida Gators than the Dan Mullen that emphatically stomped off the private plane Gator chomping. The Dan Mullen that talks about putting the ball down, and someone winning and someone losing, and that it didn’t matter if we were thumb wrestling or running stadiums; if it was a competition, you were going to dominate. The “Beat Your Ass” Dan Mullen. I can pick anybody to coach the Gators? Give me that Dan Mullen. You were still stubborn and arrogant then, but at least your team wanted to play for you- and proved it with its results.
But that Dan Mullen isn’t the Dan Mullen we see today. 40-17 against South Carolina is simply not a result that’s possible when a Florida Gators football team goes to war for its coach. And it’s not extremely difficult to tell why they don’t. The Dan Mullen we see before us these days seems submissive, almost resigned. Maybe that’s because you are… literally.
All I know for sure is that if I knew we could get that 2018 or 2019- hell, even the first half of 2020- version of you back, I’d still be supporting you as adamantly as I was before you were even hired. I simply don’t think that version of you is retrievable. I don’t know what evidence there is that that Dan Mullen is preserved in a time capsule and we can dig it out. The evidence instead shows me a man who’s burned out, with the final embers being extinguished two weeks ago in South Carolina. My opinion is that it’s not possible to revive ashes.
But my opinion doesn’t matter, the same way that everybody else’s opinion doesn’t matter except for those of Kent Fuchs and Florida’s AD (whether that’s Scott Stricklin or a potential replacement). The good news for you is that somehow, your career at Florida is still alive, albeit barely. The bad news for you is that in order to keep it that way, you now have zero margin for any future missteps- and now you have to win games at a clip you’ve never won before.
There’s no more room for, “Well, Tyler Badie had already rushed for 200 yards in four games this year!” or “Jordan Travis lathered his body in grease!” type excuses. No room for blaming a 31 year old interim DC for a defense giving up 675 yards to Missouri or FSU. No room for any more deflections, lack of accountability, or your signature twattery at press conferences. No room for any more losses.
The only acceptable results moving forward are the Florida Gators looking like the dynamic team that you, Dan, told us you wanted to have competing for championships. And that means more winning than ever before.
The 11-14 year old version of me that watched in awe as you helped Florida win a pair of national championships in a magical four year span hopes against hope that you can do that. The 27 year old version of me who has watched the past month unfold and types this all out knows that it’s extremely unlikely.
Ultimately, though, your future is in your hands. It’s up to you, Dan. What will it be?