- It feels so weird in a lot of directions. This could have happened seven or eight years ago. It’s bizarre to think of things in those terms: That there is an alternate timeline where Dan Mullen takes over the Florida program in 2010 or so, a respectable two years into Mullen’s tenure, and none of this ever happens. There would be no Muschamp, no Jeff Driskel falling to pieces in front of our eyes. Jim McElwain would not have happened. It is worth asking if he ever did.
- It’s also weird to see Mullen as a surprise and a reportedly a third choice, and yet as something so...good? Guaranteed? How about this: He is a known good with a long track record of being really good at football things. On a macro level: Mullen went .600 at Mississippi State. To put that in proper context, only two coaches since 1950 have done better in Starkville than Mullen. One was Murray Warmath, who went on to win a national title and two Big Ten titles at Minnesota. The other was Darrell Royal, who went on to win three national titles and eleven conference championships at Texas.
- The key difference: Those coaches ahead of Mullen on the Mississippi State win percentage list post-1950 each spent just two years in Starkville. Mullen stayed on Cowbell Island for nine years. Only Jackie Sherrill stayed longer, finishing with a .500 record and leaving the program with scholarship restrictions and four years worth of probation. If Mullen looked extremely happy to be in Gainesville at his press conference it’s probably because he did something no one else in the history of the Mississippi State program has done: He left town clean, with a record well above .500, and of his own choice. He’s the old prospector who went to the Yukon and came back with all of his toes; He is the only person you know who ever made money off Bitcoin. Dan Mullen has already survived and thrived in situations that have destroyed other coaches.
- Florida has now eaten one coach alive (Meyer) and discarded two in a row. Those last two were dispatched mostly because they were found sorely lacking in the department of offensive production. After seven years of impotent offense—and for the last three, an attack that never finished in the top one hundred offenses in the country—Mullen has to score. The spring game’s score, ideally, would be somewhere in the 56-49 range. That’s Florida scoring against Florida, but the fanbase will take it. The fanbase will take anything resembling offense at this point, even the self-inflicted, simulated variety.
- Whether they even recognize it anymore is a good question. Mullen’s really eye-popping numbers come from his tenure at Florida as offensive coordinator. His Mississippi State teams, for the most part, put up scoring totals in the top quartile nationally or just near it. They were good, but never eye-popping, which checks out for a team that was a.) playing in the SEC West, and b.) was never rolling into Auburn, Baton Rouge, or Tuscaloosa on offense with the same kind of talent they inevitably faced on defense. This applied even for Mullen’s specialty, quarterbacks. In trying to put Mississippi State over in the SEC West, Mullen ultimately ended up getting his best work at QB out of three-star prospects Dak Prescott and two-star Nick Fitzgerald.
- That best work never really got Mississippi State over in the SEC West. In his time at Starkville, Mullen went 2-16 in ranked matchups. Add qualifiers—that it was at the Iowa State of the SEC, playing in the steepest, most distorted competitive environment in the conference’s history—and that number doesn’t really look much better, does it? It’s not the world’s most inspiring fact about a new head coach. Mullen did start to beat LSU consistently towards the end, and finally put a legitimate scare into Alabama, but in big games against conference competition the Bulldogs largely disappointed.
- Again: That could be Dan Mullen raising expectations to an unrealistic level where everyone forgot how historically miserable Mississippi State has been, or an inability to turn a program into a legitimate giant-killer, or something in between. Florida may have hired Kyle Whittingham at Utah, or they may have hired Bobby Bowden at West Virginia. (Bowden, prior to coming to Florida State, had one win over ranked competition as the coach of the Mountaineers and a record somewhere just north of .600. He went on to be Bobby Bowden. This shit is hard.)
- More concerning than anything on the field, though: Mullen’s dismal handling of Jeffery Simmons’ simple assault case while Mullen was coach at Mississippi State. Suspending an incoming highly regarded recruit for one easy game after they were caught on videotape punching a woman on the ground wasn’t enough at Mississippi State. It won’t be enough at Florida, either, but in Gainesville it’ll come with all the hellfire-grade scrutiny the program can attract in its worst and best moments. It is not encouraging that—in an opening press conference where Mullen was asked about everything from quarterback play to press access during practices to his wife’s comments about Gainesville—this didn’t come up once as a question.
- That is the baggage. This is the known potential: Mullen can manage a very challenging football situation very, very, very well. In charge of a program with a fat recruiting pipeline, history of recent success, ample funding, support from administration, and an AD who already knows what working with him entails, the potential for Mullen to do very large, impressive things at Florida is so tantalizingly real. At 45, he’s still young, but already has nearly a decade of experience making it work where it doesn’t usually work, football-wise. Calling it a high-floor pick is completely accurate—the risk is likely minimal, with the growth and potential above that baseline of “real good” to be determined.
- Which brings us back to weird, because we feel okay? This feels okay. Cautiously optimistic, even, for a given level of cautiously optimistic about something we can’t control, and can only watch unfold while complaining periodically. Having very few complaints feels so strange at this point that finding out Mullen might be bringing volatile defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with him came as a partial relief. That’s a relief because it is something we can immediately complain about. At this point after seven or eight years of unwatchable offensive famine, complaint feels like the only steady habit a Florida fan has.
DAN MULLEN IS A GOOD HIRE AND IT FEELS WEIRD TO BE CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC