Maybe the Florida program had turned toxic under Dan Mullen. Maybe it was irretrievable. Things certainly took a quick turn for the worse where words like ‘collapse’ and ‘implosion’ were used in recent weeks.
Forget all the “toxic” talk about former players not supporting Mullen and all the inside baseball of Gainesville power brokers. I lived there for three years and covered the team and know it’s one of those insular SEC communities that has tasted greatness and wants it back. Badly.
So here’s the thing as we write the book on Mullen and his time as coach: great play-caller, ingenious offensive mind. Just not a phenomenal recruiter, at least not good enough to regularly win SEC championships and that – as clearly pointed out by athletic director Scott Stricklin in his Sunday call with reporters – is the expectation.
Florida currently has 11 commitments following four-star Isaiah Bond’s decommitment on Monday morning. None are in the Rivals100. Four-star receiver Jayden Gibson is underrated and is moving up but you get the point. The Gators currently have the No. 46 recruiting class nationally, dead last in the conference and that’s inexcusable.
At a time when Florida State and Miami are struggling to gain traction, and especially with Canes coach Manny Diaz on the hot seat and FSU’s Mike Norvell maybe not too far behind, Florida missed out on dominating in-state recruiting.
None of the top 18 players in the state are committed to the Gators. Only one prospect (Gibson) of the top 41 in Florida pledged to Florida. That’s borderline ridiculous as Georgia has two of the top three (both five-stars in Jaheim Singletary and Keithian Alexander) and Clemson has two of the top 12.
I keep coming back to Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s quote after his team beat down Florida, 34-7, on Oct. 30.
“If you don’t recruit, there’s no coach out there that can out-coach recruiting,” Smart said. “I don’t care who you are. The best coach to ever play the game better be a good recruiter because no coaching is going to out-coach players. Anybody will tell you our defense is good because they have good players.
“So spending time on the phone, spending time with people at your house, spending time with people when they come to your campus, I’m not with my family when I’m doing that. My family sacrifices so that I can go and spend time with other peoples’ families so that we have good players. That’s 25 percent evaluation, that’s 50 percent recruiting and another 25 percent is going to be coaching but if you don’t recruit, you got no chance.
“Just go look at the best teams out there, they got good football players and that’s the reason I believe in recruiting and I believe you better always be recruiting, always be recruiting because if you’re not, somebody else is.”
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer is one of the best recruiters college football has ever seen. He was maniacal about it. In the end, it might have been one reason why it drove him from the sport and caused health issues. It was a non-stop battle in recruiting for Meyer and he won a lot of those contests.
And a lot of games because of it.
In six seasons in Gainesville, Meyer won 82 percent of his games and two national championships. Since he left, the Gators under Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Mullen – none of them even close to having the recruiting prowess of Meyer – have won 62 percent of their games and no titles.
Meyer is undoubtedly a great coach but also a fantastic recruiter. The others weren’t. That cannot be a coincidence.
Whoever gets the Florida job next, whether it’s Louisiana’s Billy Napier or Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin or Oregon’s Mario Cristobal (did I see Bob Stoops on some coaching hot boards, too?) or someone else will have to remember the oldest saying in football: It’s about the Jimmys and Joes, not the Xs and Os. It actually happens to be cliché and true at the same time.
Mullen could have all the intricate offensive play-calls that he wants but without the best athletes, the best quarterbacks and receivers and offensive linemen, it won’t matter. Georgia is bringing in five-stars left and right and the SEC West is murderers row.
Florida can win big. It has proven that. But the next coach needs to worry less about outsmarting opponents and worry more about being just like Smart. It’s worked in Athens and it can work again in Gainesville.