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On Florida’s hirings of Brian Johnson, Nick Savage to Dan Mullen’s staff

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The band is back together. And they’ve played a lot of hits.

AllState Sugar Bowl - Utah v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For the last nine seasons — essentially since Dan Mullen left for Mississippi State following a championship campaign in 2008 — the Florida Gators have struggled, to one extent or another, on offense.

In 2009, with Tim Tebow at the helm and a slew of other top-shelf players arrayed around him, Florida fell off slightly from its terrifying 2008 form — and also scuffled for the month of October, thanks to Tebow suffering a concussion that led to him missing part of one game and playing uncharacteristically poorly over his next two.

In 2010, without Tebow, Florida scored more than 100 fewer points than it had the year prior, and scored 14 or fewer points in games against Alabama, Mullen’s Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Florida State.

In 2011, Will Muschamp’s Gators began play. I don’t think I need to belabor that point.

In 2015, Jim McElwain’s Gators did. I don’t need to belabor this one, either.

The point is this: Florida’s trend line on offense has either been downward or nearly flat — and improving from really bad to bad isn’t exactly improving — since Mullen decamped for Starkville, and now Mullen’s task as Florida’s head coach is to fix that.

To do so, he is putting together a formidable staff of coaches he has worked with before — and well.

The latest addition came Sunday, as Florida announced the hiring of Houston offensive coordinator Brian Johnson to Mullen’s staff.

What role Johnson will have in Gainesville is somewhat unclear. While the Gators’ release says only that Johnson was hired as an assistant coach, it’s a lock that he’ll work with quarterbacks — he’s done nothing else in his career. It would, though seem somewhat unlikely on its face that Johnson would leave the title of offensive coordinator and role of play-caller at Houston — a position that got Major Applewhite the top job in H-Town, and has belonged in the past to head coaches like Philip Montgomery and Kliff Kingsbury — for a downgrade in title to just quarterbacks coach. It’s also widely assumed that Mullen will call his own plays as Florida’s head coach, as he did with Mississippi State, though Mullen technically did not say that during his introductory press conference, so Johnson is probably not going to be Florida’s play-caller.

But then again, Johnson did leave the offensive coordinator job at Utah — his alma mater, and the school he led to an undefeated season in 2008, helping earn himself a spot on the cover of NCAA Football 10 — to join Mullen’s staff as just the quarterbacks coach once before, doing so prior to the 2014 season. And it’s hard to say that didn’t work out for Johnson, who tutored Dak Prescott in 2014 and 2015, then helped turn Nick Fitzgerald from a low-profile recruit to a high-profile SEC QB.

In fact, tagging along with Mullen and having great success has worked out not just for Johnson but for Florida’s two other newly hired offensive assistants.

John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales, who joined Mullen in Starkville — immediately and eventually, respectively — after having worked with him during his first tour at Florida, have seemingly enjoyed the stability and security that has come with working under Mullen enough to follow him back to Gainesville. While Hevesy has been gainfully employed as Mullen’s colleague without interruption since 2001, when both men were part of Urban Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green, Gonzales flew the Meyer/Mullen coop after staying in Gainesville under Meyer in 2009 instead of heading to Starkville with Mullen — and after a brief, peripatetic sojourn away from Mullen’s orbit, he’s been a Mullen assistant since 2013.

Hevesy has never called plays at the collegiate level that I know of, but has held the title of running game coordinator and co-offensive coordinator under Mullen since 2009. Gonzales has called plays, with mixed results — you may recall that he was responsible for red zone calls at some stages during his Florida tenure, but he also worked as a co-offensive coordinator for a disastrous Illinois team that finished No. 122 in total offense in 2012 — but he has also been a career wide receivers coach, not usually a role that tickets assistants for offensive coordinator jobs. And yet Gonzales still got promoted to a co-offensive coordinator role from wide receivers coach at Missisisippi State.

And having the title and benefits of offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator while the head coach is calling the plays and taking the heat isn’t exactly a bad gig.

So maybe that’s part of why Johnson is willing to uproot himself from Houston after just one season: Working under Mullen as an offensive coach is usually a means of ensuring that you get to coach and build a good offense while also not taking the brunt of any external criticism.

But while Hevesy and Gonzales have seemingly mostly accepted roles as career assistants — Gonzales did interview for the Colorado State job vacated by McElwain in 2014, and given that CSU is his alma mater, he’ll be a logical candidate if and when Mike Bobo leaves Fort Collins, but it’s hard to see him being a hot candidate elsewhere — Johnson is likely ticketed for stardom in coaching. He turns 31 in February, and will have, as of next year, coached in the Pac-12, in Texas, and at two different SEC stops as a quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator.

And playing a prominent role in Florida’s offense had, until recent years, been a recipe for upward mobility. Mullen, Steve Addazio, and Charlie Weis all parlayed stints as Florida’s offensive coordinator into head coaching jobs — at least two of those were justified — and reaching back further, both Larry Fedora and Buddy Teevens were once Florida OCs before becoming HCs.

And, okay, yes: Florida’s last three offensive coordinators have all been let go from their current jobs in the last three months. But none of those OCs got to work under Mullen, and so the bet for Johnson and any other Mullen assistant is that joining The Dan Band is one great way to make hits.

History backs that up. Johnson, himself a Mullen recruit at Utah, can point to Prescott as a star pupil despite not having had to find him. Hevesy and Gonzales have sent multiple players to the NFL as Mullen assistants — and Gonzales, at least, didn’t recruit all of them.

Todd Grantham and Nick Savage, Florida’s other two announced hirings under Mullen, are also coaches who have joined established Mullen staffs and found success.

And in truth, they’re just following a time-honored formula of hitching your hopes to rising stars that Mullen once followed when following Meyer from Notre Dame to Bowling Green. Mullen had never before worked as more than a graduate assistant when Meyer took him to Bowling Green has his quarterbacks coach — and Mullen then was younger than Johnson is now, though Johnson never had to slum it as a graduate assistant, and has more experience than Mullen did then.

Five years later, he was the offensive coordinator at Florida. Four years after that, he was a head coach — and not yet 40.

If things go right for Mullen in Gainesville, it is likely that all of Mullen’s assistants will succeed, too.

If Florida wins like Florida wants to win, any or all of them will probably have a secure, well-paying job with regular raises in Gainesville for a long time to come. Gonzales and Johnson could get looks as offensive coordinators at other schools; Johnson could head elsewhere as a head coach before long. Grantham is likely at or near his earnings potential as a defensive coordinator, considering that he was already making more than a million dollars per year at his last two stops, but he could follow in the steps of the four Florida defensive coordinators this decade who have gotten head coaching jobs after leaving Gainesville.

And all of these coaches, along with the coaches who had been on McElwain’s staff, know that. There’s little question that the six assistant coaches quietly let go days after Mullen was hired knew that they had very good jobs at Florida, and would have wanted to keep them — and little question whether Ja’Juan Seider, Brad Davis, Chris Rumph, and Tim Skipper, the four remaining holdovers from McElwain’s staff, are scrambling to save their jobs or find equivalent ones.

Of those coaches, Seider and Davis may be the most likely to stay in Gainesville. Seider oversaw a banner year for Florida’s running back corps despite losing Jordan Scarlett before the season formally began and would be a strong link to South Florida for a program that has done well in recruiting the area of late, and Davis has been a strong recruiter even though Florida’s offensive line has struggled this year — and, with Hevesy on staff, could share the responsibilities of coaching the line with a more experienced coach.

Rumph, meanwhile, is expected to head to Tennessee, though he still appeared on Twitter to be recruiting for Florida as of the middle of last week, and Skipper — the lone assistant coach imported from Colorado State by McElwain — is unlikely to return, as Florida’s defensive coaching staff is likely to be reshaped by Mullen and Grantham.

And the fates that befell all of those coaches — the ones who came to Florida under McElwain dreaming of the same success that Mullen’s cadre now craves — are a reminder that hitching wagons to stars only works if the stars don’t burn out.

But the difference between the coaching staffs assembled by McElwain and Mullen, so far, is the continuity and familiarity that Mullen and his coaches will have with each other.

McElwain did bring previous coworkers to Gainesville, like longtime friend and fellow John L. Smith acolyte Doug Nussmeier, Skipper, Kent, and even Collins — who was on Alabama’s staff as a director of player personnel in 2007, while McElwain was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator — but their links were often tenuous, their tenures together often well in the past. Nussmeier hadn’t worked with McElwain since 2005; Skipper and Kent, who each joined McElwain’s Colorado State staff in 2012, hadn’t worked with him since 2007 (Skipper, at Fresno State) and 2003 (Kent, at Louisville), respectively, prior to packing up for Fort Collins.

Mullen, meanwhile, is bringing Hevesy and Gonzales, two assistants who have spent more than a decade coaching with him; Johnson, whom Mullen has known since Johnson was literally a high schooler and worked with just two years ago; and Savage, whom he gave his first major job and worked with last year. (Hevesy and Gonzales have coached with Mullen at Florida before, which is even rarer past experience.)

Grantham stands out as practically a mercenary compared to that bunch, sure — but he also did spend last season as Mullen’s defensive coordinator.

McElwain’s Colorado State defensive coordinator? I had to look that — them, actually: Marty English and Al Simmons — up, because English stayed behind after McElwain’s departure, and Simmons left the Rams for New Mexico. Collins and Randy Shannon arguably acquitted themselves well as Florida’s DCs over the last three years — but Grantham’s single year of experience with Mullen is more than Collins and Shannon had with McElwain combined as actual coaches at the time of their hiring.

All this experience and partnership does not guarantee anything, and camaraderie among coaches is very unlikely to mean anything to the common fan if it does not translate to wins.

But Mullen’s approach is clear — and given that it is an approach that has produced success for him before, it is promising.