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Florida football gets probation, Dan Mullen gets show-cause for NCAA recruiting violations

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Florida’s long-lasting streak of squeaky-clean NCAA compliance is over.

Florida v Vanderbilt
El bandido Yanqui Dan Mullen.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Florida Gators football program violated NCAA contact rules on two occasions, including one in which Dan Mullen had impermissible face-to-face contact with a recruit, and has accepted a number of NCAA penalties, including a year’s probation and a show-cause for Mullen, the NCAA announced Tuesday.

The NCAA describes two incidences of Florida breaking its rules:

  • Mullen and an unidentified assistant coach arranged for and had impermissible off-campus contact with a high school junior prior to the date that would make that allowable in January 2019.
  • Members of Florida’s coaching staff had impermissible contact with 127 prospects from seven teams who passed through Gainesville while heading to a Tampa-area event in March 2019, including giving those players tours of Florida’s facilities and, for one coach, posing for a picture with an assistant coach.

The Mullen meeting is a Level II violation for both the program and Mullen himself, while the contact with the dozens of prospects is a Level III violation.

Fortunately for Florida, the Gators agreeing with the NCAA — as any program caught doing stupid and ultimately inconsequential things in recruiting would — on the basic facts of these violations and having a history of promoting and adhering to NCAA rules has largely mitigated the penalties for these violations.

The NCAA’s full document on the infractions and its decision to penalize Florida cites as mitigating factors the program’s “prompt acknowledgement of the violation, acceptance of responsibility and imposition of meaningful corrective measures and/or penalties” and “established history of self-reporting Level III or secondary violations.”

And apart from a year’s probation — which breaks a streak of being free of NCAA probation that spanned the entirety of former athletic director Jeremy Foley’s tenure and was a point of pride for the school and its athletic department, and probably spurred current athletic director Scott Stricklin to release a statement denying “systemic compliance issues” — the penalties are relatively minor, and largely already served.

Florida will be on NCAA probation from Tuesday until December 21, 2021, but it has likely already paid the massive $5,000 fine levied by Indianapolis, and accepted slight reductions in official (one) and unofficial (14) visits available and phone contacts made during the 2019-20 academic year.

Its entire coaching staff will serve a seven-day off-campus recruiting ban during the spring 2021 off-campus recruiting period — which may well not become before the widespread COVID-19 vaccination prevalence that is perceived as likely to return travel to something approximating pre-pandemic levels, and comes after a year in which all of college football got creative in how to use other means of contacting and building relationships with recruits without traveling.

Mullen’s penalties are barely more significant. His one-year show-cause — which essentially means that any NCAA-sanctioned institution other than Florida which hires him in the next year would have to make a case to the NCAA justifying that hiring — spans the same time frame as Florida’s probation, and he apparently already served off-campus recruiting bans both in 2019 and this fall, leaving as the bulk of his remaining sanctions a ban from off-campus recruiting for a whopping four-day period in fall 2021.

Florida was also forced to cease the recruitment of the player Mullen and the assistant coach met with and not recruit any other prospects from that player’s high school through the 2021-22 academic year.

And exactly how much damage did all that do to Florida? Probably very little.

The NCAA’s documentation mentions that the prospect in question was a Class of 2020 member who met with Mullen at his high school in Seattle. The only prospect that seems to fit those characteristics is linebacker Sav’ell Smalls, whom the Gators pursued briefly in the 2020 cycle before he seemed to narrow his choices to staying in state at Washington or leaving for another school, whether Alabama or Florida State or Oregon. (Smalls would eventually end up enrolling at Washington.)

Florida’s pursuit of Smalls was a shot in the dark at best, and Mullen’s meeting — even if it violated NCAA rules designed to prevent coaches from making impressions on prospects early on in the most important phase of their recruitment — clearly didn’t have a major impact on Smalls. Contemporary reporting suggested that Smalls didn’t show much interest in Florida when he visited the state — and in-state rival Florida State — that summer, though that would be explained now by Florida being forced to end its pursuit.

Likewise, it’s deeply dubious that Florida’s reduced capacity to recruit in the Class of 2020 significantly hampered its ability to construct a class. The Gators finished ninth in the 247Sports Composite team rankings in 2020, and none of their significant targets who went elsewhere appeared to do so because of a lack of attention or contact.

In sum, it would seem that Mullen and Florida got caught doing things that were relatively inconsequential to their efforts to recruit college football players — who, frankly, should be able to have as much contact with their future employers and bosses as they wish, especially the face-to-face variety that is rare in the industry — and that are frowned upon in the context of college sports mostly because the NCAA is an archaic institution dedicated to preserving a self-serving definition of amateurism that allows it to continue siphoning value from the labor of college athletes.

This wrist slap will definitely meaningfully change the futures of all involved, though.