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Dan Mullen’s culture is facing challenges

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Florida is caught between twin titans in college football — and it’s Dan Mullen’s job to figure out how to thread the needle and/or maintain his culture.

Florida v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Culture is one of those abstract words that can mean different things to different people. There are countless books dedicated to the concept of culture, be it in the corporate world, the classroom, or the locker room. In the coaching world, there has really been an emphasis on culture over the past decade or so.

College football in particular has seen the culture conversation rise to prominence. Whenever a coach gets fired now, you hear about culture issues. Florida has not been immune to these issues over the years. The Gators won big under Urban Meyer, but the winning covered up some issues within the program. After Meyer, there were all kinds of stories written about the toxic culture that had infected the final years of his tenure.

Then Will Muschamp was brought in, with an unspoken part of his mandate being cleaning up the culture. He largely accomplished that, at least from some perspectives — but when Muschamp was fired, Jim McElwain was brought in, and he was tasked with fixing the culture of overaggressiveness that Muschamp fostered on the field. After McElwain was let go, Dan Mullen was brought in, with his oft-stated goal to bring Florida back to the “Gator Standard” becoming both cultural ideal and cudgel.

Since Meyer, it’s been culture reset after culture reset for Florida. And while Florida has figuratively wandered through the desert since winning its most recent national title in 2008, two competing cultures have taken over college football.

The two towers

On one end of the spectrum, we have the Alabama juggernaut. Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2006 and has since instilled a process-driven culture. That culture evolved into not only one of the greatest dynasties of all time, but it has also turned into a bit of a mercenary culture. While others strive for continuity, Saban only strives for wins.

Alabama recruits the best players in America, gets most of those players it pursues, and isn’t afraid to play those talented players immediately — and we have all heard stories of underperforming players being “processed” out for new ones. Coaches, too, seem only as valuable as they are to the goal of winning, and so get replaced every season. There is a bit of a win-at-any-cost vibe around the Crimson Tide, at least at times, but it is clear there are only two constants at Alabama under Saban: Saban himself and winning.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers.

Clemson has pitched itself as a family. Clemson coaches will often bring their wives and children to the football complex. Clemson recruits differently than most big programs as well: They don’t always go after the best player, and while they get their fair share, their focus is generally on program fits. And when Clemson takes a commitment, Swinney and his assistants expect that to be the end of your recruitment: No more official visits, no going to other campuses.

This strict approach may take them out of the running for some recruits, but the ones who have mutual interest understand the policy, and generally abide by it. And you can see similar rigidity elsewhere at Clemson, which has also yet to dip into the transfer portal and has also had minimal staff turnover in Dabo’s tenure.

Under Dan Mullen, Florida is closer to Clemson on the cultural spectrum. Mullen is a guy that has his family around the program. He also clearly wants to maintain continuity on staff. And while Mullen has not been afraid to go into the transfer portal, he also seems closer philosophically to the Swinney recruiting strategy, often quipping that the recruiting services don’t consult him when putting out their star ratings.

The big difference between Florida and Clemson is that Clemson does not play in the SEC. From 2016-20, Clemson was only at a talent disadvantage in four games in conference play. All four of those games were against Florida State — which was in the process of underperforming its talent level considerably by going 28-23 over those four seasons.

And Clemson has also been able to build for more than a decade under Dabo, which has helped it rise to fourth in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. That’s good for nine spots ahead of their closest conference mate. Meanwhile, Florida is ranked seventh, which is obviously not bad relative to the nation, but only good for fourth in the SEC. Florida getting to Clemson’s spot at No. 4 would still only put it second in its own division.

The suggestion is that Florida might need to have a little bit more of that mercenary attitude to compete in the SEC.

And that more mercenary, less familiar attitude might be required not just in recruiting and handling your staff, but also in personnel decisions. The only favoritism that is shown at Alabama is towards players that help them win. The best player that does things the way he is coached will play.

As a former coach, I somewhat understand the different dynamics that come along with personnel decisions. I wanted to examine some of Mullen’s decisions through that lens. I will offer what I think would be Mullen’s explanations for them, too — not as an exercise in providing excuses for seemingly incorrect decisions, but in examining them for possible explanations of how they came to be made.

The validity of those decisions and explanations is obviously up for debate, but I think Mullen views his decisions as an outgrowth of his intended team culture, and so I think the decisions are important to understanding Mullen’s approach. Let’s take a look at a couple of the higher-profile decisions Mullen has had to make at the quarterback position.

Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask

When Mullen came to Florida, many said that his number one priority was to get Feleipe Franks right. Franks was a highly-regarded four-star recruit coming out of high school, choosing Florida over offers from LSU and a host of other football powerhouses to great fanfare as a major recruiting win for Jim McElwain. Florida also took Kyle Trask in that class, but Trask was perceived to be a second, more developmental prospect — a complement rather than a centerpiece.

There were those who got to observe practice that thought Trask was the better thrower of the pair, but there was no doubt about who was the most physically gifted. Recruiting services may not always nail their rankings, but one thing they do a good job of is identifying players with exceptional physical traits. Franks was highly-rated in no small part because he had some immense physical gifts that would translate to the next level: Size, athleticism and arm strength.

When Mullen arrived at Florida, Franks was coming off a redshirt freshman season where he played in 11 games and led the team in passing. Trask did not take a snap in 2017. And Mullen has never been one to lack confidence in his coaching abilities. So when he comes in, he almost certainly believed that he could take all that raw talent that Franks had and mold him into a great player. It was a pure upside play.

Coaching young quarterbacks is difficult. They are going to make mistakes. Giving them a short leash may ruin their confidence, and improvement comes with more reps. Franks had his struggles in that season, especially early on, but he did show improvement over the course of the campaign. Mullen stuck behind him, too, until the mistakes became too great and Trask was brought in against Missouri.

In that game, Trask performed well, and it seemed that he had earned a much larger role in the following game; it also appeared that Mullen was ready to give Trask a much larger chance and possibly sit Franks. But before the next game, Trask got injured in practice, eliminating any choice on Mullen’s part. Fortunately for Florida, Franks performed much better to end the season, and he would lead Florida to a bowl game win over a highly-ranked Michigan team.

Riding the momentum of the stretch run, Franks became a vocal leader in the offseason. During that offseason, senior receiver Josh Hammond had this to say about Franks:

“Once he started to learn the offense toward the end of the season, he took the leadership role of the offense and drove the ship. He’s a competitor. He wants to win. He’s a guy that’s going to fight until he can’t fight anymore. That’s what I admire about him.”

Hammond went on to say, “He’s been really good for us and he’s going to continue to be that way.”

Franks would start the 2019 season at quarterback and play an uneven game against Miami, making winning plays and baffling ones in almost equal number. He played extremely well the following week against Towson, regaining his grip on the starting role — and then the opposite of what happened late in 2018 came to pass in early 2019, as Franks left the Kentucky game with a season ending injury and the Gators trailing 21-10 late in the third quarter. Trask would come in, lead the Gators to a comeback win, and embark on one of the great runs for a quarterback in Florida history.

Hindsight now says Mullen picked the wrong horse from the beginning. Trask proved to be the superior player and took the offense to a whole new level. Initially, though, Mullen decided to go with the upside and also the player that provided a little more in the quarterback run game, both totally understandable reasons. And while Mullen gave Franks plenty of opportunities that first season, it certainly appeared that Trask was going to start the South Carolina game before his practice injury, suggesting that Mullen was not just capable of switching QBs but intent on it.

The way Franks finished the 2018 season made it seem as if he turned a corner, however, and his team obviously viewed him as one of their leaders. You certainly saw the emotion from his teammates when he was injured, and Mullen referred to him as “the leader of the team” at the time of his injury.

In retrospect, handling his QBs in that period from Franks struggling against Missouri in 2018 to Trask being elevated by injury in 2019 was a tough situation for a coach. You constantly tell your players that you have their backs, building trust that is tough to earn but easy to lose. If Mullen decided to bench the team’s leader after a rough opening game against Miami, what message does that send to the team? “I’ve got your back — as long as things go well”? These are the types of cultural repercussions that these moves can have.

But: There is another side to that coin.

Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson

Mullen’s insistence on playing Jones is undoubtedly in part due to culture. Coming into this season, Emory Jones had done everything that has been asked of him. He waited his turn, embraced a limited role, and was a model teammate — Jones, considered as talented in the recruiting world as Franks (and thus far superior to Trask), never wavered on sticking with Florida through seasons spent largely bench-bound. These are the sorts of players you want in your program, whether walk-on or starter — and it’s not as if Jones was some walk-on, or ever looked like a bust in his limited action.

Jones is plenty talented in his own right, but it was his patience as much as his accrued experience and developed skillset that led to him being named the starting quarterback.

But lurking just behind him was the uber-talented Anthony Richardson. Richardson didn’t have nearly as much experience as Jones, but he garnered plenty of buzz even in the offseason as a player with so much potential that he could demand to see the field even outside of a starter role.

I believe that, coming into the season, Mullen intended on going into his old bag of tricks and using something like the Chris Leak and Tim Tebow rotation method. He likely perceived that he had, in Jones, an experienced player that could manage the full playbook, and, in Richardson, a young dynamo who could be deployed situationally to augment the offense in valuable ways.

Unfortunately, there were two issues with this strategy. The bigger of the two is that it is not the 2006 Florida defense and special teams lining up on Saturdays for the Gators, reducing Florida’s margin for error when it comes to quarterback play considerably.

The second issue is that Jones struggled early while Richardson played at an insanely productive level, changing public perception of their value. The calls for a change began to come after the first two games — but again, what message would that send to your team? “Do the right thing, wait your turn, be a model member of the program — and your reward is getting benched at the first sign of adversity”?

Richardson’s injury allowed a bit of a reprieve from the conversation, but two losses as more than a touchdown favorite have brought the conversation back, and Richardson using half of the snaps in the latest game and playing unbelievably well has given his vocal advocates more reason to speak up.

Mullen is now facing the other side of that coin I referenced earlier.

One of the greatest things in sports is that it is typically a meritocracy: The best player gets the playing time. As I mentioned above, there are reasons to be loyal to your players — but it can be a very fine line to walk. Mullen has shown tremendous loyalty to Emory Jones this season, and has given him seven games of opportunities. Yet it certainly appears that Anthony Richardson has earned more playing time.

If the players in your locker room believe the same thing, and you don’t provide that playing time, what was once loyalty can turn into obstinance. You can suddenly have players feeling like the best, most productive players are not being played for some unknown reason. That can create an apathy that permeates meetings, practices, and ultimately games. It’s a thin line between loyalty and favoritism, especially as perceived by a team.

Ultimately, what is best for one player may not be best for the team. Perceiving that and acting accordingly are among the tasks and decisions that can break your heart as a coach, but making these difficult decisions and walking that cultural tightrope are part of the job duties for Mullen and other well-paid coaches in these roles.

Above, I referenced the differing cultures at Alabama and Clemson. While they may seem to be on different sides of the spectrum, both Saban and Swinney had to make similar decisions at the quarterback position. Jalen Hurts led Alabama to consecutive national title games, but was eventually replaced by a younger player with a higher ceiling, with the reward being a national title. Kelly Bryant took Clemson to the Playoff, and yet was replaced by a true freshman the following season.

Both decisions were tough, but both led to greater success — titles, rather than just title contention.

Mullen’s Florida is not currently in title contention, but he is faced with some tough decisions, both on the field and in the staff room. These decisions are not as easy as many fans make them out to be, but that doesn’t mean that making them isn’t necessary.

And the examples of Alabama and Clemson point to the benefits of doing things in the best interest of a team’s culture and putting feelings aside when necessary.

If you want a team-first culture, that includes stuff like the head man knowing when making a difficult switch that will hurt one player becomes necessary for the benefit of all. The decisions may be uncomfortable, or the timeline not what you envisioned, but when it comes down to it, you must do what is best for everybody on the team.

And if you don’t know when to use the trust built through the development of a culture to go against some the grain, that culture you worked so hard to build and maintain may well crumble around you.