ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida is faced with the first crisis of this long, arduous month leading up to the national championship game.
There will be more for Oklahoma and Florida for sure, but it is significant that the Gators are now coping with the loss of Urban Meyer's right-hand man and tutor of the team's best player.
|Tim Tebow and Chris Leak learned plenty from Dan Mullen en route to the 2006 national title. (US Presswire)|
There was no immediate word whether Mullen would stay through the bowl game, how that might affect the Gators or who might replace him. Immediate speculation centered on receivers coach Billy Gonzalez and former Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon. Brandon had been Meyer's offensive coordinator when they were at the Ohio school. He was fired last month six years after replacing Meyer as head coach of the Falcons.
Gators everywhere must be worried how this affects quarterback Tim Tebow's immediate plans. Will Mullen's departure be enough to force the defending Heisman winner into the pros a year early?
"I don't know. It's something I'll have to look at," Tebow said from the annual college football awards show here at Disney World.
That statement is likely to cause more consternation in Gator Nation.
"The last three years I've spent more time with him than anyone on this earth," Tebow said of Mullen. "I'm happy for him having success but it's also, someone is moving away. I'm also sad, in a way, that we're losing him."
Mullen is taking over a program that is annually near the bottom of the SEC and, like a lot of schools, doesn't have a lot of patience. Sylvester Croom was resigned earlier this month (apparently under pressure) a season after winning eight games and becoming SEC Coach of the Year. This season the Bulldogs were 113th nationally in total offense and 115th in scoring offense. That lack of punch is what mainly led to Croom's departure.
At the other end of the conference, Florida's wild success under Meyer is starting to impact his staff. Teams are coming after his coaches.
"I thought at some point in time they (outside forces) were going to break that staff up ... " Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. "You knew it was going to happen. It's the same thing that is happening Pete Carroll at USC. When you've got a quality program, people come after your coaches."
Kelly is a good friend of Mullen. Both have roots in New Hampshire. Sixteen years ago Kelly was the defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins facing a gutty tight end from Ursinus College.
"They kept going to the tight end," said Kelly, now also the coach in waiting at Oregon. "We shifted our defense. I thought to myself, that is going to be the key to victory."
They were both from the "big city", as Kelly put it, of Manchester, N.H. The two kept in touch over the years. Kelly recommended Mullen for his second job, receivers coach at Columbia University in 1996-97. Last year Kelly, a spread option wizard himself, visited Florida to pick up some tips.
They are all part of the so-called "New Hampshire mafia" along with LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Kelly spent 13 years at New Hampshire, eight as head coach from 1999-2006. Crowton was an assistant at the school from 1988-1990.
Mullen's offenses have improved dramatically in his second year. In his second year as quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green in 2002, the offense improved from 55th in total offense to ninth. In his second year at Utah, the Utes went from 64th to third in that category. In 2006, the Gators improved from 61st to 19th on their way to a national championship.
This season's Gators are 18th nationally averaging 442.3 yards per game.
"I truly respect the job that Danny has done," Kelly said. "He will have the advantage of being in the SEC with all that talent. You've got to get out there and start recruiting. You've got to put a staff together.
The 36-year-old Mullen has been at Meyer's side since becoming quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green in 2001. He had the same title at Utah in 2003 and 2004 before following Meyer to Florida in 2005, becoming offensive coordinator.
His list of quarterback successes include Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak and Tebow. In each case, those quarterbacks had be rewired to run a spread option.
Harris is Bowling Green's career leader in rushing touchdowns. Smith was transformed from a drop-back passer who was about to quit the team to a spread wizard who became a No. 1 NFL Draft pick. Leak was a square peg in a round hole. He wasn't as athletic as Harris or even Smith, but the offense was fitted around him. A national championship followed.
Oh, and this Tebow kid is pretty good too. The junior is chasing another Heisman after being named a finalist on Wednesday. It's easy to assume that any coach could have gravy trained off of Tebow's talents. But Tebow is such a unique quarterback that it took a special coach and game plan to get the most out of him.