When Dan Mullen previewed the national championship game on a podcast earlier this month, he certainly sounded like a guy absorbed in his role as an ESPN analyst, rather than a former coach just killing time, until he gets the chance to return to the profession that kicked him out in 2021.
“It’s a different lifestyle,” Mullen told Ralph Russo on the AP Top 25 College Football podcast. “I didn’t miss many of my children’s games and enjoyed the time with my wife. It’s definitely different, a lot less stressful, but keeps you engaged in the game and I really enjoy it. I have fun.”
Whenever you flipped to ESPN’s college football coverage, Mullen seemed to be on the screen. He’s good at the role, combining Xs and Os with enough rhetorical bite that he sounded more like a natural analyst than a dork to his former fellow coaches.
Nonetheless, every time I saw Mullen tweet his weekly top-performing players list or share insights from halftime, I couldn’t help but think: Why is he doing this?
Why is a coach who has guided Mississippi State to eight straight bowl games a talking head instead of speaking into a headset? Why doesn’t a coach who helped build one of the greatest collegiate players of all time, Tim Tebow, work with collegiate quarterbacks? How can a coach who almost defeated Alabama while armed with Emory Jones not match Nick Saban, or at least add his wits to Saban?
The short answer: recruiting.
Mullen, 50, didn’t recruit by Florida’s standard in 2021, and combined with a poor season after three good ones, Mullen’s tenure fell victim to snowball troubles. The dismissal was justified. Florida had lost its momentum under Mullen, both on the field and in recruiting.
But as I’ve written here before, the fired coach of one school becomes the accomplished coordinator of another.
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Of course, I don’t need to tell you why I’m writing about Mullen.
According to multiple reports Tuesday, Saban needs a new offensive coordinator. Bill O’Brien is reportedly leaving Alabama after two seasons as Saban’s offensive coordinator to fill the same role with the New England Patriots.
Mullen is qualified for Alabama’s position, however ESPN’s Chris Low reported Tuesday night that Mullen is focused on his television career and is not a candidate for the Crimson Tide.
Regardless of Mullen’s interest, Saban’s checklist for his next coordinator should start here: Who does he trust to develop Alabama’s quarterbacks? Who does he think will position Alabama’s offense as a schematic headache for opposing defense?
Recruitment must be factored into any hiring consideration, but I think the list of coaches who could recruit top-notch prospects to Alabama is far longer than the list of coaches who took Jalen Milroe from a talented but unpolished athlete to an All-SEC -Quarterback.
Oh, I’m not guaranteeing Mullen would do that for Milroe or redshirt freshman Ty Simpson, but neither do I doubt the quarterback development skills of a coach who took Kyle Trask from high school backup quarterback in 2020 to touchdown Nation leader and a second-round NFL draft pick. Mullen gave Feleipe Franks enough glamor to lead Florida to a 2018 New Year’s Six Bowl. Franks is now an NFL tight end.
Saban usually knows what he’s doing when hiring offensive coordinators, a list that includes fired coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who become successful Alabama coordinators. Mullen fits that mold.
Saban is also known for attracting candidates with NFL experience, an area Mullen lacks.
And either way, a convenient ESPN job and more family time might encourage Mullen not to be in a rush to jump on a coordinator gig.
But I know this: most coaches who are fired are itching to get back in the game.
I know this, too: Whatever the criticism of Mullen, he knows quarterbacks.
And Alabama’s next starting quarterback needs polishing.
From Alex Smith to Chris Leak and Tebow to Dak Prescott and Trask, Mullen left a mark on several quarterbacks who thrived at this level.
“There weren’t many notable quarterbacks in (Mississippi State’s) history until Dan came along,” Scott Stricklin, who was Mullen’s athletic director at Mississippi State and Florida before he was fired, once said of Mullen.
Prescott rose from three-star contender to Dallas Cowboys starter.
Many of Mullen’s quarterbacks could also run, either around or through you, and Mullen positioned them to hit the defense in a variety of ways.
I saw enough of Milroe as Alabama’s backup last season to know he could walk. I’m less confident he’ll become an elite passer or match Bryce Young’s composure, but with Mullen pulling the levers I’d have more confidence in Milroe’s chances of becoming a double threat problem for opponents.
In Mullen’s first stint in Florida as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, he was blessed with blue-chip talent to work with thanks to Meyer’s recruiting machinery. Alabama boasts similar riches.
Television might be a good fit for Mullen, but I can’t stop thinking about what he could do with a game sheet and Alabama’s roster.
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