Coach Dan Mullen entered his fourth year at Florida eager to make the next step.
By Thursday night’s Gasparilla Bowl against UCF, the season couldn’t get over fast enough for the Gators.
Mullen and two top assistants were long gone. Sack leader Zachary Carter opted out while leading tackler Mohamoud Diabate entered the transfer portal. Quarterback Emory Jones and receiver Jacob Copeland played against the Knights after announcing they would transfer.
The Billy Napier Era was well underway by the time the Gators took the field against the Knights. Napier has been on a hiring frenzy since his Dec. 5 arrival, filling holes in the roster and greasing the wheels for 2022.
If Napier’s first Florida team reaches a bowl game, he is sure to use the 15 allotted practices — a key development tool for the following season. The current coaches and players practiced just seven times for the Gasparilla Bowl.
After all, other than bragging rights against UCF and personal pride, little was at stake for Florida at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.
Napier attended the game, but his primary focus was two hours up Interstate 75 where a major rebuild awaits the former Louisiana coach.
While Mullen’s run ended abruptly in Gainesville, the cracks in his program’s foundation were hard to miss.
The 2020 Gators beat Georgia to win the SEC East and then challenged Alabama during the conference-title game to signal significant progress. Armed with a new contract and new starting quarterback Jones custom-fit to his system, Mullen’s future appeared bright.
Mullen inherited a 4-7 team and went 29-9 to reach three straight New Year’s Six bowls. Yet his championship visions also appeared increasingly distant entering Year 4 at Florida.
A season-ending three-game skid in 2020, the departure of several offensive stars and a 2021 recruiting class ranked outside the top-10 were red flags. By the time Mullen was fired Nov. 21, the Gators were in disarray and the program’s foundation crumbling.
A 15-penalty night at Kentucky and four-interception day at LSU set the stage for a 34-7 loss to Georgia, exposing a massive talent gap with the SEC’s elite. A 23-point loss a week later at rebuilding South Carolina was the Gators’ eighth in 10 meetings against Power 5 competition.
With the fan base turned against him and no easy answers in sight, Mullen became increasingly distant, if not disinterested. A 42-point first half Nov. 13 by FCS foe Samford — the most-ever against Florida — was the final straw.
Even before the Gators’ overtime loss the next Saturday at Missouri, Florida contacted Napier’s representatives to gauge interest.
Napier has never held a Power 5 head coaching job, but he took plenty of notes during five seasons working for Nick Saban at Alabama and two as Dabo Swinney’s play-caller at Clemson.
When he arrived in 2018 at Louisiana, Napier clearly had a plan. The result: A 33-5 record and two Sun Belt Coach of the Year awards during his final three seasons.
Napier’s vision drew Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin’s attention when it became clear Florida football needed a new direction.
Napier will address the areas Mullen neglected. Recruiting will be top priority, the Gators’ support staff legion and the 42-year-old’s humble public persona predictable.
Stricklin’s commitment is significant, highlighted by a $12.5 million salary pool for Napier’s assistant coaches and analysts and an $85 million standalone football facility.
A little more than a year ago, the Gators were in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation and Mullen near the top of his profession. By Thursday night in Tampa, Florida was a program in transition playing an inconsequential game.