Florida football coach Dan Mullen stands in the long shadow of Nick Saban, but is looking to step out | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

There was once a racehorse named Twice A Prince, a solid thoroughbred who once finished second in the Belmont Stakes.

Of course, if he looked into the distance as the race ended that day in 1973, he could see Secretariat galloping 31 lengths ahead.

Dan Mullen knows the feeling. 

Mullen is second in seniority among SEC coaches, although that includes stints at two different league members, Mississippi State (2009-17) and Florida (2017 until the present day). He won in Starkville, a tough job given the perennial power of the SEC West. He’s won at Florida, universally recognized as a better spot based on demographics and recent football tradition, but also a place where there has been coaching missteps that Mullen seems to have stabilized.

While seniority is one measure, one can argue that Mullen has been the league’s second-best coach in that time. The other candidates would include Ed Orgeron, inconsistent but a national title winner at LSU in 2019, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher. You can argue Sham was probably the second-best 3-year-old in the 1973 crop of thoroughbreds, so you can argue exactly where Mullen fits in. But, like Sham, he had the misfortune to come along in the age of the greatest of all, Nick Saban, Secretariat of the college coaching world. 

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Mullen has faced Alabama under Saban 10 times and is 0-10. Not all of his Mississippi State teams could match talent with Alabama. The situation at Florida is different. No team (not even 2020 Alabama) is perfect. Florida has to work out its quarterback rotation and try to create offensive issues the way that The Human Mismatch, Kyle Pitts, did last season. But the Gators, playing at home, may have the best chance yet to chase the monkey (or 400-pound gorilla) off Mullen’s  back. A victory over the No. 1 team in the nation also would secure his place in the hearts of Florida fans, who would like to go back to winning at Steve Spurrier/Urban Meyer levels. 

Florida head coach Dan Mullen watches against South Florida during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

“You always want to challenge yourself against the best,” Mullen said earlier this week. “This is a great opportunity for us to go ahead and challenge the No. 1 team in the country, and see where we’re at right now as a team. I love these games. They are fun for me. You get the opportunity to go out there and go play in an unbelievable environment against an unbelievable team, the crowd going crazy. This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this. But no, we don’t need motivation to play in this type of game, and we don’t want to wait until (Saban) is gone to win it. It’s about winning.”

Mullen has that part figured out. Like Smart at Georgia and Fisher at Texas A&M, Mullen needs that one win over Saban to start getting more mention as one of the nation’s best coaches. There is not an automatic one-to-one correlation. No one argues that Gene Chizik or Kevin Sumlin are SEC all-timers, despite their quarterback-fueled wins in Tuscaloosa. 

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Mullen also knows that one win would only be a beginning. 

“They've built the program,” he said when asked about Saban. “Nick's been there a long time and has done a good job of building a consistent program and consistency within his program.  

"But for us, I think the facilities is somewhere that we're getting caught up,” he said. “When you look at the University of Florida now and you look at the only school in America that is a top 10 public university academically and really considered a top 10 football program consistently over the last three years, you're looking at that change.”  

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.