| FTBL Culture Shock, Part I: inside the Florida Gators’ implosion under Dan Mullen

Dan Mullen seemed like the perfect man to resurrect the Florida Gators football program- until he wasn’t. (Photo credit: Hyosub Shin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Ask members of the Florida Gators football program how things unraveled so fast for Dan Mullen, and a common theme quickly sticks out.

“Our team was divided in 2021,” Florida offensive lineman Austin Barber told me.

“That team just didn’t play together,” linebacker Derek Wingo lamented.

“I love Dan Mullen, I truly do,” linebacker Scooby Williams remarked. “I’ll always be grateful to him. But things are just much more laid out now.”

“There’s a new standard now,” safety Miguel Mitchell explained. “I wasn’t here in 2021, but everyone who was says that some stuff that won’t fly now was acceptable with the last staff.”

With each player I asked this question to, a process that began at a Gator Collective event back in February, the picture became more and more clearly painted. There was something off with the culture at Florida, and it led to a team that just didn’t mesh well.

It didn’t start that way.

Head coach Dan Mullen, who returned to Gainesville after a successful stint as the Florida Gators’ offensive coordinator that included two national championships in 2006 and 2008, inherited his own culture mess.

His predecessor, Jim McElwain, ran off the highly-regarded QB Will Grier after he got popped for PEDs for no reason other than he wanted to prove he could win with his own hand-picked players, oversaw a roster that had several players suspended for taking part in a credit card fraud scheme, lied about receiving death threats to paint the Florida Gators fanbase as psychotic lunatics who demand gore at the first sign of difficulty, and directed a strength and conditioning program that the players deemed to be so weak that they chose to pay out of their pockets for additional strength and conditioning from sources outside the program. His players didn’t even know the Florida Gators fight song.

For three years- or at least 2.75 years- Dan Mullen seemed to be the perfect hire, in part because he fixed those culture problems. Nick Savage fixed the strength and conditioning issue. Feleipe Franks’ improvements, Kyle Trask’s subsequent rise to stardom under the tutelage of Mullen and Brian Johnson, and Mullen’s play-calling abilities fixed the offensive issue. Mullen- who was mortified when learning that the players didn’t know the school fight song- quickly fixed that issue.

And in a number of fashions- perhaps the most famous of which was Mullen’s “you want to thumb-wrestle me? I’m gonna beat your ass!” statement after a 38-17 loss to Missouri- Mullen just seemed like the perfect guy to lead the Florida Gators.

Until he wasn’t.

In late 2020, something changed in Mullen. Between his preparation to try to force a round peg in the run-first, pass-second QB Emory Jones into the square hole of the pass-happy offense deployed the previous year with Kyle Trask, a strangely worded statement from Adam Schefter about Mullen’s apparent desire to leave the Florida Gators and go to the pros, and worst of all, the deteriorating relationships between players and coaches- and amongst the players themselves- it was obvious that heading into the 2021 season, Dan Mullen was not the same man who had taken the job with so much energy in 2018. The version of Mullen that emerged in Gainesville Gator Chomping his way off the plane and talking with so much fire about being competitive with anything from running stairs to thumb wrestling was nowhere to be found.

And at the heart of it all was an unwillingness to change, and make business decisions that might just have righted the ship.

It’s possible that Mullen could have been a long-lasting coach at Florida, routinely churning out double-digit win seasons and being an annual threat to Alabama and Georgia. But while he had some of the qualities needed to be the head coach of the Florida Gators, he simply didn’t have what it took to be a CEO of a growing enterprise. As a result, issues slowly grew. And by the time the symptoms of these issues became apparent, it was too late.

This is the story of how a man succeeded early on his dream job, but then used that early success to justify making decisions that he wanted to make at the expense of the program’s overall health. And the story begins, continues, and ends with a common theme: the personnel around him.

The Todd Grantham effect
Put very simply, a large number of Florida Gators players did not respect defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. And that created a fundamental problem within the program that helped chew it up and destroy from the inside.

It didn’t start out that way for everyone. Former defensive lineman Cece Jefferson, a senior when Grantham came into the program, spoke glowingly of his defensive coordinator when I spoke to him for this piece, and was outright stunned when I informed him of some of the information I’d collected. Jonathan Greenard, a star at Louisville under Grantham, actually came to Florida because of that relationship.

But Grantham clearly liked some players better than others, and that quickly led to issues. And not the kind of issues of players needing to grow up, realize that a new staff was in town and that they had to start from scratch earning their stripes, and work their way into Grantham’s good graces, mind you. No, these issues were Grantham’s and Grantham’s alone.

For the same reason why it’s typically not advised for former employees to publicly bash the company that fired them, players do not usually feel compelled to publicly bash former coaches that they are not fond of. Many players I spoke to for this piece are either in NFL training camp or in the business world, and not especially excited to come off as bitter or salty toward their former coaches. So sometimes, the non-statements from players speak louder.

Mohamoud Diabate came into the Florida Gators program as part of Mullen’s first complete recruiting class in 2019. He was initially excited to play for Grantham’s aggressive defense, and got some playing time as a true freshman. But fast forward to 2021. After LSU’s backup running back, Ty Davis-Price, set a school record with 289 rushing yards against Florida in 2021 by running the same counter play over and over again, Diabate was asked why the Gators didn’t adjust to the simple counter play. His response was curt and cold: “We made the adjustments that we were given to make.” The reporter followed up and Diabate replied in kind: “I can only do what I’m coached to do. I’m like a soldier who shoots when he is told to shoot. It’s not my job to ask the generals what they’re doing. That’s your job in the media.”

That response is emblematic of a complete 180 in terms of trust, and it’s what happens when there’s a fundamental lack of respect. It breeds distrust. In this case, that lack of respect and trust came not just from the frustrations on the field, but Grantham’s unfriendly and downright nasty attitude off it.

For one thing, Grantham had a habit of actively ignoring his players when they came to him for help. This reared its head in a variety of ways, but perhaps the level of respect he had for his players was best exemplified when he passed them in the halls of Florida’s facilities. One former player recalls a time in 2021 when he passed Grantham in the hallway right outside his position meeting room after a film session with his position coach. The player had a football-related question, but tried to be friendly and strike up a conversation first. Grantham wasn’t about it.

“I said, ‘Hey, coach,'” the player told me. “Grantham ignored me. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me or not, so I said, ‘Hey Coach!” a little louder. The guy is just staring straight ahead, not looking at me, the whole time, and after the second time, without turning to look at me, he mutters just loud enough for me to hear, ‘Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time.'”

Other former players shared similar experiences, agreeing that their lack of respect for Grantham vacuumed the team’s unity- and cohesion- right out from them. Other times, Grantham would do the exact opposite of ignoring his players- he’d get right in their faces, displaying a complete lack of care for their personal space. Former players also shared a sense of uneasiness in talking with him, in a sense that Grantham felt he was above coaching them.

In fact, two different players explained to me that they’d rely more on group chats with teammates to prepare for opponents, and occasionally their position coaches, than with Grantham in the film room. “It was just yes sir, no sir, OK, I understand,” one of them said of film room sessions with Grantham. “No point saying anything else or asking questions. He was too good for us. He’d made that clear.”

It didn’t take long for Grantham’s lack of interpersonal skills to hurt the team. Players lost their desire to ask Grantham for help with the X’s and O’s of the game, leading to an added level of confusion for players on top of an already complex defensive scheme. Predictably, the results were horrendous. Florida’s defense routinely struggled to line up correctly and was frequently caught out of position, leading to the worst final defensive ranking in any season since World War II in 2020 and being little better in 2021- and it was completely avoidable.

“The whole purpose of me saying ‘hey’ was to ask him for clarification about a new formation we’d been working on before practice that day,” the first former player fumed. “It wasn’t to hold hands and have him coddle me like I’m four. I wanted to talk to him to be better as a player, and Grantham was so abrasive that it dissuaded me from doing so ever again. I mean, that’s the response I’m going to get when I go to you for help? Is saying ‘hello’ and being open to a quick conversation about football really that difficult for you?”

On the other hand, there were also times where Grantham lost respect for players because he felt free to communicate his thoughts toward them. Even if they weren’t actually his true thoughts.

Grantham, according to a multitude of former players, had a less-than-reputable tactic to motivate his players- he’d hype the backup players up by dropping thinly veiled hints to them that they were finally ready to see some game action that weekend. The players would then excitedly tell their families that they’d be playing in the ensuing game and encourage them to book hotels in Gainesville to see them play- only to watch them see two or three snaps, while teammates supposedly behind them on the depth chart took the field ahead of them on the rest of the plays.

It didn’t take the youngsters long to figure out that Grantham was being less than truthful to them in an effort to inflate their adrenaline levels and create more competition, oftentimes escalating to tempers flaring at practices. The thinking on Grantham’s end, according to two former players, was to create a battle-tested two-deep on the defense where guys could rotate in and out seamlessly, and with no drop-off, so that nobody would ever get tired.

But the tactic backfired. “Once one element of trust is gone, all trust is gone,” the player Grantham had brushed off in the hallway told me. “We lost our trust in Grantham’s ability to be a leader of men, and if you can’t trust the guy running the entire defense, it’s over.”

The John Hevesy effect
Offensive line coach John Hevesy was no easier to work with.

One of the few players willing to put his name behind his experiences for this piece on the record was TJ McCoy, an offensive lineman who was signed by Jim McElwain and worked his way from a scout-team player to a starter in 2017. After Mullen and his new staff arrived, he was quickly demoted within the offensive line, and eventually pushed out the door. But that wasn’t even his issue with Hevesy.

McCoy spoke on the record with the condition that his feelings toward Hevesy be elucidated from the get-go. “I have zero ill will toward John Hevesy,” McCoy declared over the phone. “There is exactly zero bitterness. Honest to God, John Hevesy, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because you taught me how to deal with adversity and how to keep a smile when things aren’t going well. I’ve had the success I’ve had as a business owner because of my struggles playing for you in 2018. You were put into my life for a reason, and I’m grateful for what I learned from you.”

McCoy owns a healthcare company that provides custom-crafted services for families with disabilities, specializing in in-home healthcare and companion services. More specifically, his company takes people with disabilities out into the world on community outings, shining bright lights into fairly dark situations. Which is something McCoy feels he was meant to do- because once upon a time, McCoy had to work his way up from fourth string to second string. Now, starting his own company, he was starting from the bottom, where nobody knew who he was. He had to reach out to hundreds of local case managers to get on their radar. He credits his struggles in dealing with Hevesy as excellent preparation for his business now- a valuable lesson that no matter how hard you work, you can’t ever be satisfied. And he’s truly thankful for that lesson.

“That said,” McCoy continued, “To answer your question, no, Hevesy was not a good person.”

McCoy and other teammates painted the picture of practice being a living hell- and not in the kind of way that makes players perform better on game day. Rather than practice being a battlefield where players sharpened their skills, practice for Florida’s offensive linemen instead became practice in the art of self-control. “Every day when I’d suit up for practice,” another former offensive lineman told me, “I’d prepare myself for Hevesy to say the most messed up things imaginable to me.”

“I’d brace myself for him to tell me that my mom’s lights were going to go out because I wouldn’t make it to the NFL and be able to pay her bills,” the player continued. “And even worse, more personal stuff than that. Because I’d heard those kinds of things come out of his mouth before, and if I was prepared for him to say that kind of stuff to me, I wouldn’t be bothered by them. Because if I’m caught off guard by something like that and I follow my impulses, my life is over.”

Multiple players theorized that Hevesy would gather information about players while recruiting them, hold onto it, and then use it against them years later. Players would excitedly tell Hevesy on recruiting visits that they were their families’ tickets out of their less-than-fortunate situations, only to hear those sentiments sarcastically thrown back in their face when they’d miss a block at practice. And to hear his former players from 2018-21 tell it, Hevesy seemed to carry a genuine delight in assuring them that they’d never achieve their dreams.

McCoy laughed as he confirmed the kinds of things Hevesy would say to his players. “Every day, man,” he responded when I asked if Hevesy crossed the line from motivation to belittling. “He’d call us p words, bitches, say we weren’t worth s#@$ every single day. I know what tough love is. Brad Davis (Florida’s offensive line coach in 2017) walked that balance perfectly. He was always extremely hard on us, but the reason he did that was because he wanted to see his players succeed. Hevesy was different.”

“Hevesy’s favorite word was ‘p***y’ for sure,” a former defensive lineman told me. “And he used it so frequently, you kind of forgot that it’s a vulgar word. He wasn’t even my position coach but every time we went one-on-one with the o-line, someone was always a p***y, a bitch, a homophobic word, you name it. It reached the point where it felt like he was trying to goad one of his lineman into fighting him. That’s a super easy way to lose respect for a coach.”

But as various players were quick to point out, Mullen and his assistants lost a lot of players’ respect with something even more egregious.

Personnel Decisions: “Even Worse Than Many May Realize”
Perhaps no player felt the nastiness from Hevesy more than TJ McCoy, who’d had quite the roller-coaster ride up and down the depth chart in 2018. After breaking his fibula, he fully expected to sit out the spring and rehab in order to get ready for the summer practices. This was the advice his parents and doctor had given him, and even former Florida lineman DJ Humphries- who McCoy calls a “big brother” to him- advised him to sit out the spring when McCoy told him what was happening.

Hevesy didn’t agree. “Hey, you’re not really hurt,” McCoy recalled him saying. “Get your ass over to the locker room and suit up.” Though stunned at first, McCoy remembers feeling that he had a little extra something to prove with a new staff- specifically, prove that he was not afraid to work. So he did. “Nobody forced me,” McCoy recalls. “I made the call to play because I wanted to show the new coaches my toughness and commitment. But that was a mistake.”

McCoy did the best he could on one healthy leg, but by his own admission, he wasn’t able to practice to the best of his potential. McCoy recalls a film session where there was an interception thrown and he was unable to sprint after the ball carrier on a still-healing leg. As the film rolled, Hevesy turned toward McCoy and yelled, “why aren’t you busting your ass chasing him?” “Bruh,” McCoy remembers someone muttering in the room. “He’s playing hurt.”

Despite playing at less than full strength, McCoy earned a grade for the spring that should have placed him on the second team offensive line heading into summer ball. But no. “I come out for summer practice, and I’m at the bottom of the depth chart, even behind the walkons,” McCoy laughed. “So, OK, time to go back to work. And now I’m a little healthier. I worked my way back up to second team. Then fast forward to Hell Week of practice. We start with red zone. We score on that first team defense. And I’m doing better than the guy I’m competing against.”

Four different players all confirmed what happened next.

McCoy fired out of his stance and neutralized his defender with a devastating block that sent him tumbling backwards, leading to a big play. That was when Mullen wheeled around to face Hevesy and clearly spoke the following words: “So, are you gonna make a change?” The response from Hevesy was simple and curt: “nope.”

“That’s when I knew,” McCoy told me. “Mullen could have overriden his offensive line coach, but he didn’t do it. He stood by him. Loyal to a fault. You could have predicted right then.”

Unfortunately, TJ McCoy wasn’t the only victim of this. And it wasn’t just Hevesy. As Florida Gators fans know all too well, Dan Mullen developed a habit of not playing the best players for the Florida Gators. Anthony Richardson, Kyle Trask, James Houston, Dameon Pierce, and even Ventrell Miller early on in his career are just some of the examples. At various points during their careers at Florida, former players say, Mullen went over to Todd Grantham to inquire about Houston, Miller, and Andrew Chatfield not seeing time with the starting defense. Each time, Grantham brushed him off, and Mullen- apparently not wanting to ruffle feathers- obediently slunk away and didn’t broach the subject with that player again.

“How can you respect your head coach when you’re out there at practice watching him actively not place the best players in his starting lineup?” another player lamented. “I mean really. How is that possible? Hevesy totally deserves the blame for what happened to TJ, but Greg Knox did the same s@#@ at running back. Grantham did the same s@#@ with his entire defense. And Mullen just couldn’t be bothered to step in and override their decisions. He’d rather not argue with his friends that he’d hired.”

Running back Dameon Pierce was among the more notable victims of this. Multiple players recall a practice in 2019 when Mullen saw him break four tackles before taking off on a long touchdown run in 11-on-11s. At the next break, Mullen immediately made a beeline for running backs coach Greg Knox to inquire about why Pierce wasn’t at least second on the depth chart behind LaMical Perine. No player I spoke to could hear the conversation once Mullen arrived at where Knox was standing, but they all confirmed that Mullen walked away looking deflated and even a bit “unnerved,” as one player put it.

“You’re the head coach, my guy,” one of the players on the practice field that day quipped to me over the phone. “YOU set the damn depth chart. Your assistants can have input, and you certainly should listen to them when you feel they know more than you about their position, but you have veto power. You just never cared to use it.”

But for as inexplicable as those decisions were, the real head-scratchers were at quarterback- where Mullen himself made the call. Players at practice watched Kyle Trask outperform Feleipe Franks throughout the 2018 season, only to watch Franks holds onto the starting job. Here, players’ tunes changed to outright astonishment as they watched Franks continue to start for the Florida Gators on Saturdays.

“People in this fanbase don’t know the half of it,” an ex-defensive back told me. “They think they all know Trask should have been starting over Franks all along based on what they saw in game action. But let me tell you, it was worse than many may realize. I’ll always appreciate Feleipe’s heart, that kid is tough as nails, and he battled for his Gators. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Kyle’s decision making was so far ahead of Feleipe’s, he demonstrated this every day for months on end, and Mullen just watched like a fan and actively didn’t do anything.”

“I’ll put this as bluntly as I possibly can,” a defensive player told me. “Mullen brought me to Florida, and I’ll always be grateful for him for that. But to answer your question, I have absolutely no idea what the f**k he was doing there. Everybody loved Feleipe’s heart, but heart doesn’t win in business. And this should have been a business decision. Starting Franks over Trask was completely illogical and downright absurd. I mean, there was just no way to justify that.”

“It wasn’t even close,” McCoy laughed. “I’m cool with Feleipe, nothing against him. The battle between him and Trask in 2018? It wasn’t even CLOSE, man.”

In a way, fate bailed Mullen out there. Trailing 21-10 against Kentucky on the road, gruesome injury forced Franks out of action, and into the game came Kyle Trask. Trask guided Florida back to victory that day, and eventually became a Heisman Trophy finalist the ensuing season.

But Mullen didn’t learn his lesson. “He wanted Emory Jones to be a star so bad,” a former defensive lineman recalled with disgust, “He never bothered to consider the possibility that the next in line for the QB1 role might have been someone else.” That someone else turned out to be Anthony Richardson, who, despite only playing one full season at Florida, went on to be drafted #4 by the Indianapolis Colts. “And that kind of thing, when you do that over and over, is just another way you make sure your players don’t respect you.”

Players contend that as time went on, there were even deeper reasons to not respect their coaches.

Summer of 2020: the Florida Gators culture begins to decay
Individual accounts from former players differ. As such, it’s impossible to pinpoint with any true certainty when cracks in the foundation began to show up, as well as the point in which the culture began to implode.

But among the six former Florida Gators players I interviewed for the Mullen Era piece of this story, it’s generally agreed upon that things deteriorated a good bit in the summer of 2020, after players had returned following COVID quarantine.

The Black Lives Matter movement that swept the nation in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was not something that the Florida coaches seemed to be very interested in. QB coach Brian Johnson and WR coach Billy Gonzales, according to multiple players on that 2020 team, were the only two assistant coaches who were initially willing to march in the streets with the players in protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Dan Mullen was reluctant at first, but after a heart-to-heart with Johnson, say a few former players, he came to understand the severity of the issue and changed his tune. Soon after, most assistants relented, and players say that for the most part, they were apologetic for their initial hesitance.

Grantham, for his part, never seemed to grasp the meaning of it. “Because we missed so much time with COVID, all he wanted was for us to get in the film room and back on the practice field,” yet another former player recalled in disgust. “He saw the whole thing as a waste of time. It wasn’t even a political thing. And he’s not a racist. Make sure you express that clearly. Todd Grantham is not a racist. He just didn’t really respect any of us, white or black. All we were marching for was to demand that we as black people not be killed, this exact thing is happening everywhere at a terrifying rate, and here’s this guy thinking he can have our full attention to install a new look for 11 personnel?”

Hevesy was the same way, say former players. “I don’t know if he was as cavalier toward the whole thing as Grantham, but he was definitely not interested in marching in the streets,” mused a former offensive lineman, who is black. “He did do it, but I think he saw it as a child would see a dentist’s appointment, like a nuisance. And the first time he did it, he made sure to let us know that.”

So while many of the players’ relationships with Todd Grantham and John Hevesy were never great, I asked every player I spoke to for this article if their relationships with Grantham and Hevesy had begun to decline at any point from the summer of 2020 onward. Not a single one hesitated to say yes.

Meanwhile, Mullen made it clear that whatever rifts existed between players and position coaches were not his battles to fight. His favorite things to do were tinkering with the offensive game plan and coach his quarterbacks; anything else, including recruiting, was a burden. He wanted no part of any interpersonal conflicts between players and their position coaches.

It’s not unusual for a head coach to let these parties work out any issues themselves, but several different players all agree that in this case, his failure to do so confirmed what they’d thought. He just wanted to draw up plays on a whiteboard. He didn’t want to be a CEO. He didn’t want to make business decisions. He wanted to do things his way. And he did what he wanted.

“At some point, you just have to step in and realize you have to interfere and change the trajectory when things get out of hand,” McCoy declared. “Mullen never did.”

“I’ll give him this,” a former defensive player told me, “Mullen was a genius calling plays. But there’s more to being a head coach than just that. There are other things you’ve got to do to ensure that your ship in running smoothly. He wasn’t interested in those other things, and we could tell that pretty clearly.”

“It’s just that nobody on the outside could tell that anything was wrong until it was too late.”

December 12, 2020: Marco Wilson throws a shoe
Senior Night in Gainesville is usually a bittersweet occasion. Florida Gators seniors take the field for the final time with flowers as the PA announcer booms their name through the stadium loudspeakers, hug their players and coaches, and take a final round of pictures with clean jerseys on their beloved home turf. And indeed, that was how this night started.

Most fans turned on this game against LSU feeling confident about Florida’s chances to win. Florida sported an 8-1 record (with all eight wins coming by at least two touchdowns), was ranked #6 in the nation, and LSU had a rash of injuries and opt-outs that resulted in Florida being favored by 24.5. To outsiders, this game was a formality. The Gators were supposed to win, possibly in gigantic fashion, and cruise into Atlanta needing one more win to finally break through and check off the achievement that everyone had believed Dan Mullen was hired to check off: reach the College Football Playoff.

But something didn’t feel right from the very get-go. A COVID-19 outbreak had pushed this game back from its scheduled slot in October to December 12, and the pandemic as a whole had limited the crowd size in Gainesville to a quarter of the Swamp’s actual seating capacity. Making matters worse, All-American tight end Kyle Pitts- nursing an “injury”- was mysteriously held out. The game started out strangely, too, as Florida promptly drove right down the field and got turned away on a fourth and goal from the LSU 1, and just got weirder from there.

Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, one of which Eli Ricks returned for a touchdown and the other of which was deflected first by Kadarius Toney before being picked off by Jay Ward. But even as they trailed 27-17 late in the third quarter, it still felt as though Florida would battle back. And they did. Trask directed back to back touchdown drives to give Florida a 31-27 lead at the end of the third quarter. LSU then retook the lead on a swing pass, and Florida countered with a game-tying field goal. Florida’s defense then banded together and forced a stop, with Florida corner Marco Wilson tackling LSU’s Kole Taylor well short of the first down line on third and long, ripping off Taylor’s shoe in the process.

Everyone knows what happened next. Wilson, in his elation, stood up with the shoe in his hand and flung it as far as he possibly could. That triggered an obvious fifteen-yard penalty that set up a game-winning field goal, handing the Gators a stunning loss that all but crushed their College Football Playoff chances.

Linebacker Derek Wingo- at the time a true freshman- gave me a sad smile as he recalled that foggy night. “There was a lot going on there,” he told me. “I won’t say that any of us could have predicted that Marco Wilson would throw a shoe, but in hindsight, it did feel like a rubber-meets-the-road moment was coming.”

Players paint a picture in Gainesville the week before that game as a program on a bye week. The team only held one full-pads practice the week of the LSU game, as Mullen was attempting to keep his players healthy for the SEC Championship Game the week later. “Mullen didn’t take it seriously,” an ex-player declared with disgust. “It was so obvious. That’s why Kyle Pitts didn’t play, because he thought this was Towson or Charleston Southern and he could rest his stars. Even some of the play-calls in that LSU game made me feel like he was just f***ing around in Madden. And you don’t do that when you’re the head coach of the Florida Gators- especially not against another SEC team.”

But despite the horrifying loss, and the Florida Gators’ ensuing losses in the SEC Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl, it still felt to the public as though the Florida Gators program was in good hands with Mullen and his administration. Mullen’s statement of the SEC Championship Game being the last time that the 2020 team would play together was, at the time, ignored. And indeed, the 2021 season started with a 3-1 record- with the lone blemish being a 31-29 loss to #1 Alabama that felt like a moral victory.

Then things fell apart. And the players I spoke to on that 2021 team said it was all too predictable. “Forget the Franks/Trask and Emory/Richardson debates,” an ex-player stated. “When Mullen brought back Hevesy and Grantham in 2021, he signed his own death warrant.”

“And it wasn’t a pleasant death.”

2021: Things Fall Apart for the Florida Gators
For as difficult to work with as Grantham and Hevesy were before 2021, players I spoke with for this piece all agree that the problem became quantifiably worse leading up to and during the 2021 season.

An offensive player recalled Grantham’s increasingly antagonistic attitude toward his players in his final season in Gainesville in an email to me for this piece. “He’d walk over to the bench and yell at a player something like, ‘Get your ass ready!” or ‘Wake the f**k up!’ …which, alright, fair enough… and then turn around, walk away, and grumble something nasty under his breath,” his email stated. “One time it was, ‘what a p***y.’ Another time, it was, ‘little f**king bitch.’ And that was just the stuff I heard. I didn’t deal with him directly because he coached the other side of the ball and we only passed each other on the sideline so many times but you can believe that there were more times that I just didn’t hear them.”

The same player confirmed that Hevesy did the same, and then offered a disclaimer. “Look,” he told me, “Football players and coaches are no Goody Two Shoes. Coaches cuss players out all the time, but it’s meant to motivate, not belittle. My high school coach said all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t repeat, and I still text him at least once a month or so to see how he’s doing or to ask for life advice. It just felt different with Hevesy. I won’t speak for every single player, but a lot of us simply just didn’t like him, we didn’t respect him, and we didn’t trust him.”

Meanwhile, hints were dropping that Mullen didn’t really want to be there. Which only made things worse.

In mid-January of 2021, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter unleashed a rather strange statement: “Dan Mullen in the college ranks is open to going to the pros.” There was no credible smoke for Mullen to any of the NFL head coach openings that cycle, nor were there any reasons to believe that the NFL would want him. Schefter’s statement reeked of some sponsored content, crafted by either someone in Mullen’s camp or Mullen himself, as a way of trying to create the first wave of smoke to a rumor that previously had none.

Mullen also signed an extension following the 2020 season that increased his pay by a million and a half per year- while his assistants, many of whom had contracts that were set to expire following the 2021 season, watched as Florida actively ensured that their contracts remained untouched. Mullen, already known for being reluctant to hit the road and recruit, now had that issue on top of everything else to deal with. How was he supposed to recruit when his assistants had precisely zero long-term job security, a fact that other schools could happily weaponize against him?

“He wasn’t,” the player who Grantham ignored in the hallway told me when I asked him this rhetorical question. “There’s an old saying that, whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. Mullen’s comments about that SEC Championship Game being the last time this team played together, plus his open attitude about not even trying in the Cotton Bowl, were correct because he spoke them into existence.”

Various members of that team went on to add that not only were some players privately questioning the leadership within the program, but that there was infighting among players. Grantham would openly treat various players as though they were inferior to some of their teammates, and predictably, resentment grew. When talking to Wingo, I’d already collected so much data from other players that I didn’t even need to lead with the details- I asked him a neutrally-worded question of, “What went wrong in 2021?” and he gave me exactly the answer I was anticipating. “That team wasn’t together,” Wingo replied. “And it didn’t play together.”

The culture on that 2021 team became so unbearable that some players dreaded doing the very thing they were at Florida to do- play football. Multiple players told me they dreaded getting out of bed for workouts, not because it was so early in the morning, but because they knew that arguments with their teammates awaited them. There were several cliques on the team, and some members of that team saw every moment they had to collaborate with and simply spend time with their teammates as a chore. “We just weren’t playing as a true team,” current offensive tackle Austin Barber told me. “Which is so hard to think about, because football is a team game. And the hardest part for me was being a true freshman on the scout team and not being able to do anything about it.”

At the same time, while Florida’s 2021 season got off to a 3-1 start, behind the scenes, years of being loyal to people who did not do their jobs correctly or adequately were finally catching up with Dan Mullen. His refusal to bench a struggling Feleipe Franks until he was forced to in the form of a broken leg, along with his similar refusal to bench Emory Jones for a struggling Anthony Richardson, were frustrating for fans- and players- but 3.5 years into his tenure, he’d survived them. But that didn’t mean players couldn’t see Mullen’s unraveling take place right before their eyes.

“The 2020 LSU loss probably broke him, and if it didn’t, the SEC Championship definitely did,” another former defensive player told me. “Because he was never the same after. He barged into the halftime locker room in Jerry’s World (at the Cotton Bowl, which Florida lost 55-20 to Oklahoma) and just randomly yelled out, ‘By the way, we’re not trying to win this game!” to the whole team. It’s the old, ‘well I’m not even trying, so I’m not counting this as a loss’ thing you do when you’re nine. I lost all respect for him then, but a few of my teammates convinced me he was just frustrated and said that because he was just unwilling to accept defeat. And then we come back for spring ball, and it’s the same attitude.”

Taking their cues from the head coach, the attitude of not caring about the Florida Gators winning games spread through the locker room during the 2021 team. It’s commonplace for tensions to heat up among football players during practice or games, but it’s rare that frustrations within a team originate from such an openly cavalier attitude about the good of the team.

Some players would openly express joy after losses if they played well, which in turn would infuriate other players; conversely, players would openly sulk and pout if they didn’t feel they played well enough in a game the Florida Gators won. Other players would be on their phones during team meetings and film room sessions, checking out social media when the attention wasn’t squarely on them; one player even claimed he saw a teammate- an upperclassman- sitting next to him casually scrolling through a pornographic website during a team-wide meeting. Various players would routinely be caught giving less than 100% in drills or team workouts, deflect blame when they missed assignments, and when they would be called out for their behavior by teammates, they would respond either with indifference and ignore the feedback, or hostility that quickly escalated into a full-fledged personal confrontation.

“I know it’s easy to blame Mullen for this,” a player who left after 2021 told me in a text. “But I do. This was his fault. I could have told you that would happen the second he opened his mouth at halftime of the Cotton Bowl. Players follow the example set by the head coach, and when that’s the example you set, you’re done for.”

“We just couldn’t say anything about that in public for obvious reasons.”

After LSU’s Ty Davis-Price was finished riding the same counter play to a school record 289 yards in the seventh game of the 2021 season, there was no need for players to say anything- because the public got to see symptoms of the disease that had plagued the Florida Gators program for years.

The end: November 2021, the Florida Gators implode
The Florida Gators followed up that LSU loss with a 34-7 loss to Georgia that several players on that team agree was just another symptom of a bigger problem.

“You know why we held tough with Georgia and only trailed 3-0 with two minutes left in the first half?” one of the former offensive linemen asked rhetorically, “Because we were all giving our best efforts- for ourselves. Just like against Alabama. We were fired up to play a top-ranked rival. But we were fired up to add tape to our personal NFL Draft film, not fired up to give our program that put us on scholarship a huge win. And that juice runs out. So our chemistry sucked, our communication sucked, and as you saw the dam broke 28 minutes in.”

That set the stage for the following Saturday- the night where all the Gators’ problems became obvious. On a cold, damp night in Columbia, South Carolina in November of 2021, the proverbial cancer that was eating the Florida Gators football program from the inside declared its presence in a way that nobody could ignore.

South Carolina- a 20.5 point underdog relegated to its third-string transfer QB from FCS school St. Francis, a guy named Jason Brown who couldn’t even start for a 3-8 Virginia Tech team in 2022- thrashed Florida 40-17. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy were fired in a desperate last-ditch attempt by head coach Dan Mullen to save his own job- a move that did little to stop an avalanche of criticism cascading down on Mullen, deep in the hole he was digging for himself. And some of that criticism came from his own players.

“Everything I’ve said about Hevesy, every word you’ve collected about Grantham, that’s all on Mullen,” TJ McCoy declared. “He’s the head man. They were his hires. And he stood by them, and he dug his own grave with them. Same for his decisions at QB. I truly wish Dan Mullen well, but he has nobody to blame for his own downfall but himself.”

“He fired those guys because he had to,” said another ex-player, who left after 2020. “Doesn’t it seem a little coincidental that of all the assistant coaches, it was those two who got the axe that night? Those two were the sources of most of the poison in that locker room. And I think Mullen was afraid that if he didn’t fire those two specific assistants, people would start taking those frustrations they’d been bottling up about those guys public.”

A third former player, one who stayed on the team through 2021, agreed- and even went one step further. “I doubt Mullen ever thought he would come back in 2022,” he mused. “I saw those NFL rumors just like everyone else. I think this was his way of cremating the skeletons out of his closet, or clearing his internet history, on his deathbed. Because as far as saving his career at Florida was concerned, it was way too little too late.”

Indeed, too little too late it was. Mullen was summarily fired two weeks later, and that beatdown at the hands of the Gamecocks was pinpointed by many as the night the Dan Mullen Era crumbled to pieces. That was the night in which it was clear that Mullen had no more fight left, no more ammo to aim at his opponents, and in every sense of the phrase, no more interest in being the head coach of the Florida Gators. That was the point of no return.

I asked several former players if they thought Mullen could have regained his 2018-20 form in 2022, re-evaluated how he operated in specific areas, and guided Florida to the heights its fanbase expects. The unanimous answer was a resounding no.

“There was too much bad blood between players and coaches,” TJ McCoy commented. “And Mullen not playing the best players led too many good players to transfer.”

Added another player who left the team after 2020, “the downward spiral was predictable in 2021. It would have only gotten worse in 2022. And honestly, I feel like if Florida had brought Mullen back for a fifth season in 2022, it might have set the program back another five years.”

“What do you have to say to those who just think you’re bitter, and that this is just sour grapes from you?” I asked in response. “I say that the program was broken from the inside,” the player replied. “And that the version of Dan Mullen I was initially excited to play for was gone forever.”

Postmortem: the “smear campaigns” are discovered
While part of the Florida Gators’ disarray and lack of unity in the locker room was caused by members of the coaching staff, the most outrageous pettiness was saved for players who transferred out of the program- some of which are still feeling its effects today. Four different ex-defensive players who entered the transfer portal quickly found out that rumors and false narratives were being spread about them in a last-ditch effort to cheapen their stock as players, and save the Florida Gators staff from looking dumb for letting them go.

“Someone on that staff ran a damn smear campaign,” a former player told me. “Against several different players. That’s the only reason I didn’t leave, too. I don’t know if it was Mullen, or Grantham, or a position coach, but all I know is that I saw Chat (Andrew Chatfield) and James Houston in practice and they were good enough to play for the best teams in the country, yet here they are barely seeing the field at Florida. And look where they wound up. Something doesn’t add up.”

The former transferred to Oregon State and the latter moved west to Jackson State, where he finished second in the FCS with 16.5 sacks in 2021 and broke out as a rookie with the Detroit Lions late in 2022. Houston is a very close friend of mine and is only interested in moving forward, not reliving his experience at Florida, and so of course I’ll respect his wishes.

One player who was more than willing to speak on the matter- and not only that, but put his name behind it- was former offensive lineman TJ McCoy. “Oh, you’ve heard about coaches doing this?” McCoy laughed. “I know they were doing it. Because they did it to me. And I left in 2018. Of course they were doing it in 2021.”

McCoy and others contend that someone in the football offices at Florida would pick up the phone whenever other schools called to ask about an outgoing player and brazenly provide false negative feedback in an attempt to ruin the player’s reputation. “They’d say whatever needed to be said to dissuade the other school from recruiting the player any further,” one ex-player told me. “Locker room cancer, doesn’t take coaching well, selfish, whatever. Because if a player that wasn’t playing much at Florida went to another school and excelled, then the question becomes, ‘well, what the hell was that Florida coaching staff doing?'”

Another ex-player offered an even chillier perspective. “I know James Houston is your boy and I’m 100% in agreement that they did him dirty,” he told me on the phone. “What people need to know is that Houston isn’t alone. They didn’t single him out for this treatment. They did everybody dirty like that. You transfer out, and that Florida staff was going to make it as difficult as they can for you to find a new place to play. It was second nature to them, because that’s what they had to do to avoid looking like idiots.”

A source close to the program in the Mullen regime says that Mullen himself had nothing to do with these smear campaigns. “Dan Mullen would never do that,” the source told me. “Absolutely not. That’s not who he is. But I’m also not sure he would ever explicitly tell his assistants not to do that, either. I definitely don’t want to give off the impression that Mullen didn’t care about his players, because I don’t think that’s true. I just don’t think he wanted to get involved in that kind of mess one way or another.”

And that, perhaps more so than anything else, epitomizes Mullen’s demise at Florida.

Whether you want to call it loyalty, stubbornness, laziness, or downright ignorance- or maybe a combination of all of the above- the epitaph of Dan Mullen’s tenure in Gainesville will feature the manner in which he placed people in important positions who failed to perform at the level at which they were expected to- and worse yet, was willing to stick by his decisions at the expense of his own program. The arrogance with which Mullen publicly stood by Grantham and Hevesy as they gradually touched off a team-wide civil war behind closed doors was matched only by the bravado some of his players displayed in letting their teammates know that they valued themselves more than the health of the program. And Mullen’s unwillingness to make business decisions that would benefit his team was mirrored by the attitude of more than a few of his players in their everyday lives as Florida Gators football players.

Football is about people, and the people that Dan Mullen appointed to do specific jobs and fill specific roles let the team down. It is my belief as the author of this investigative piece that Dan Mullen arrived at Florida with nothing but good intentions, and a genuine desire to lead the Florida Gators to glory. Unfortunately, he put those good intentions behind his loyalty to certain people on his priority list.

And as Mullen continued to stand by them, even as it was clear beyond a reasonable doubt that these people were detrimental to the health of the program, the Florida Gators’ implosion under his stewardship was inevitable.
Cliff Notes?
Danny Boy was a whimp who wouldn't stand up to his shitbag assistant coaches who often behaved in a cruel and abusive manner toward players. Danny Boy also got caught up in his rigid thinking. It didn't matter that Kyle Trask was clearly a better QB than Felipe Franks. In Dan Mullen's mind, Franks was his superstar and would start at all costs.

At the end of the day, Mullen has a creative offensive mind but he appears to lack the proper basic managerial skills needed to be a good coach. His cadre of coaches (Grantham and the OL coach) treated him as a pushover, and everyone at Florida saw it. Real sad stuff. I had a boss at a steakhouse who was in his late 20s/early 30s. His defacto assistant manager was some mid to late 40s guy who used intimidation tactics and would often micro-manage staff, and needless to say, this asshole pretty much ran the store. Guy was a vindictive prick who held grudges. I was in college, so I didn't care about being there forever, but I felt for my co-workers who were denied promotions/new positions that were assured to them by the GM but ultimately denied by his assistant because his assistant was a petty douchebag. But at the end of the day, whose fault is it? The prick assistant or his boss who had veto authority but never used it?
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Danny Boy was a whimp who wouldn't stand up to his shitbag assistant coaches who often behaved in a cruel and abusive manner toward players. Danny Boy also got caught up in his rigid thinking. It didn't matter that Kyle Trask was clearly a better QB than Felipe Franks. In Dan Mullen's mind, Franks was his superstar and would start at all costs.

At the end of the day, Mullen has a creative offensive mind but he appears to lack the proper basic managerial skills needed to be a good coach. His cadre of coaches (Grantham and the OL coach) treated him as a pushover, and everyone at Florida saw it. Real sad stuff. I had a boss at a steakhouse who was in his late 20s/early 30s. His defacto assistant manager was some mid to late 40s guy who used intimidation tactics and would often micro-manage staff, and needless to say, this asshole pretty much ran the store. Guy was a vindictive prick who held grudges. I was in college, so I didn't care about being there forever, but I felt for my co-workers who were denied promotions/new positions that were assured to them by the GM but ultimately denied by his assistant because his assistant was a petty douchebag. But at the end of the day, whose fault is it? The prick assistant or his boss who had veto authority but never used it?
I just skipped over the part about the steakhouse in the article. Thanks for the recap.
"ran off the highly-regarded QB Will Grier after he got popped for PEDs for no reason other than he wanted to prove he could win with his own hand-picked players"
That's a hell of a statement... Imagine someone getting popped for PEDs and immediately following that by virtually saying he was "ran off for no reason."
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