A year removed from leading Florida to the SEC championship game and playing eventual national champion Alabama as close as anyone, Dan Mullen was fired as the Gators' football coach on Sunday.
Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said he woke up on Sunday morning, having had only a few hours of sleep after getting back from the team's 24-23 overtime loss at Missouri, certain that a change needed to be made. It was the team's fourth consecutive loss to a Power 5 opponent. Dating back to the final three games of the 2020 season, the Gators are 2-9 against Power 5 opponents.
Mullen was given the opportunity to coach the regular-season finale against Florida State on Saturday, according to Stricklin, but turned it down, saying he didn't want to be a distraction. Assistant coach Greg Knox was named interim head coach.
Mullen was 34-15 in four seasons at Florida. His replacement will be the Gators' fourth head coach in eight seasons.
Stricklin acknowledged the fact that each of the Gators' past three coaches had some tangible success, with Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Mullen all either reaching the SEC championship game or appearing in a BCS bowl game.
"The challenge has been we haven't been able to sustain it," Stricklin said. "You've got to put really good structure and culture in place in order to sustain a high level over a long period of time, and that's going forward what we've got to focus on."
Stricklin made a point to say that he still believes Mullen, 49, is a quality football coach. Counting his nine seasons as coach at Mississippi State, Mullen's overall record is 103-61.
"I think he's as good on the offensive side of the ball as anyone in football, whether it's pro or college, and I think Dan's going to have other opportunities to go out and coach football and I think he's going to be successful at it," Stricklin said. "But, you know, this is a place that you should be able to have a high level of sustained success over a consistent period of time. And to do that, you have to have a lot of little things in place. People look at losses as a cause to get rid of a coach, but a lot of times, the losses are for things that don't go right in the field, those are symptoms of other issues.
"I'm not going to get into all that because I don't think that's fair to everyone involved. But there are a lot of little things that you had to pay attention to. And we have an opportunity here to go get someone who can can really focus on those things."
Stricklin said he had "thoughts" about how things fell apart so quickly. It was only five months ago that he and Mullen agreed on a contract extension and raise. But what those issues were to cause such a dramatic change, Stricklin said, "I'm going to keep those to myself."
Mullen thanked the university and fans "for the honor of being your Head Football Coach" in a statement on social media later Sunday.
Stricklin said there is no timetable for finding Mullen's replacement. He declined to say whether the Gators will be using a search firm. Asked what type of candidates they'll pursue, he declined to go into detail other than seeking someone "who has high expectations."
"There's going to be a lot of competition in the marketplace, and I really don't want to share what our criteria or what we're going to prioritize," Stricklin said.
Florida isn't the only major Power 5 program seeking to hire a head coach. USC, LSU, Washington, Virginia Tech and TCU are among the teams with openings.
Still, Stricklin said the decision to fire Mullen with one week left in the regular season was not affected by the way the coaching market has heated up in recent weeks.
"The process that other schools are going through really doesn't impact what we need to do at the University of Florida," he said.
Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who has turned down several SEC head-coaching opportunities in recent years, is among the top candidates at Florida, sources told ESPN. Napier is also near the top of Virginia Tech's list.
Stricklin touted Florida's history of success, as well as its alignment at the administrative level. Unlike some schools that have trustees trying to influence decisions, Stricklin said, in Gainesville, a coach doesn't have to wonder, "Who's really calling the shots?"
"We're going to put the resources necessary into making the right decision to get the right person in and the right structure around that person for us to be successful," Stricklin said. "We're very blessed to be in a place we do have some resources."
Part of those resources will go to Mullen, though. Stricklin said the school will fulfill the terms of their contract, meaning it will pay Mullen his full $12 million buyout. He is owed $6 million within 30 days of being fired, with the remaining $6 million to be paid out yearly in $1 million payments.
Florida has paid a total of $13.8 million in buyout/settlement money to the two football coaches who preceded Mullen, McElwain and Muschamp.
With Mullen out at Florida, 10 of the 14 SEC head coaches entering the 2022 season will have been in their positions for two or fewer seasons.