Let fired Florida football coach Dan Mullen be a lesson to Brian Kelly and Billy Napier | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Of the six football coaches hired by SEC schools following the 2017 season, Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher is the only one who remains employed. Dan Mullen became the latest to go. Florida fired him in November.

LSU's Brian Kelly and Florida's Billy Napier, a pair of first-time SEC coaches, can reference Mullen's firing as a guide for pitfalls to avoid. 

Key lesson: A coach's overall record forms only part of the equation.

Comparing Mullen to Fisher illustrates this.

Mullen went 34-15 in four seasons. His Gators won the division once and appeared in three New Year’s Six bowls.

Fisher is 34-14 through four seasons. His team has not won the division and appeared in one New Year’s Six bowl.

Viewed through this set of facts, the two coaches performed similarly, with a slight edge to Mullen.

Mullen's .694 winning percentage trails only Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer for Gators coaches during the modern era.

Yet, Mullen is spending his spring playing golf and hitting the beach, while Fisher is earning $9 million entering his fifth season, and his Aggies are enjoying preseason hype.

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Why the difference in their fates?

Recruiting rankings are important. So is controlling the narrative. Trajectory matters, and avoiding a disastrous season can be more important to job security than achieving an excellent one.

Here's what felled Mullen, and what Kelly and Napier must aim to avoid as they embark on high-pressure jobs:

1. Mullen had a disastrous season.

Mullen started his tenure with back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins, including triumphs in New Year’s Six games. Comparatively, Fisher has never reached double-digit victories at A&M, although his Aggies almost certainly would have done so in 2020 if not for a pandemic-shortened schedule. But Fisher also has never won fewer than eight games at A&M.

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Florida was 5-6 when it fired Mullen, including losses to Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri. Those losses raised legitimate questions about the program’s trajectory, especially given that the Gators lost three straight to finish the previous season.

2. Mullen didn’t recruit well enough.

A highly regarded recruiting class acts as a salve for a disappointing season.

The Aggies failed to meet on-field expectations in 2021, but Fisher papered over that with a No. 1-ranked 2022 signing class that features seven five-star prospects. In contrast, Florida’s stagnant recruiting under Mullen became a point of criticism.

3. Mullen lost control of the narrative.

In the best of times, Mullen came off as quirky and aloof. That could be spun as Mullen being a brainy offensive guru. When the losses mounted, though, quirky evolved to wacky. Aloof became prickly and obtuse.

Mullen failed to present 2021 as a short-term hiccup amid a rebuilding season. The narrative became that Mullen couldn’t recruit well enough and that his initial success was a byproduct of inherited talent.

A narrative shift also haunted Ed Orgeron, whom LSU fired in October less than two years after the Tigers won the national championship.

When LSU regressed after its title-winning season, the narrative became that Orgeron lost his way without quarterback Joe Burrow, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive assistant Joe Brady, all of whom departed after the ’19 season.

Fisher better maintained control of A&M's narrative. Recruiting gains, along with avoiding a disastrous season, made that easier. The Aggies’ sluggish start last season got partially excused because of playing an inexperienced offensive line and a backup quarterback after a season-ending injury to Haynes King. Plus, Fisher alleviated any criticism by beating Alabama, and he widely became viewed as a candidate for LSU’s opening. If another SEC school would be interested in Fisher, he must be good, right?

Kelly came to the SEC as a proven winner throughout every stop of his career. Napier succeeded at an unprecedented clip at Louisiana. They're good coaches. So are Fisher and Mullen, but one is employed while the other is not, evidence that sticking around in this conference requires more than a respectable overall record.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.