Dan Mullen and his swagged-out Jordans are giving Florida the kick in the backside it needs
The Gators have been down for too long, and Mullen seems to know how to save them
ATLANTA -- Dan Mullen crossed his legs, plopping a flashy custom-made pair Levi's x Jordan 4s on a hotel suite dining table.
This is a coach who loves his shoe swag almost as much as his quarterbacks. Three years ago, Mullen just about broke the internet.
While product placement is still very much his thing, the stakes for Mullen are much bigger in his first season as Florida's coach.
"I think everything around the program needs to get back to [having fun]," Mullen said Tuesday at the 2018 SEC Media Days. "The players need to enjoy playing for Florida. The fans want to see points. They want to see wins. They want to see consistency."
That, of course, hasn't been the case for pretty much going on a decade at Florida. Will Muschamp had seasons of both 11 and four wins. Jim McElwain took the Gators to two SEC Championship Games … then bottomed out in 2017 with bizarre allegations of death threats against him and his family along with a four-win season and a handful of players suspended after committing credit card fraud.
"That's a roller coaster," Mullen said. "I think the fun has to get into everybody to get back on the same page."
There were few, if any, more sensible hires in college football this offseason. Florida may have flirted with Chip Kelly and Scott Frost. But Mullen? Let's just say he's the only one among that group who interviewed who knows where the paper clips belong. As Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator, Mullen was part of the creative force behind two national championships.
Asked Tuesday if he can do the same with the Gators, a guy with all answers suddenly didn't have a solid one.
"Sure?" Mullen said.
In getting back to Gainesville, he had squeezed just about as much as he could out of Mississippi State. In the process, Mullen solidified his rep as a quarterback whisperer.
Alex Smith begat Tim Tebow who begat Dak Prescott who begat Nick Fitzgerald. The assumption is Mullen will make something out of the quarterback position at Florida, one that has been incredibly and inexplicably unproductive over the past decade.
"The first thing I told the quarterbacks, 'You may have seen my offenses in the past,' Mullen said. '… I'm going to ask you to do all kinds of different things this spring. And then I'm going to see what you do well. … Then, I'll protect you and put you in a position.' You should have seen their faces change."
That includes 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore Kyle Trask, not exactly a Tebow-type as a runner.
"If I ask you to run, run," Mullen said. "I'm going to see what you do well and take care of you. I think that took a lot of pressure off the table."
First, though, the Gators have learn it's OK to enjoy the game again.
"He's a high-energy guy," defensive end Cece Jefferson said. "I don't think he's been to a team meeting yet that he hasn't been drenched in sweat."
To be clear, that was after a workout. Otherwise, what exactly does Jefferson expect?
"Shoot, Percy Harvin," he said. "I know Percy Harvin. Coach had all those guys. I think we have some guys similar to that caliber. If he can do it with them, I'm pretty sure he can do it with us."
This season is where hyperbole meets reality a bit. Georgia will be the prohibitive favorite in the SEC East. The most optimistic projection is for the Gators to finish second in the division.
Reestablishing the Meyer-era steamroller is going to take some time. Even when Florida was winning this decade, the Gators could be tedious to watch. Five times in the last four years, the once-entertaining Gators had to win games scoring 16 points or less.
"Coach [Steve] Spurrier built the program that way with points and fun. … When Florida became successful it was done this way. That's how they view success," Mullen said.
On the previous state of the Gators, fans had been voting with their absence. Empty seats will get a coach fired quicker than anything. In the last two seasons, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has seen average attendance decline of 5,130.
"I'm the opposite of [Donald] Trump," Mullen blurted, "in that I'm here to fill The Swamp, not drain The Swamp."
Talk about stressing the breaking point of the internet. For the record, the light-hearted Mullen was in no way making a political statement.
He'd rather make the SEC pay. Mullen more than proved his head-coaching chops, probably staying too long at a Mississippi State. The 69 victories (in nine years) were the second most in program history. But it became evident the ceiling at Starkville was easy to bump one's head on. In those nine seasons, the Bulldogs finished higher than fourth in the SEC West just once.
"In Year 1 [at Mississippi State], I kind of came in like a bull in a china shop," Mullen said. "I was kind of a control freak. I had to have my hand on every detail of the program. Sometimes I didn't let people do their jobs."
The opening created by McElwain's departure came at exactly the right time. New Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead inherits 17 starters including Fitzgerald.
To hammer home that point, Mullen opened a hotel closet.
"It's like 'whoosh,' he said. "Stuff came falling out and [Moorhead] is like, 'What's in this closet? It's full."
Mullen is so keenly aware of what he has to do, the coach has been a small part of Florida's demise. He recalled grinding out 10-7 win by his Bulldogs in 2010 at The Swamp. Mullen hasn't met his old team until becoming their head coach in November.
"Our game plan was to keep it a really low-scoring game, run the clock, [make it a] boring game, try to drain the energy of The Swamp," Mullen said. "If the energy in The Swamp gets going, the Gators are hard to beat."
Then, getting philosophical, Mullen whimsically asked about that drained Swamp. "… is it the team or the fans?"
It doesn't matter at this point. No matter who was wearing the swag shoes, Florida football needed a kick in the backside.
"If things aren't going your way and the media is steadily attacking you, I think it kind of takes a toll on people," Jefferson said. "I think some people handle it differently.
"I think guys look at coach in a different way. He asks us what we think. We have a say-so. We're not used to having [a] choice."
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