GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida football coach Dan Mullen stood at his introductory press conference on Monday and weaved through a multitude of topics in his opening statement.
He talked about his family, his admiration for Steve Spurrier, his promise to bring the program back to a competitive level.
And then, about six minutes in, there was a pause.
As Mullen laid out his plan to bring Florida football back to relevance after seven years of struggles and two failed coaching regimes, he looked down, took a breath, and smiled.
“So fun to be back,” Mullen said. “It’s so fun to be back.”
Mullen knows what it takes to make Florida football fun. He served as the offensive coordinator from 2005-08 under Urban Meyer, during which time the Gators won two SEC titles and a pair of national championships.
Mullen was wearing the ring from that ’08 national title year on his right hand when he stepped off Florida’s charter plane earlier Monday morning and had it in plain sight during the press conference. Prior to this day, the ring was mostly unseen, stowed away in a closet or drawer while he coached for nine years at Mississippi State.
“I was very fortunate to have been here, to win two national championships as an assistant coach here and know how special this university is and how special it can be and how special a team that we can have,” Mullen, 45, said.
And now, Mullen will look to use that blueprint from his previous four years in Gainesville to bring more rings and titles back to The Swamp.
“I can promise you that I will give relentless effort in everything I do to make sure that we return the football program to a national championship level,” Mullen said. “That’s what it’s all about for us here is to be judged and win championships at the University of Florida, and I’m committed to doing that.”
To Mullen, the success starts with the players he builds his team around.
And a quick glance at what he had at his disposal during his four years in Gainesville should show you why the Gators had so much success on offense.
Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at quarterback.
Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps, DeShawn Wynn and Emmanuel Moody at running back.
Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, Dallas Baker, David Nelson and Aaron Hernandez catching passes.
Big plays and big wins became the expectation, much like when Spurrier put the Gators on the map a decade earlier.
“We were blessed to have some truly spectacular players,” Mullen said. “I mean, it’s fun calling plays when Tim Tebow is your quarterback and he’s throwing the ball out to a Percy Harvin or a Louis Murphy or a Bubba Caldwell.”
It was also fun when those big-name players resulted in big-time success.
Like the 18 games in which the Gators scored at least 45 points, six of which came against ranked opponents.
Like the four wins over Florida State by a combined score of 145-48.
Like the two national championships within a span of three years.
In those four years, the Gators compiled a 44-9 record and averaged at least 373.4 yards per game each season. The final two of those years were the best offensively since the Spurrier era. The Gators averaged 42.5 points and 457.2 yards per game in 2007 and then 43.6 points and 445.1 yards per game during their national title run in 2008.
Since then, though, points and yards have become a premium at Florida.
The Gators had success on offense in the first year post-Mullen, with Tebow and company averaging 457.9 yards and 35.9 points per game. Since then, though, Florida has averaged more than 350 yards and 30 points per game in a season just once.
“There’s a mindset and a standard of expectation here,” Mullen said. “… The program wasn’t at the expectation level of the fan base, of everybody involved in the Gator Nation, and so that’s why I’m here.”
The base for success on offense will be simple. Mullen will re-implement his spread offense that worked wonders at Florida and helped bring Mississippi State back into relevance in the SEC West. He’ll adapt his scheme around the players he has at his disposal.
“You look at some of the talent we had here, it was special,” Mullen said, “and we have to do a great job recruiting to get that level of player back here to lead us back to championships.
Bringing Florida back to prominence
Mullen’s first season leading Florida football will be the 10th since the Gators hoisted a national championship trophy, the last time they won an SEC Championship, the last time Florida football was truly considered a contender and a force to be reckoned with.
That ring that Mullen wore on his right hand as he returned to Gainesville will serve as a reminder of that until the Gators get back to their winning ways.
“That’s the challenge for me. I love challenges. I absolutely love it,” Mullen said. “And I have as high of expectations as anybody in this room for what this program is going to be like. You know, when people ask for timetables: I have high expectations for next season, I do.”
Fans have high expectations as well, especially after the way things have transpired over the past decade.
Over the past two coaching regimes ― Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain ― Florida has gone 52-36 and has lost at least four games in six of the past seven seasons. The Gators reached the SEC Championship Game in both 2014 and 2015 under McElwain but were blown out by Alabama each time. Florida has just two wins over Florida State and are 11-28 against top-25 opponents since 2009.
“I have a perfect understanding of the scrutiny, the attention that you’re under, your family’s under and the pressures that you’re under with the expectations to succeed when you’re a coach in the Southeastern Conference,” Mullen said.
The previous two coaches thought they understood it, too. Neither lasted more than four years.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin is hoping to be able to invest in Mullen for the long term. Based on Mullen’s track record — which Stricklin is well-versed in, having been in the Mississippi State administration for most of Mullen’s first eight years — Stricklin said he is confident that will be the case.
“One of the things I really admire about him, having worked with him previously, is he doesn’t think short-term. He thinks decisions out for the long-term basis,” Stricklin said. “What’s best for the young person? What’s best for the school? Some of the facility decisions we made there, we took our time because it benefited us, the school, in the long-term. He redshirted a ton of kids at Mississippi State, and that was part of the secret of success there because he was more worried about the long-term piece.
“So for him to buy into that he had to understand the administration was committed to that. We’re going to be the same way.”
And if it all works out, both Stricklin and Mullen believe Florida football will be back in the national conversation sooner rather than later.
“I don’t know what the record’s going to look like next year,” Stricklin said, “but I know that if we’re patient, three or four years, five years down the road, we’re going to be competing for championships.”
The post Dan Mullen ready to make Florida football fun again — just like it was the first time he was here appeared first on SEC Country.
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