There can be no doubt, Dan Mullen is a Florida Gator again, heart and sole.
If the new six-year, $36 million deal to leave Mississippi State for Florida wasn’t evidence enough, how ‘bout those shoes he wore to his SEC Media Days news conference Tuesday?
Known to accessorize to reflect his employer, Mullen showed up in sneakers trimmed in orange as bright as the paint job on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
And the message that he brought with him was one designed to gladden a Floridian’s heart, like a sea breeze.
Five times during his address Tuesday at the College Football Hall of Fame, Mullen mentioned “The Gator Standard,” which is not the name of the school paper. Rather, it’s the expectation of competing for championships, both regional and national, the way Florida used to when Mullen was assisting Urban Meyer and teaching Tim Tebow the jump pass.
“Everything about the Gator Standard is excellence,” he said. That is a standard the football team fell well south of last year when it jettisoned Jim McElwain halfway through the season and finished 4-7. Georgia people also will remember it as the season the Bulldogs beat Florida 42-7, their most lopsided victory in the rivalry since 1982.
Rather than referring solely to the disappointment of last season, Mullen reaches farther back when detailing the job to be done in Gainesville. “I look at the last four years. That's one thing to me that really sticks out with the program,” he said.
His further diagnosis: “The last four years, Florida's had two four-win seasons and played in two SEC Championship games. That shows me that individual teams at the university right now are playing at a high level, but the program itself is not performing consistently at the level it needs to be at.
“I want us to have a great team this year. I want us to have a great season. I want us to go compete for a championship with this year's team. But I also want to build a program that's going to do that every single year on a consistent basis. And that consistency really defines the program.”
Certain players, energized by Mullen’s presence, have suggested a return to prominence for Florida can be near at hand. Certainly nearer than most expect.
“Why wait?” senior defensive lineman Cece Jefferson said. “If you can do it now, why wait? It’s something we talk about every day. If you see you can do it, take the initiative and do it.”
A quick fix, though, may be difficult.
After Florida was spurned by Chip Kelly – who opted for UCLA – Florida turned to Mullen, who before taking over at Mississippi State in 2009 coordinated the Gators offense. It’s an offense that is in dire need of coordinating now. One that was next-to-last in the SEC in yardage and points and last in passing yardage.
What Mullen brought with him was a sense of football’s place at Florida, the recruiting landscape and a firm grasp on the expectations there.
“I think that was a big help for me, walking into a situation where I had familiarity with a lot of things. I think that was a big help, and it made it a very easy decision for me to make to want to come back and be the head coach at the University of Florida,” Mullen said.
“Having been at the University of Florida before and won championships – multiple championships – there, I know what a special place it could be,” he said.
How you gonna keep them down in Starkville once they’ve seen the brightest lights in Gainesville?
Mullen has the reputation for being something of a quarterback whisperer, working with the likes of Tebow and Alex Smith (in Utah) and Dak Prescott (at Mississippi State). Quarterback play has been a massive issue in Gainesville, and will continue to be with Feleipe Franks coming off an uninspiring redshirt freshman season. Also in the mix are one returnee, Kyle Trask, and one signee Emory Jones.
The coach known for his quarterback work is putting all the onus on himself.
“I said we're going to put a lot of different things in, we're going to throw a lot of different things at you,” he said of his off-season conversation with his quarterbacks. “I want you to go as hard as you can. I don't care if you're good at it or not good at it. You do it, and at the end of spring we'll evaluate what you do well, and moving forward we're going to go and put you in a position to be successful. I think that really changed the mindset of the quarterbacks in the room.
“The person that needs to change is me. What we'll do is change offense around the strength of the quarterbacks, and they've surprised me. I want to see how they continue to grow and develop through the summer. And as we move and get closer into the season, we're going to put them in a position to be successful on the field.”
Success on the field is, after all, the key tenet of the Gator Standard.