GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Say this for new Florida football coach Dan Mullen: The man knows his audience and knows how to command a room.
Shortly after meeting with reporters to discuss the Gators’ National Signing Day haul late Wednesday afternoon, Mullen arrived at the team’s indoor practice facility to a crowd of around 500 or so fans to share his vision and expectations for the program.
“I get from the media, ‘How are you going to embrace the expectations? You know there’s big expectations at Florida?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been here before. I was here for four years, we won two national titles,’ ” Mullen said, drawing applause. “… I understand those expectations. I embrace those expectations, and I guess this might sound crazy, but I probably have higher expectations for our football program than everybody else.”
Mullen, who was Florida’s offensive coordinator from 2005-08 before a nine-year run as the head coach at Mississippi State, reinforced a few themes he’s introduced in his news conferences and other appearances since being hired in late November.
One, as he stated, he isn’t intimidated by those expectations, and if anything he’s only amplifying further the hopes of fans that the Gators can pull off a quick turnaround after bottoming out at 4-7 last fall.
Two, he wants to make it clear that things will be changing around the program. And to that point, he is reinforcing the importance of returning Florida football to what he calls the “Gators standard.”
“The change is what’s going on. We’re changing our offseason conditioning program. We’re changing, probably I imagine, our offense and defense a little bit. We’re changing how we think about things as fans. We’re changing our turnout for Gators events,” he said. “… We’ve got to embrace that, all of us embrace that and that change. We can’t be afraid of that change. We’ve got to embrace that change and put ourselves at a higher level to put the program back on top. The responsibility is to bring back the Gators standard.”
This is similar to the message he delivered a couple weekends ago at halftime of Florida’s men’s basketball game, only this time he talked for nearly an hour while hitting on those themes, stoking the rivalry with Georgia a little bit, taking questions from fans, and expressing his satisfaction with the buy-in he’s seen from the players through offseason workouts.
He shared with the crowd what he is demanding of the players — to outwork the competition, push themselves further than they’ve gone before, to compete in everything, and have accountability for the expectations that come with playing for the program.
But he also talked about what he expects from the fans, issuing a challenge for the upcoming spring game on April 14.
“We’re going to get the team right, but I also need it from you and I ask you that,” Mullen said. “… I expect you to pack The Swamp. I don’t expect an empty seat for the spring game. It’s going to be on television, I’m going to have the top players in Florida standing there on the sidelines, from the 2019, 2020 and 2021 class. We’ll have the best [high school] players from America come to that game, and I want them to see at that moment what the expectation of that Gators standard is, when they look around the stadium and they see every seat filled for the spring game. That’s what we need from all of you.”
That would be a stark change from the turnout at recent spring games.
Mullen said he wants to add new traditions and make sure game days are more than just a football game but rather an event for the whole town. He talked about how he wants to see more Gators flags around town, bigger crowds for the pre-game Gator Walk, etc.
“I also need you to create the best home-field advantage in all of college football. I don’t care who we roll in here to play. … It doesn’t matter who shows up. We’re not just cheering for the team in the big game — every game we have the most intimidating home-field advantage and everybody is scared to come into The Swamp. … That is critical for us,” he said.
This is all in line with what athletic director Scott Stricklin has said Mullen did when he arrived at Mississippi State, building up fan interest and investment. The difference is he was creating the identity and expectations for the Bulldogs program; now he’s trying to restore the Gators to previous heights.
Getting back to his expectations and what he considers the “Gators standard,” Mullen joked how after his first season as offensive coordinator in 2005 — when the Gators went 9-3, finished No. 12 in the final AP poll and won the Outback Bowl — former athletic director Jeremy Foley let him know that was an OK season, but that Florida expected to compete for championships.
Mullen also noted how Florida has various replicas of the program’s three national championship crystal footballs and how a set sits in his office as a daily reminder.
“Maybe this was done on purpose — there’s three that sit right behind my desk. I guess that’s like a subliminal message when I walk in every day to remind me that we’re supposed to win these championships here,” he said.
“… Coach Spurrier’s right upstairs from me, so if I want to be able to give my opinion, I’ve got to go get more championship rings. Because once I get two, I can go to him and say, ‘I’ve got my two, you only got one.’ He might have to come out of retirement at that point to come get himself another one.”
No, Mullen does not seem like a coach intimidated by lofty expectations.
It’s yet to be determined if he’ll be able to win enough games to reach them, but so far he’s winning over his fan base with his message and his confidence.