GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Scott Stricklin recalls, Mississippi State had already interviewed six or seven football coaches after the 2008 season and wasn’t sold on any of them while searching for the right hire to spark the program.
Call it pressure or impending reality, but whatever the sentiment, it was starting to set in that the Bulldogs might have to just pick somebody and hope for the best.
Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director now, was working under Mississippi State AD Greg Byrne at the time.
“We just hadn’t [found] that guy we left the room going, ‘This is the one.’ We had some we liked, but you want to be fired up when you leave the room,” Stricklin recalls. “You had a feeling we were getting to the end, like we were just going to have to take one of these guys we were just kind of lukewarm on, and then he walked in the door and it was, ‘This is it. He’s the guy.'”
He was Dan Mullen, about to win his second national championship in four years as Florida’s offensive coordinator, but still at a stage in his career that interviewing for the job meant catching a commercial flight to Atlanta after a December practice in Gainesville and lugging his bags on the MARTA train from the airport to the meeting with Mississippi State officials at a Buckhead hotel.
“We were a budget-conscious operation, but it worked out,” Stricklin jokes now.
After meeting with Mullen for more than four hours at that hotel in late 2008, Byrne walked the coach to his room sometime after midnight while Stricklin and MSU baseball coach (and now AD) John Cohen stayed back and discussed the meeting. This time, they were fired up. This time, they were sure — enough so to even have a little fun with Byrne.
“Greg was showing him where his room was and came back to us and he was like, ‘What do you all think?'” Stricklin recalls. “And we all knew he was the guy, but John and I told Greg, ‘We don’t think he’s right.’ We were just jerking Greg’s chain, and he’s like, ‘What?! … I thought he was the guy.’ He started panicking because he thought we finally had landed on somebody, and we let him off the hook. ‘No, no, you’re right. He’s phenomenal.'”
Nine years later, after a program-transforming run in Starkville, Miss., Stricklin hired Mullen away from Mississippi State, hoping the coach can provide the same spark at Florida.
The process went a little differently this time. No public transportation needed, no tough questions asked, nothing much to evaluate on either side. Just a confidence that this was — again — the right decision.
“I didn’t really even interview him,” Stricklin says with a chuckle, sitting in his office nearly two weeks after making it official.
While Chip Kelly and Scott Frost stole the headlines and dominated the buzz during Florida’s monthlong coaching search, in the end, Mullen made a lot of sense for the Gators.
For his proven success as an SEC head coach. For his track record developing quarterbacks and guiding productive offenses. For his own familiarity with the expectations that come with coaching in Gainesville.
But especially for the guy who watched up close what Mullen had done with a lot less at Mississippi State, knowing better than anyone how far that program came in the last nine years and having a good idea for where he might be able to now lead this one.
“The trajectory of that program changed the day Dan walked in. He led them to unprecedented consistent success. … Facilities changed, mindset changed, the support changed,” Stricklin says.
“But you sit here and go, OK, now Dan gets to come back in here and he knows the place so he doesn’t have the learning curve. … It’s just exciting to think about how he can take the experience he had there and build on it and use the platform here at Florida to have the kind of program that Gators fans want.”
‘Bull in a china shop’
Before Mullen’s arrival leading into the 2009 season, Mississippi State had won 4 or fewer games in seven of the previous eight years under Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom, with an 8-5 2007 season the isolated exception.
In fact, the Bulldogs had only one season with more than 8 wins since 1981.
Stricklin had grown up in Mississippi, graduated from Mississippi State and gotten his start in the sports information department there back in the early 1990s. While he had just returned in 2008 after climbing the career ladder elsewhere, he had a good pulse for the state of the Bulldogs football program at the time.
“You kind of have to know that place. The joke I always said was we had laid-back figured out,” Stricklin says. “It was very, just a slow-going, not a lot of tempo. … Part of that search process was we’ve got to get somebody who No. 1 is charismatic, No. 2 understands offense and the quarterback position and No. 3 we need somebody who can put a jolt into this place.”
A jolt, Mullen sure delivered.
Those who know him say he has refined his approach somewhat over the years, but he’s known to be blunt and direct.
That made for an eye-opening first impression at Mississippi State, catching off guard those used to that laid-back status quo. Mullen’s way of business wasn’t what those entrenched in the program had been used to, but that was a good thing in many ways.
Even if it came with some rough edges.
“He immediately injected some energy and a vibe that that place soaked up. It’s like it needed it but didn’t realize it needed it,” Stricklin says. “I can remember some staff members who bristled a little bit at him because he was pretty direct with people. …
“I wasn’t the AD yet, but a lot of my role ended up [being] coming behind and patting people on the back and telling them it’s going to be OK and ‘Just hang in there and we’ll talk to him, we’ll calm him down.’ On one hand he probably went overboard in the way he handled some of that, so on one hand that wasn’t right, but on the other hand you kind of liked the message — maybe not the way he delivered the message.”
It worked, though.
Mullen’s first Mississippi State team went 5-7, but with a narrow 4-point loss to No. 7 LSU, losses to eventual ACC champion Georgia Tech, a 10-win Houston team, at Auburn and against No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama. He capped that season with an upset of rival Ole Miss and broke through in his second year with 9 wins and a 52-14 demolition of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
Stricklin remembers walking around the stands at halftime of that bowl game and seeing it on the faces of the fans how quickly everything had changed for Mississippi State football.
Starting with that 2010 season, Mullen would average 8 wins a year while making eight straight bowl games at a program that had been to a total of seven without him since 1982.
He recruited star quarterbacks like future NFL starter Dak Prescott and current Bulldogs starter Nick Fitzgerald at a school that had never strung together that kind of talent at that position. While Sherrill, who has the most wins of any coach in program history, delivered some notable highlights, Mullen brought unprecedented consistency with the best winning percentage of any Bulldogs coach since the 1950s (69-46, .600).
“You could tell early on he was the kind of guy who could come in and change the mindset, but it wasn’t the smoothest takeoff,” Stricklin says, laughing. “He was a bit of a bull in a china shop, and he went into a place that really didn’t know how to respond to that. … [But] he certainly changed the mindset and the culture.”
Chad Bumphis was a freshman wide receiver on Mullen’s first team and would go on to tally 2,270 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns over four seasons. A native of Tupelo, Miss, he had been recruited to join Mullen at Florida and followed him instead to the home state program.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met, and it’s not even close,” he says. “… His whole thing, I remember it like it was yesterday, people told him you cannot win at Mississippi State. ‘OK, watch me.’ That’s how he approached every day — you tell me I can’t do it, I’m going to make it a mission of mine to show you that I can. That’s why I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country, because he’s constantly motivated by people telling him what he can’t do or just anything. And it rubs off on the players.”
Said former Bulldogs quarterback Tyson Lee: “He had a confidence that I think people followed. He had a confidence that I think players fed off of.”
Mullen certainly got his players’ attention quickly, but again, in his own way.
‘OK, these people are crazy’
Lee, Mississippi State’s starting quarterback from 2008-09, texted Mullen after he took the Florida job and reminded him of the first conversation they had.
Lee first met Mullen on the way into his introductory news conference in Starkville, shook his hand and promptly received his first lesson from his new coach.
“He asked me, ‘Do you know what a leader is?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He said, ‘It’s someone who sets an expectation, sets a standard and makes sure everybody else lives up to it,'” Lee recalls.
The Mississippi State players would very quickly come to understand the expectations and standards Mullen had.
And it started with the offseason strength and conditioning program. If the Bulldogs didn’t have the same talent as other teams in the ultra-competitive SEC West, then they were going to at least try to outwork everybody else.
As Stricklin remembers, Mullen was in Starkville meeting with his new team the day after winning the 2008 national championship with Florida, delivering that message in his matter-of-fact manner.
“It was an unvarnished approach to, ‘Guys, get ready because you don’t know what’s about to hit you from a strength and conditioning [standpoint], the way we do things,'” Stricklin recollects.
He wasn’t exaggerating.
“The mental toughness he wants to instill in his players starts in the weight room. If I was going to talk to the University of Florida team, I would apologize in advance for how hard these next three months are going to be,” Lee says.
Lee is asked for some stories to illustrate just what he means.
“Oh, I don’t even want to talk about it. I laugh, my wife and I talk now, especially this time of year when it’s cold outside, on occasion I feel like I still wake up [thinking about it],” he jokes.
As several former Mississippi State players relayed, a central theme for the tone Mullen set with the program is that everything would be a competition. Every team run was to be maximum effort. Every snap and every drill in practice had a winner and a loser. That carried over into academics and the weight room.
Everything was charted and everybody was held accountable. The team would have about eight captains, each responsible for a group of 10-12 players, and if any guy in the group messed up (i.e. missed a class, was late to a workout, etc.) the whole unit took on the consequences.
“If you’ve got 8 a.m. workouts, your team is going to be there at 6 doing extra stuff. You really held people accountable,” former Bulldogs linebacker Jamar Chaney recalls of such consequences. “It’s with everything. Even if the strength coach wanted you to be a certain weight. If he wants you to be 250 pounds, you better be 250 pounds.”
On that note, Lee does have a story.
He remembers sweating so much during two-a-day practices that he had fallen below the weight at which the coaches wanted him. He was told if he didn’t make weight he wouldn’t practice the next day, so he went home and had a big dinner, set his alarm for 2 a.m., woke up and ate two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, went back to bed and had breakfast before practice.
“That gives you a sense for how serious he took [every detail],” Lee says.
Offseason workouts had a theme. Lee and Bumphis both recall all too vividly the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” workout in February.
“I think that was the worst one we ever did,” Bumphis says.
While the football staff isn’t allowed to work with the team during the offseason, they entrust the players to the strength coach to set the tone for what will happen in the fall. Mullen’s strength coach at the start of his time there was Matt Balis, who is now at Notre Dame, while later on it was Nick Savage, who has followed Mullen to Gainesville to install the same grueling offseason program.
“I’m not a quitter, but I told Dan this: I thought about quitting almost every day,” Lee says. “I think it wasn’t the physical part; it was the mental part of it as well because you knew every day was to exhaustion and that kind of wears on you. … There were so many times I just wanted to throw it all in and walk out of there.”
Says Bumphis: “There was a little, like, ‘OK, these people are crazy.’ You know what I mean? Just looking around, [the look] on the faces was just like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Luckily for me that was all I knew. The older guys, they would tell us it was like night and day. No knock to the old staff because I think Coach Croom did a great job of cleaning up the program, but it was a completely different ballgame. … There were guys that were just completely in shock at how tough it was.”
Lee remembers one workout with consecutive sets of 18-20 reps of squats, followed by step-up lunges with sandbags on the players’ backs and reverse lunges. He wasn’t sure how he was going to continue on if asked to do another round before mercifully hearing the whistle blow.
“The worst feeling was getting up in the morning to go lift, but the best feeling was knowing you were done and there were two more groups coming in and you could tell them how bad it was going to be,” Lee says with a laugh. “By the second to third group, they were terrified.”
Bumphis recalls the Bulldogs mixed in Navy SEALs workouts and went to an old campground in Starkville to run through different drill stations that reflected each SEC West opponent. After an hour and a half of that, the players were sent on a hike and then had to canoe across a lake.
Not only was the point to make guys physically and mentally tougher, Bumphis says, but the relentless grind brought teammates closer “because there’s no way you’d get through it without the help of your teammates.”
Eventually, the players understood why the workouts were so demanding. And looking back now, they mostly remember those intense sessions with appreciation.
Albeit an appreciation best gleaned with the separation of time and perspective.
“It was easily the toughest thing I’d ever done in my life. Not even close,” Bumphis says. “At the time, of course, you’re going through it and you hate every minute of it, but the older you get and the more that you see, it’s not even just about football — it’s a life thing. His big thing is being a champion is not a sometimes thing; it’s a way of life. It’s how you carry yourself, and how you go about doing anything is how you go about doing everything.”
Says Lee: “I don’t know how to explain it. I tell people, [Balis] really did change my life. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic-type way, but he made people go past their limits. He taught people they could go further than they thought they could go. I assure you those people [at Florida] are in for a rude awakening. I promise they haven’t seen anything [like this].”
The task ahead
After more than a half hour sitting in his office talking about the ways in which Mullen changed the culture of Mississippi State football, Stricklin is asked in what ways he hopes his new coach will impact the culture at Florida after a 4-7 season.
Stricklin made the bold move to part ways with former coach Jim McElwain halfway through his third season on the heels of back-to-back SEC East titles but with an obvious gap remaining between the Gators and the true top of the conference.
McElwain was wearing thin with parts of the fan base and expedited his ouster in late October with claims of death threats to those in and around his program while declining to share any details or substantiating evidence with athletic department officials. Six days later, he was out, and the fallout would include anonymous quotes to ESPN about his strained relationship with the administration and his personality not being a good fit for the program.
There’s no need to rehash the past or pile on at this point, and Stricklin would be diplomatic in answering the question about the changes he hopes to see under Mullen.
“I want to be careful,” he says. “I do think the thing you saw his teams do really well there — the toughness, that relentless effort piece that he talks about, the preparation, the physicality, his teams played with a physicalness that you had to have to stay alive, especially in that division — you’re going to see all of that.
“The focus on the offseason conditioning program is real. And then offensively he’s going to put his players in position to be as effective as possible. And he really evaluates the recruiting process at the quarterback position I think as well as anybody in the country. I think that is the most important trait to success is having that position figured out.”
It’s no coincidence that Mullen’s most apparent strengths coincide with Florida’s most glaring weaknesses.
A fair ranking of fans’ frustrations with the Gators probably would be the continued inability to develop a quarterback, the play calling that led to offenses ranked in the 100s nationally the last three seasons and the perceived shortcomings of the strength and conditioning program.
As for the first two items on the list …
After working with future NFL No. 1 pick Alex Smith at Utah and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at Florida, Mullen reinforced his reputation as a quarterback guru by developing 3-star recruit Chris Relf into the QB of a 9-win Mississippi State team in 2010; turning Prescott, another 3-star recruit, into the best QB in program history and a future NFL star; and immediately replacing him with Fitzgerald, another 3-star prospect who quickly became one of the most productive QBs in the SEC.
Along with that came teams that averaged more than 30 points per game each of the last four seasons, including an offense in 2014 with Prescott that averaged 513.8 yards per game (eighth-best nationally) and led to a 10-win season and a stint atop the AP Top 25 poll.
Stricklin and Lee both emphasize the player development part of the equation when explaining Mullen’s success, and not just at the quarterback position.
“The players that we get in here will be developed and pushed as well as any other program in the country. I’m convinced of that because I’ve seen him do it first-hand,” Stricklin says. “And I’ll tell you the other thing he’s outstanding at is his ability to evaluate talent. We used to get beat up because he would sign a 2- or a 3-star [recruit] and fans would be all up in arms, and three of four years later that guy’s walking across the stage at the NFL draft. I saw it happen repeatedly.”
Now Mullen brings his spread offense back to Florida where it only stands to reason that the rich recruiting base in the state will provide him with even more playmakers around which to build.
That process won’t come without growing pains. Once fully implemented, Mullen’s offense relies on his quarterbacks and receivers alike being able to read defenses and adjust in sync on the fly with multiple options built into every route based on how it’s being defended.
As Bumphis recalls, over time Mullen added more and more of those choice routes with the goal at all times to get his top playmakers in 1-on-1 matchups. The change in scheme, from more of a West Coast offense that didn’t require a lot of checks, came with a learning curve to that first Mississippi State team, as it will for the Gators as they abandon their pro-style offense.
“It took a lot of taking it slow, trying to get an understanding of what these guys know and slowly implementing it,” Lee says.
But expectations will be high nonetheless next fall, and Mullen did nothing to temper that in his introductory news conference when he stated he has “extremely high expectations” for his first season.
Those that know him say that’s simply Mullen’s mentality. That’s the same way he talked nine years ago taking over a 4-win Mississippi State team.
“The way he talked, he talked like a winner,” Lee says. “He didn’t expect to come in here and not win.”
Says Bumphis: “With him, it’s easy to be motivated every day just because that’s who he naturally is. He doesn’t have to put on this front. Some coaches you can see it, they’re faking it. With him you know it’s 100-percent genuine.”
‘I’m home. I’m where I want to be’
When Stricklin first met Mullen, he was a 36-year-old up-and-comer and Urban Meyer protege about to leave the spotlight of Gainesville to go prove himself at Mississippi State.
Having now done that, it didn’t take much to convince him the time was right to return to Florida.
Stricklin has said candidly that he hoped through this process that he wouldn’t have to hire Mullen away from Mississippi State, where Stricklin has such deep roots. He was part of the process to hire him there and launch the transformation of that program, and he didn’t want to be the reason Mullen left.
“I’ve probably lost some friendships that I’ll never get back over it,” he says now.
However the situation played out with Kelly heading to UCLA and Frost eventually bound for his alma mater Nebraska — Stricklin has not publicly commented on the nature of his discussions with other candidates — he ultimately found himself back in a familiar spot with a familiar voice on the other end of the phone and a rush of memories flooding back to him.
It was the Friday before Florida’s season finale with Florida State that Stricklin called Mullen, whose Bulldogs had wrapped up their regular season the day before. They talked for about 45 minutes.
“I was fired up because it brought back all the memories of what he could do and how good he was,” Stricklin says. “I could tell he was excited about the opportunity at that point, just his knowledge of this place, his memory of this place. And I could also tell he was ready for a change. … I think he needed a new challenge.”
Mullen inquired about people he remembered working with at Florida, asking if certain academic support staffers were still here. Stricklin shared with him his vision for the new standalone football complex that will one day significantly enhance the Gators’ amenities and meeting space for players and coaches.
“He said ‘That would be great. What you’ve got is good enough, but that would be great to make it better,'” Stricklin says.
It was nothing like the four-hour-plus interview nine years ago in Atlanta.
“It was like talking to your cousin who you haven’t seen in a while but you used to vacation with all the time and you’re kind of catching up. It didn’t take long to kind of get back into that routine,” Stricklin adds.
“I told him I need to sleep on it and I want to call him after our FSU game, so I said, ‘I know you’ve got some other things working out there, can you wait for me to call you after the FSU game?’ He said he would.”
By the end of that Saturday night, both sides were sold. By Sunday, it was official. And Monday morning, Mullen was at the Gainesville airport, Gator Chomping his way off Florida’s private plane, flashing his 2008 national championship ring that he won on his last day on the job here while making an immediate impression upon his return.
Later in the week he’d appear on ESPN’s College GameDay and SEC Nation, telling his former Florida QB Tebow, “This is it. I’m home. I’m where I want to be.”
Stricklin recalls how Mullen made it a similar priority to fire up the Mississippi State fan base upon his arrival there, coaxing a packed crowd out for his first game against FCS foe Jackson State in a stadium that usually only filled up when Alabama or Ole Miss or another notable SEC West opponent came to town.
“He’s outstanding with the fan engagement piece. And that’s genuine. He really likes that stuff. Some guys don’t like it. He really likes it. … He knows how important that is,” Stricklin says.
Mullen talked in his introductory news conference about how much he has learned about all facets of being a head coach these last nine years and how that has prepared him for this return to Florida.
“I left here nine years ago, I was an offensive coordinator from a great team. I went down and I can tell you, first thing I did [after] we did all the media, the press, you know, the introductions, all of these things, I walked in my office, sat down in the chair and I went, what do I do now?” he said with a laugh.
There was no such uncertainty this time. Within a day of his introduction he had cleared house of most of the existing coaching staff and made immediate changes to Florida’s recruiting board, removing players the Gators no longer would be pursuing and adding new targets.
But before any of that, he met with his new team for about a half hour prior to meeting the media.
Just as he had nine years ago, Stricklin listened to Mullen’s first address to the players. This time he grabbed a seat in the front corner of the room so he could watch the guys’ reaction as Mullen laid out his expectations, the accountability there would be on the academic side and the intense offseason program awaiting in the near future.
“I just sensed a lot of head nods and really good body language once he got into talking to them,” Stricklin says.
The Gators will learn a lot more about their new coach and the new way of business soon enough.
Lee, who now works for Mississippi State’s Bulldog Club and has remained around the program, thinks Mullen evolved his blunt approach a little over his time in Starkville, but it may still take some getting used to for the Gators.
“I’ll say he calmed down a little bit, [but] he’s a fiery guy all the time and as a player you had to learn to understand you really thought he was trying to get the best out of you,” he says.
Stricklin considers the same question of whether Mullen has softened a bit since those “bull in a china shop” days. He chuckles.
“I would never call Dan’s personality soft, but he’s got a softer approach to others. At the same time, he still has that edge, he can turn it on pretty quick when it’s go time,” Stricklin says. “But I think he’s more comfortable in his own skin. He’s had success in this league as a head coach, and nine years ago he was trying to prove he could have success in this league as a head coach. I think there’s a big difference.”
As it was at Mississippi State, that edge may well be just what Florida needs.