MIAMI — Dan Mullen left Mississippi State 5½ months ago after a successful nine-year run, but there’s never a good time to depart in the eyes of fans.
And so he expects a “very different” reception when he returns just five games into the 2018 season in his new role as coach of the Florida Gators.
Florida hasn’t played in Starkville, Miss., since 2009, but what a fitting time for the SEC’s cross-divisional schedule rotation to work out this way. It is one of the most intriguing games on the Gators’ schedule while surely meaning even more to the Bulldogs.
“I guarantee you not everybody here has circled that game as our biggest game of the year. There’s games in Jacksonville and Knoxville and Tallahassee,” Mullen said during his speaking tour this week. “But I can guarantee this, I don’t know if there will ever be a bigger game played in the state of Mississippi.”
Mullen spent nine years drawing the ire of Ole Miss fans while turning Mississippi State into a consistent overachiever, even briefly attaining a No. 1 national rankings. He was 69-46 with the Bulldogs, including a 10-win season in 2014 and nine-win campaigns in 2010 and 2015.
And in one defining career decision, to leave what he built there for the chance to take over one of college football’s premier brands, he’s no doubt left more than a few Bulldogs fans feeling scorned.
“I’m sure I’ll get a great welcome,” said Mullen, jokingly. “If they ring the cowbells during games at the wrong time, they have to pay a fine. I guarantee they’ve already raised all that money. … No, it will be fun, it will be a challenge, it will be very different.”
Mullen knows how to play to his audiences and at each of his speaking stops this week in Lakeland, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, he made a point to note the last time he was in a similar situation, he came out victorious. After four seasons as Florida’s offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, contributing to the 2006 and 2008 national championship runs, Mullen returned to Gainesville with Mississippi State in 2010 and led the Bulldogs to a 10-7 upset win.
“I hope I get to keep that streak alive when we go back. I’m sure I’m going to get a very kind welcome. They’ll all be standing and ringing their bells in salute,” he said, drawing laughter. “… It is a challenge. The one thing that’s always tough is the relationships, you have such a strong tie and a bond with all of those players. Sometimes I almost feel bad. We pick-6’d Timmy twice in Starkville (in 2009, a 29-19 Florida win), maybe cost him the Heisman. But I kind of knew the weaknesses. And so can use that against him, but I hopefully know some of the weaknesses of all the guys in Mississippi right now to use some of that against them.”
Tebow was 12 of 22 for 127 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions (both indeed returned for TDs) in that 2009 game in Starkville, also rushing for 88 yards and a score. It was by far his worst QB rating of the season, and he would finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting that year.
“It is hard because you have such a close bond and tight relationship with those players,” Mullen said.