MIAMI GARDENS — Dan Mullen stood on the podium at the 50-yard line of Hard Rock Stadium passing oranges around to his players and coaches. It’s tradition when you’re the Orange Bowl Champions but Mullen was standing where no coach has stood before.
Mullen is the first head coach to win a BCS/New Year’s Six Bowl game in each of his first two seasons.
That stat alone is impressive but what’s even more impressive is he inherited a team that had gone 4-7 the previous year. It was a team that lacked confidence. A team that had gotten all too comfortable with coming out on the losing end of games and a team that had forgotten what it took, the sacrifice that being a winner takes.
It was instilled early.
Everyone would be held accountable. If one player was late to class or skipped, the whole team would run gassers after practice. To a man, Mullen and his coaching staff instilled accountability
That got the Gators from four wins to 10 and a Peach Bowl victory. It was a great story for the Gators and in college football in general.
Then Mullen told them it wasn’t good enough. If they were satisfied with 10 wins and that’s all they wanted to be they didn’t need to be at Florida. He told them they would need to work even harder and do more, that getting to 11 wins would be even harder. They could buy in, listen to their coach and push past what the preconceived notion of their limit was and find a new gear and level, or they could be happy with 10 wins.
“Just under a year ago, this team was born, and we talked about going from four wins to 10 wins was special, but to go from 10 wins to 11 is going to be a lot harder, and those guys bought into it,” Mullen said after the game. “They started working last January, and they worked, they grinded all season long in everything that they did.”
This season wasn’t without bumps. There were losses to Georgia and LSU but the Gators pressed on. They won, they rallied around each other and they accepted the challenge.
Monday’s game was the icing on the cake for the senior class. Lamical Perine, the running back that took a bus from Mobile, Alabama to work out at Friday Night Lights had a career-best 138 rushing yards in his final game and three touchdowns. Van Jefferson had a game-high 129 yards receiving and the senior class went out the right way, even if they don’t want to leave.
“I wish I had eligibility left,” Tyrie Cleveland told Gator Country in the locker room after the game.”
“100-percent I’d do it all over again,” Jefferson said. “I honestly would. To experience being here at Florida, being a Gator, being with these guys. I’m going to miss them like crazy.”
This team was born last January and they were challenged to do more and be better. They accomplished that but Monday night was the last time they’ll play together. The 2020 team will be born when school starts back up in January and they’ll face the same challenge the 2019 team did.
Are you happy with 11 wins? If you are then Dan Mullen has no use for you in the locker room.
That isn’t what any player said when they were in the locker room. They know they can be special. The seniors leaving told everyone that the team next year could be even better than this one.
Going from 10 wins to 11 was hard. The margin for error is razor-thin. Going from an 11-win team in a New Year’s Six bowl to a playoff team is even hard with zero margins for error.
Zach Carter set the expectation sitting next to Trevon Grimes at their locker.
“This is a stepping stone going into next year,” Carter said. “We’re in the Orange Bowl next year, and I feel like we’ll be back in Miami next year for the championship.”