Even before Dan Mullen formally accepted the job as Florida Gators head coach, or sent an emphatic Gator chomp from a private jet on a Gainesville tarmac there was an elephant in the room waiting to be addressed.
Mullen had a great run in Gainesville for four years. He helped create and run one of the most prolific offenses in the country and in Florida history before getting his first opportunity to be a head coach at Mississippi State in 2009. Then, in 2014, Jim McElwain hired then Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to be the Gators’ defensive coordinator. Mullen wasn’t happy. In a press conference he told reporters, “I don’t like anybody leaving for what I would view a lateral move.”
Mullen was beloved during his run in Gainesville but this statement was a shot across the bow to Gator fans, and quickly brought up as soon as Mullen’s name surfaced as a potential candidate for the head-coaching job.
Then, there were comments from his wife, Megan, about how difficult it was to live in Gainesville. On the Bully Pulpit podcast, produced by the Mississippi State Athletic Department Megan Mullen said this.
“The former school where we were at before, we won championships there, won practically every single game we played for four years there,” Megan Mullen said. “It wasn’t if we won or lost. It was if we didn’t score 43 points or more, I was going to the grocery store in Orlando where I worked with the Golf Channel and I was driving the groceries back to Gainesville, because it was that bad.”
Strike two in the minds of a lot of fans.
Mullen knew he would be asked about both of these issues when he spoke to reporters at his introductory press conference. He knew he would have to answer to both comments and that his answer couldn’t seem rehearsed, canned or insincere.
So, about the lateral move? Was Mullen, going from head coach of one SEC program to the head coaching position at another also a lateral move?
“I’m pretty passionate about everywhere I’m at,” Mullen said in response.
That makes sense. Mullen spent the beginning minutes of his press conference explaining his competitive spirit. He talked of telling his players that they need to compete not only on the field but also in the weight room and the classroom. That the grades on their exams and homework were ways to compete and that they should embrace every opportunity for competition. In Mullen’s eyes Collins leaving for Florida was him losing out to another school. He lost a competition and he wasn’t happy about it.
When asked about his wife’s comments, Mullen went deeper with his explanation and provided more context than just one quote pulled from a longer interview.
“I think as you look at quotes and obviously you know, in the media, that was taken in the context of talking about the pressures of what it is to be a wife of a coach in the Southeastern Conference,” Mullen said. “And I think as Megan addressed it, as, you know what, we certainly understand the pressures and expectations and standards here of what it is to be the head coach at the University of Florida because we understood what it was even to be a coordinator here.”
The Mullen’s are the most qualified people in the country not named Spurrier or Meyer in terms of understanding the expectations of the Florida fan base. They won a lot, and even when they did win often times it “wasn’t by enough.” Still, they’re here. They’re back in Gainesville because they want to be here. They want those expectations and that pressure because they’re confident.
Mullen is a smart man, also. He knows a happy life starts with a happy wife. He didn’t make the decision to return to Gainesville on his own because, even though he wants the pressure, he knows it will affect his family as well.
“I can guarantee you this: If Megan didn’t pick Florida, we wouldn’t be at Florida,” Mullen said. “I think I’m a good coach and I think I’m smart in some ways, but definitely am smart enough to know that that decision is certainly coming from the top down. This could be my dream all I want, but that decision’s coming from the top down.