Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Gainesville magazine.
Everyone thinks they know how to do it. Your barber, the dental technician who cleans your teeth, the guy selling lottery tickets at the convenience store.
They all could give you a plan. Because in the Gator Nation, everyone has an opinion of what Florida needs to get back to where it once belonged.
But only one opinion matters.
Only one plan will be implemented.
Two plans, actually.
One plan for right now. One plan for later.
“You have a plan for this year, how we’re coaching and managing, making the transition and how to win with this year’s team,” said Florida football coach Dan Mullen. “And you have the long range program plan, which is to build this program to consistently compete for championships.”
He talks a good game.
And Gator Nation is listening.
Because he has the rings.
In four seasons at UF, Mullen was the offensive coordinator for two national championship teams. Sandwiched in between the 2006 and ‘08 titles was Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy year.
The credentials were never in doubt, especially when he made Mississippi State relevant in his first head coaching job.
“It’s amazing what he did there,” said Urban Meyer, the former UF coach who was Mullen’s boss. “When Mississippi State came up, I thought, ‘Here is a guy from New Hampshire. How is he going to recruit and finish there?’ But he did. Dan is a very intelligent guy.”
Mullen went to Starkville with a plan, some of it taken from Meyer, and elevated a once downtrodden program to the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings at one point.
Here, at Florida, he brings some of it with him. But not all of it.
“It’s a little bit different, even though there are some similarities, because the program is different,” Mullen said. “The outline is almost identical but the how we implement the outline is going to be different because we have to adapt it to the program here because of what The University of Florida is.
“There are things that worked in Starkville that might not work here and things that will work here we didn’t use in Starkville.”
You remember Meyer’s Plan to Win that he always talked about?
Play great defense.
Win the kicking game.
Win the turnover battle.
Score in the red zone.
“It can’t be too hard to remember,” Meyer said. “You have to understand what you’re trying to do.”
But that goes back to the immediate plan Mullen is trying to install, one that will be in full use when the Gators open the season. At the same time, Phase Two has already been put to work.
“The plan to win that he had was very individually game-based,” Mullen said. “You can build your program with a little bit of that, play great defense to have a championship team.
“In the big picture, it’s a little bit different in terms of things I learned at Mississippi State and things I learned with Urban.”
The master plan isn’t very complicated either.
It starts with recruiting.
“The combination of evaluating the right players that fit the program and get the right players into the program,” Mullen said.
Then there is the unification of the Gator Nation. We’ve seen it at work already with Mullen’s visits to the student body, his tireless speaking tour, his efforts to get Gator fans excited again.
It has been awhile.
“I was a little bit surprised,” Mullen said. “It’s kind of a weird thing. There seems to be a lot of excitement. There are people who want to be excited. I probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about why they weren’t excited the last couple of years.”
Two four-win seasons in the last five years will beat the enthusiasm right out of a fan base. Don’t forget, these are fans who took SEC titles for granted and expected to play for national championships, so much so that just winning a couple of East titles in 2015 and ‘16 didn’t register high on the excitement meter. Since Meyer left, Florida football has been on a roller-coaster ride that left Gator fans with more queasiness than heart-in-your-throat thrills.
To build this program back to where the expectations used to be is going to be a process.
“A lot of it is making sure we all have to be on the same page to be successful,” Mullen said. “For us to win, we’re going to have to be the Gator Nation again.
“We’re going to need the student body, the administration. All of us working together is going to make us win as long as everyone understands that their personal investment in our success will be rewarded in the end.”
Because the biggest part of the big plan is to make Florida what it used to be, what everyone knows it can be, what everyone has seen it achieve under Steve Spurrier and Meyer.
That is job one.
“Get the program established and then build leadership from within,” Mullen said. “The players have ownership in the program. That is why we have brought so many players back into the program, to make sure our players understand what the program means.
“We’re trying to set the bar as coaches and we want to get the players to buy in. They’re buying in but there are little things. How do we handle all the different adversities that we face. They’ve put in some work and seen their bodies change but how do they handle the grind? Can we handle pushing through and putting in the work to be a great team?”
In so many ways, Mullen was exactly the coach Florida needed. While the administration was pursuing Chip Kelly, there was hardly a unanimous feeling that he would be the guy to unite a fractured fan base.
UF needed someone who wanted to be at Florida, who understood Florida, who grasped what it meant to be a Gator.
More than anything, what Florida needed was a guy who would make the people who buy orange and blue everything feel they were as important a part of the program as any of the players or coaches. They had been pushed away and insulted by Jim McElwain, whose plan was to circle the wagons and not let anyone in.
Mullen wants everybody in.
And when Florida started talking to Mullen about the job, there were several calls to his old boss.
“I told him it was a no-brainer,” Meyer said.
Perhaps Mullen should have been brought back sooner. Doesn’t matter.
He’s here now.