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Dan Mullen and the Gator Standard

By BJ Bennett
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When a new head coach takes over a program, a certain orientation normally ensues. Here, no such training is needed. This is more reunion than revelation.

We are going to have a great football team, perform at a high level and give everyone in Gator Nation a team they can be proud of on and off the field.
~Dan Mullen

Already, progress is being made at Florida. After unprecedented success at Mississippi State, including leading the Bulldogs to number one in the national polls and an Orange Bowl berth, new head coach Dan Mullen has returned to Gainesville with a clear vision and purpose. Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator on two national championship teams, Mullen has made instant changes in rebuilding a superpower. As he will tell you, however, early indications are not enough. This isn't a program that recognizes signs, rather banners instead.

Mullen called the plays at Florida from 2005-2008, going 44-9 in his three years. In addition to winning two titles, Mullen also helped develop Tim Tebow, arguably the most accomplished quarterback in college football history, into a record-setting Heisman Trophy winner. Through it all, Mullen was indoctrinated into Florida's culture of success and, furthermore, was a key figure in expanding it. What he learned with the Gators helped get Mullen to Mississippi State; now it guides his own expectations.

At Florida, more is the ultimate measure. After the Gators' 2006 national championship, Mullen came back and won another in 2008. Florida doesn't compromise or settle, a mindset Mullen, years ago, helped shape.  

"You come to Florida and you're expected to win championships, so we're going to compete to win the SEC East this year, get ourselves to Atlanta and find a way to go win the SEC Championship," Mullen nodded. "That's about all we can control. We can control getting ourselves to Atlanta and, if we do, we have one game to win to go win that SEC title and that'll be the expectation within the program."

There is a lot to live up to in Gainesville. In the Sunshine State, the shadows that follow are large. Florida has claimed eight SEC championships, 14 division crowns, 22 bowl game victories and 714 all-time wins. Legends like Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel brought Heisman Trophies to town; each of them, Spurrier as a head coach, brought national titles as well. The Gators are one of college football's tried and true pillars.   

Florida's frame of reference doesn't change with the seasons.

"The 'Gator Standard' is about excellence," Mullen explained. "It's about being the absolute best whether it's academics or being the best SEC school in athletics. Not just in football, in every sport, wanting that all-sports trophy for the SEC. The 'Gator Standard' is being the best you can be."

An attitude, first and foremost, has been what Mullen has been working to restore at Florida. Before a team can overcome any and all challengers, it has to believe it can. The ambition is clear; the conviction is coming. Mullen is working to ensure that talent meets tenor with the Gators. Florida will be ready for a proper presentation soon. 

Twice in the last five years, the Gators have had a losing record. Prior to that, 1979, the worst season in Florida history at 0-10-1, was the last time the Gators lost more games than they won. The four win totals from 2017 and 2013 are tied for the program's second-lowest marks since 1953. Florida, penultimately, didn't make a bowl game twice in a five year span in the mid 1980s; the Gators were on probation and ineligible.

A relative rebuilding process lies ahead, but Mullen is welcoming the pressure-cooker of "The Swamp" with open arms. The smile on his face comes because Mullen knows what has been and, in his mind, knows what awaits. 

"I want to have fun on the field, I want our fans to have fun, to have a great experience and really make gameday an event," Mullen stated. "I want to make sure all of the players on the team now understand what the standard is and when they look up at all the NFL players, Hall of Famers, Heisman Trophy winners, when you see all of these guys standing on the sidelines and around the program, you have a lot to live up to. The expectations are very high."

There is an energy, at Florida, that is building. Given Mullen's penchant for offensive development, his success as a head coach in the SEC and his previous resume with the Gators, the Mullen hire was, largely, a celebrated one. Fans are excited about Mullen's arrival, as validated by the 53,015 fans at Florida's spring scrimmage, a jump up in attendance from the year before. Many national pundits continue to rave about the decision.   

Former players, especially with Mullen making alumni engagement a major priority, are optimistic about Florida's future. The fact that the Gators' new head coach is a byproduct of the same culture that they were brought up in is a notion that resonates. Mullen officially has the attention of Florida's best and and brightest. There is a strong support system in place, too.

"I'm very excited to have Coach Mullen back in Gainesville. I'm excited to get down there and see him and offer any help that I can to the program," shared Florida Athletic Hall of Famer Lomas Brown, the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft at offensive tackle in 1985 who went on to be named to seven Pro Bowls and win Super Bowl XXXVII.

A very real power can come from the support of some of the program's all-time greats. Florida's infrastructure is being reinforced. 

"Guys are all-in with Coach Mullen and his staff because of what he did in the past with the Gators and in the SEC with Mississippi State. When you think of him, you think of when Florida was at the top of college football, winning championships and leading the way in the conference," added Ben Troupe, former All-American tight end, member of the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame and second round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

In terms of what is expected at Florida, Mullen is well-aware. In terms of how to get there, he has a clear plan forward and past path to follow. Mullen, in the eyes of those who matter most, gets the benefit of the doubt now because of both how and where he earned it. You don't just read Mullen's resume, you can hold it and wear it as well.    

A common theme in conversation amongst program alumni is that Mullen has the experience and understanding to bring the Gators back to where they once were. They know that Mullen knows both the how and the why. 

"The 'Gator Standard' is doing things the right way," noted UF Athletic Hall of Famer, All-Pro and Super Bowl XXXIV champion Kevin Carter, a former sixth overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft and member of the NFL's 100 sack club. "The 'Gator Standard', when I was there, was us blowing SEC teams out and top-notch teams by 20 or 30 points. We were a team to be feared, the cocky bunch that everybody disliked. We were the ones on that field who never thought we were out of the game. There was no panic, no surrender and no break in our will."

All that the University of Florida represents has a profound effect on people. Home to one of the most dynamic athletic departments in the country, the expectations of the football team are universally shared throughout. Around campus, there is an unrelenting set of ideals, all of which comes with unlimited opportunity. The "Gator Standard" is the Gator way.

Mullen's new peers at Florida are among the game's best. The Gators have ranked in the national top ten in the NCAA all-sports rankings every single year since 1983, finishing inside the top five an astonishing nine times running. Since basketball went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007 football won its last titles in 2006 and 2008, Florida has claimed 17 men's and women's team national championships, including, over the last three seasons, baseball, gymnastics, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field, softball and tennis.  

Among others, Mike Holloway, Kevin O'Sullivan, Jenny Rowland, Roland Thornqvist and Tim Walton are accomplished, revered leaders of their respective programs.

"When I stepped on campus in 2005, I walked down to the basement level of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and saw all of the numbers on the wall on the right side of the hallway and every sport had all of their numbers of SEC Championships. I will tell you, the Florida culture for athletes, coaches and programs is to feed off of one another and learn from one another," Walton, UF's softball head coach, reflected. "All of us coaches collaborate and we do love watching everyone's experiences. It's a fun place to coach, very special."

Featured as the newest and next in line, Mullen inherits a proud tradition to add on to. In just mere months, his prints are all over the program.
The anticipation is that Mullen, regarded as an elite offensive mind, will immediately address Florida's recent productivity woes. Stunningly, the Gators have not ranked higher than tenth in the SEC in yards per game since 2009, the season after Mullen departed and Tebow's final run. Since SEC expansion, Florida has finished no higher than 12th. Over the last eight years, with Mullen at Mississippi State and Florida struggling to recover, Mullen's offenses have averaged 428 yards per game, while the Gators, through multiple regimes, have been at 339.  

When it comes to re-establishing the "Gator Standard", Florida, for a starting point, needs stability at quarterback. Mullen, coming in with no preconceived notions, continues to consider all options, different players with their own upside and abilities.

"You got a couple of guys like Feleipe Franks who has some experience and has a great skill set, Kyle Trask coming off an injury, but he's a big guy with great arm strength, arm talent and Emory Jones is a freshman coming in and competing for the job," Mullen detailed. "The most important time for quarterbacks is the start of spring practice to the end of fall camp. Who is putting in the extra work? Who is taking their game to the next level when we are not out there coaching? Hopefully someone goes out there and claims it during this time frame."

Emphasis has also been placed on the offensive line, developing a strong starting point for for Mullen's proven scheme. In his last year at Mississippi State, Mullen's Bulldogs tied for the SEC lead with just 13 sacks allowed and ranked second in the conference with 251.7 rushing yards per game. Mississippi State's 2017 offense is the lone league unit over the last decade to give up fewer than 15 sacks and rush for over 250 yards per game in a single season.

Florida's new co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, John Hevesy, who was alongside Mullen during his first stint with the Gators, followed Mullen back to Gainesville and will pace Florida's efforts at the point of attack. 

"You have to win the battle up front. John Hevesy, he has been my line coach, developing all of those great lines and great players," Mullen pointed out. "If you have young quarterbacks, which we have, you want to be able to control the line of scrimmage. You have to be able to control the line of scrimmage and those guys will start building confidence."

As Florida drives forward, the offensive line will be the first ones pushing the program there.

"It was always the big guys up front creating holes and establishing the line of scrimmage. Once you do that as an offense and a defense, then everything else flows off of it," Brown framed. "To me, that is what has been missing from the Gators the last couple of years, the physicality of the guys up front, especially on the offensive line. To me, that sets the stage for everything else."

Potential is definitely in place at the skill positions. Tennessee-game hero Tyrie Cleveland and versatile Kadarius Toney return to headline a wide receiver rotation that also appears like it will add Ole Miss-transfer Van Jefferson and possibly Ohio State-transfer Trevon Grimes into the mix. Back at running back are Lamical Perine and Malik Davis, who combined for nearly 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns in 2017. Additionally, the return of Jordan Scarlett, 889 yards in 2016, from a season-long suspension, is a key boost.

With ten returning starters, plus the bonus incoming talent, Florida, for the first time in quite some time, will have one of the more experienced offenses in the SEC. As a unit identity develops, expect consistent production to follow. These Gators are battled-tested and ready to do their part.

"The talent base is there and so is the understanding now," Troupe confirmed. "I didn't really take off until later in my career and I expect some of these guys to have a similar jump. You reach a point where it all starts to click for you on the field and you can just go out there and make plays. I think the offense takes a major step forward this year. There is a lot to look forward to with this group."

Accomplished defensive coordinator Todd Grantham came with Mullen to Florida. Grantham, who spent one season at Mississippi State, was previously at Louisville and Georgia after stints in the NFL. In Starkville, Grantham immediately elevated the Bulldogs from 12th in the SEC in total defense to third the very next year. Even with a job change, each of his last four units have ranked in the national top 18 in total defense. Grantham's Gators are poised to build on the successes of their predecessors. 

Grantham brings some versatility to the Florida defense, along with a well-detailed mission of getting after the quarterback. The Gators will be fast and fluid throughout, utilizing personnel shifts to maximize opportunities. Talents like Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga may have roles that change depending on the circumstances. Through it all, the end game will be forcing the issue on the opponent.  

"Todd brings a great scheme and we are going to be very multiple with what we do. We are going to move guys around and put guys in position to make plays. He runs a really aggressive, attacking scheme and I love what he brings to the table, it's very similar to the offense," Mullen scouted. "We can tailor around the strengths of the different players, put our coverage guys in great positions, our pass-rushing guys in great positions and go out and attack people and get after it on the defensive side of the ball."

In the backfield, with standouts like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson, look for more of the same.

"At Florida, that's DBU," Mullen declared. "We have some great playmakers. We have hopes that they will play at an extremely high level and will play up to the tradition of Florida and the best product in America."

Above everything else, Mullen is making it a point to honor the passion and pride that Florida represents. This is a program with very few peers, a place that goes well beyond any city limits. Down for a bit, the Gators are on their way back; not just returning to national prominence, but a restoring of their own benchmarks and beliefs. Florida, even with trips to the SEC Championship Game in two of the past three years, is hungry and ready for more. 

Homecoming, for the Gators, isn't until November 3rd against Missouri, but Mullen's reintroduction has already started the process. Florida's new coach brings more than just an upbeat outlook with him to the sidelines, he brings memories that will forever be on the program's mantle. Any questions regarding Mullen can be answered with a simple shake of his hand; with multiple rings, there isn't much room left for doubt. 

College football is a momentum-based business and, after some struggles, Florida is on the rise. A fast start to the upcoming season would only add to the bottom line. Right now, orange and blue is in the black. Mullen is pushing the margins.

"I know for a fact that Dan Mullen is committed to bringing that standard back," Carter acknowledged. "He wants the sidelines filled with us old has-been Gators, reminding them what they are part of and what that 'F' on Florida field stands for. We all know it stands for the lettermen who came before. I'm very positive for my outlook for the future because of Dan Mullen and what he is doing."

Past, present and future are all intertwined at Florida, strengthening the bond as the Gators embrace the challenges ahead.

"Everyone I talk to is ready to go. My excitement level for the start of the season is very high," Troupe beamed. "It's time to get back on the right track, time to make a statement and show the country and the rest of college football who and what we are."

Team goals, and how to reach them, are distinct and straightforward. Mullen didn't leave a stable situation at Mississippi State to come to Florida and be average; he returned to Gainesville to return the Gators to glory. 

"The reason I came back is to get us to where we are the dominant program in the country," Mullen concluded. "My last game at Florida, we just won our second national championship in three years. I know those are the expectations. We are going to have a great football team, perform at a high level and give everyone in Gator Nation a team they can be proud of on and off the field."

Florida knows the name. Soon, Mullen's story continues.

When a new head coach takes over a football program, a certain orientation normally ensues. Here, no such training is needed. This is more of a reunion than a revelation. In terms of recent success at Florida, Mullen helped write the manual. There are copies for any and all to read, available in the halls of history.

Hardly any other program, Florida's ambition is different. There is a standard in Gainesville that doesn't change. While Mullen, eight years ago, may have left, that standard, for coach and program, never did.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: / Twitter: @BJBennettSports