What was a fractured program less than 30 months ago needed a hero to put it back together. In Dan Mullen, Florida found that hero. This is the story of the toxic culture he walked into, how he went to work taking it apart, and how he’s replaced that toxic culture with one that breeds unity- and the results Gator fans expect.
To the casual observer, the postgame scene in Tiger Stadium was likely to be viewed as business as usual, not a seismic culture shift. That’s fine with Dan Mullen, though. That’s what he wants.
After a disappointing 42-28 loss to LSU, the entire Florida team, led by Mullen, stood in the corner of the purple end zone in Baton Rouge, holding their orange helmets with the distinct “Gators” script logo high in the air as the Pride of the Sunshine band played the school alma mater and fight song.
Because this liturgy has been around forever at Florida, to see it play out after just another game shouldn’t be too foreign of a sight. But prior to Mullen’s return to Florida in 2018, it didn’t always take place. Attendance for the singing of the fight song and alma mater depended on the team’s mood in the pre-Mullen days, which could almost binarily be determined by whether the Gators won or lost. The custom was seen more as a way to celebrate wins as opposed to a regularly scheduled reminder of what the players were representing.
The most notable such occasion came after the 2013 Sugar Bowl, in which Florida had gotten stunned 33-23 by Louisville- when Darrin Kitchins stood all alone to support the band in the singing of the alma mater and fight song after the game. Not one single teammate joined him.
As it turned out, that Sugar Bowl loss set the stage for a miserable half decade for the Florida football program. In a vacuum, the loss, and lack of participation in the postgame singing ritual, could have been written off as an anomaly, the rogue result, and a bad day for a program on the rise after the fallout suffered following Tim Tebow’s departure. But as it turned out, it was a mere prologue of the horrors to come- both on the field and off it.
Pre-2015 Offseason: McElwain fertilizes the culture problem
In 2013, Will Muschamp led Florida to its first losing season since 1979. When it became clear that things weren’t getting much better in 2014, then-Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley pulled the plug and replaced him with Jim McElwain.
No sooner had McElwain taken over than a culture of selfishness, arrogance, and laziness began to form, and by the time anybody detected it, it had garroted the program. Fans and administrators alike had been willing to ignore some of the warning signs because Florida had been winning just enough to keep everyone happy, but midway through the third year of his tenure, it all finally caught up to him.
With hindsight now at our disposal, the eyebrow-raising with McElwain started mere minutes after being introduced by Foley. Shortly after taking the podium at his inaugural press conference, he claimed he could coach himself to victory with his dog playing quarterback, a subtle but unnecessary shot at Muschamp and his various failures with his quarterback position. That was merely a warmup; McElwain appeared to be testing what he could get away with doing without facing backlash.
That spring, he went a little further and publicly called out Muschamp for leaving him with insufficient personnel, a statement that was both objectively true and even less necessary than the first one. And two games into his tenure, McElwain went viral for losing his sanity on running back Kelvin Taylor for making a throat slash gesture and drawing a personal foul penalty against East Carolina. McElwain wasn’t going out of his way to say or do these things for his own amusement; he was surreptitiously buying himself patience with his fans and bosses ahead of time.
Now, to be clear: by themselves, those actions and others like them would have been completely harmless. Simply stating facts or even going bonkers on a player are not reasons to believe a program has a culture problem. After all, most coaches do and say things like that fairly often. And in those examples, for as much of a desire to draw attention as those words indicate that McElwain carried, he did have the logical right-of-way to say what he did.
It was only when those innocuous statements became the gateway to far more damaging actions that the problems started. Because in this particular case, those words turned out to foreshadow a tenure defined by finger pointing, sensationalism, selfishness and just plain lying.
2015-2016: The Grier fiasco, and its fallout
Following two subpar years that resulted in a combined 11-13 record, McElwain’s Gators quickly lifted off the ground under new quarterback Will Grier, who seemed to be the program’s long awaited answer at the QB position. But midway through the 2015 season, McElwain faced his first stumbling block.
Florida had just finished administering a 21-3 rout of Missouri when rumors began spreading that something terrible was about to happen. The next day, fans’ worst fears were realized: Grier had been suspended by the NCAA for one calendar year for his use of Ligandrol, an over the counter substance that didn’t actually appear on the NCAA’s published banned substance list until the following academic year. (To be fair, Grier still could have found out that it was banned by simply checking with Florida’s training staff- which he did not do.)
Soon after the announcement, a meeting was set up between quarterback and coach to discuss what would happen next. McElwain had a decision to make- and he made the costliest one possible.
According to Will Grier in a tell-all narrative in 2016 and separately confirmed to me by his father, Chad, McElwain was two hours late for his own meeting. After finally gracing the pair with his presence, he refused to listen to what Grier had to say, deflecting question after question before finally saying, “Maybe a fresh start is what’s best for both of us.” Translation: “I don’t need you, I can win with my dog, get lost.”
Back in the fall of 2015, when McElwain was seen as a hero for resurrecting the program and Grier was marked the villain for derailing such a promising season with his carelessness, an alternate version of the story made the rounds: that Grier walked into McElwain’s office and demanded a guarantee that he would be returned to the top of the QB depth chart when his suspension ended. It’s not true. But it’s what McElwain would want you to believe. It absolves him of blame in a situation where he pulled the trigger and redirects the blame elsewhere- which quickly became a favorite tactic of his once he learned its effectiveness in Gainesville.
Hiding behind the guise of weeding out a problem and using Grier’s suspension as a shield from any potential criticism, McElwain took his “I can win with my dog” theory out for a test drive while beginning the process of landing one of his hand picked quarterbacks. Grier, after all, wasn’t his guy; he’d inherited him. On the other hand, McElwain had just imported Luke Del Rio from Oregon State (who was sitting out 2015 per the transfer rules), was heavily recruiting Feleipe Franks, and was eyeing grad transfer QB’s on the resale market for 2016. So McElwain had plenty of “his guys” to choose from to confirm his hypothesis. He just had to survive the rest of the 2015 season with Treon Harris first… which he did, albeit with ugly losses to FSU, Alabama and Michigan marring the signs of progress his team had shown up until then.
But five games into the 2016 season, when Grier’s suspension was set to wear off, live beta testing of McElwain’s idea officially began. Predictably, the results were horrendous. Yes, there was the Gators’ thrilling 16-10 win over LSU in Baton Rouge. But the Grier-less offense never reached the end zone in miserable losses to Arkansas and FSU that knocked the Gators out of national title contention and relegated them to the Outback Bowl. Even worse, Florida’s offense finished 2016 as the 13th worst unit in FBS and dead last in the SEC with a paltry 344 yards per game that year.
So the base statement that McElwain could win games without Grier was true in a literal sense. But something just didn’t feel quite right. The offensive explosion he was hired to orchestrate wasn’t happening.
That set the stage for 2017, when the rubber met the road once and for all.
August-October 2017: things fall apart
Among many other plot developments, 2017 brought the unveiling of Feleipe Franks- the first quarterback that McElwain had recruited himself and signed. This was his chance to really prove that he was right for running Grier out of town, and that he didn’t need any leftovers from the previous regime to win at any point in his tenure. The hypothesis failed; there were signs of promise for Franks at first, but as the season wore on, the redshirt freshman began regressing. It all came to a head against FSU, when Franks almost singlehandedly gave the rivalry game away with three interceptions and a lost fumble in a grotesque 38-22 defeat.
But that was merely the undercard of the program’s dysfunction. In the meantime, some players were taking their cues from McElwain and acting out of selfishness, arrogance and plain stupidity behind the scenes. Just before the 2017 season got underway, a slew of Gators were suspended for credit card theft. The episode could not have possibly defined the McElwain tenure more perfectly if the players had just recorded, “Pretty neat, huh?” in their checkbooks.
The short version of what happened was that in the summer of 2017, a few players bought a bunch of iPads and other electronics with credit cards that weren’t theirs. In order to avoid the natural suspicion that would come from buying several different sets of electronics, these players enlisted in a few of their (mostly young) teammates. “Come on,” one of them told a then-freshman. “We’re a team, and we’ve got to look out for each other. Are you a team player or not?” Operating without the knowledge that the credit cards did not belong to their teammates, the other players went along with it.
Of course, McElwain isn’t to blame for this in a direct or literal sense. He cannot police his players’ every step. Kadeem Telfort was the one who faced a whopping thirty different charges, not McElwain. And Jordan Smith was the one who faced twenty-two different charges. But the crime reeked of all the same trademarks that McElwain displayed throughout his tenure. Players thought of themselves first and foremost, were more than happy to throw others under the bus, and worst of all, allowed their selfishness to hurt the program.
And sure enough, that was what did McElwain in.
Late October 2017: The guillotine drops on McElwain
The week before LSU made its return visit to Gainesville following the Hurricane Matthew debacle of 2016, the Tigers suffered the ultimate ignobility. It wasn’t just that they’d lost to Troy; they’d lost to Troy at home, at night, on homecoming. It was that presumably mentally battered team that Ed Orgeron led into the Swamp- and coached to a victory. That triggered some alarm bells. The tensions only mounted the ensuing week when Florida lost another game in the Swamp to an unranked team, this time to a Texas A&M program that would eventually decide their 2017 season wasn’t good enough and fired head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Smack dab in a tailspin, Florida- and McElwain- desperately needed something to go their way heading into their rivalry game against Georgia. In one final act of false pride, McElwain’s idea of how to make this happen was to play victim at a press conference and tell the media that he’d received death threats. That line- delivered as casually as though he was talking about what he’d eaten for breakfast- catapulted Scott Stricklin’s frustration to the thermosphere, as he did not appreciate his school’s fanbase being portrayed as deranged animals who clamor for blood at the first hint of adversity.
Immediately after McElwain made these claims, Stricklin ushered him into a private room and demanded more information. He didn’t get it. So he and Florida senior associate AD Steve McClain penned a strongly worded statement:
The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon and he offered no additional details.
McElwain didn’t know it yet, but his career in Gainesville was over the minute that statement was released. The equivalent of his bravado when things were going well was his cowardice when they weren’t, but the theme of going out of his way to insulate himself from responsibility and blame was just as prevalent as when he went after Muschamp back in the offseason of 2015. He would never change. He would always look out for himself first, foremost and last, regardless of how much success or failure his team had. If he had to throw others in front of a speeding truck to get what he wanted, so be it. And worse yet, the credit card fiasco two months earlier proved that this attitude was rubbing off on his players.
The icing on the cake turned out to be a 42-7 drubbing at the hands of Georgia in Jacksonville. Mere hours after that, the plug was pulled, and the McElwain era came to an end.
McElwain Postmortem: Extent of the damage is uncovered
Even after McElwain was fired, there were more nauseating revelations in store for Gator fans. It started with the surfacing of the fact that McElwain’s strength and conditioning program was so inadequate that even the players themselves realized it, and paid out of their own pockets to have private strength and conditioning sessions. That, even more than the death threats, is the ideal epitaph for his sub-ideal tenure.
College football coaches are supposed to be preparing their players for life after school, both on the field and off it, and they’re supposed to lead by example. The players who respected McElwain took the wrong lessons from him and wound up behind the eight ball in some form or another, and those who didn’t respect him felt that he was so incompetent that they looked elsewhere for leadership.
But wait, there’s still more. Upon conducting research for this story, I stumbled upon another ugly incident. According to multiple players on the 2016 team, McElwain first suspended and then threw running back Jordan Cronkrite off the team after that 2016 season for literally no reason other than that he didn’t want him and wanted to free up a scholarship for an incoming recruit instead. Adding insult to injury, McElwain then lied to the press about it. Cronkrite is a personal friend of mine and declined to speak further than that on the record about the incident, and so of course I’ll respect his wishes. He transferred to South Florida and is now preparing for a professional career.
And that wasn’t a one-time deal, or even a two-time deal (see Grier). The ways in which he pushed Cronkrite and Grier away were bad enough, but he saved his lowest form of pettiness for reserve back RJ Raymond. As was first reported by former QB Luke Del Rio– his own handpicked player, mind you- McElwain developed a nasty habit of simply pulling players’ scholarships for no other reason than to use scholarship money on other players he deemed more useful.
The unfortunate reality is that from time to time, college football coaches do nudge players they don’t like or want out the door, for whatever reason. College football is a business, and it’s not always a glamorous one. But rarely do coaches resort to the underhanded tactics that McElwain deployed in order to do so. A former Florida player who transferred in from another school told me that his actions were “abhorrent and unheard of.”
If you were to take any one action of McElwain’s in isolation, it may not seem like part of a larger culture problem. But hindsight, and the sum of his actions, prove that each of them was just another leaf on top of a pile. McElwain ruled Florida football with a crown and scepter, and used that scepter to bat away any and all responsibility of things that didn’t go well. Worst of all, as a leader of men who was tasked with developing his players into leaders in their own way, his attitude permeated the program and strangled it.
And players took notice. “Kids didn’t really buy into what we were doing,” lamented Tyler Jordan, a four year starter on Florida’s offensive line from 2015-18. “The coaching just wasn’t all there.” Another former player just shook his head when I asked him to describe the culture under McElwain. “That’s my comment,” he told me. “Me shaking my head is my comment.”
In other words, from the top down, the culture was broken. So Stricklin hired Dan Mullen to fix it.
Pre-2018 Offseason: Mullen, Savage lay the groundwork for new culture
On day one of his tenure, Mullen made it abundantly clear that he would refuse to stand for any of the shenanigans that went on under previous administrations, or anything that implies any less than 100% commitment to the program. It started with him talking about “giving relentless effort in everything I (we) do” and “restoring the Gator Standard” in his introductory press conference. And slowly but surely, Mullen made it his primary mission to back those words up with his actions.
Placing reminders of how to uphold the Gator Standard seemed simple enough. And to be fair to McElwain, many of those rules were in place before his arrival- at least in principle. “McElwain definitely did care about discipline,” recalled former Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson, who played for McElwain at Florida in 2015 and 2016. “He’d make sure guys had their shirts tucked in, hair looked appropriate, stuff like that. It wasn’t like he never tried to install values. It just didn’t pan out. He did try, though.” But maybe the problem was that the values just needed to be installed in the players’ heads via a more authoritative mouthpiece.
Enter Nick Savage, Florida’s aptly named Strength and Conditioning Coach, who Mullen brought along from Mississippi State. As far as those involved with the program are concerned, Savage served as a launching pad for the new culture under Mullen. “Coach Savage is probably the best thing that’s happened to the Florida football program in a long time,” linebacker James Houston IV remarked. “He prepares your mind and body to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and he pushes us to be the best we can be every single day.”
“Since he took over, Savage had those guys pushing and struggling in the weight room so they can then truly believe on game day,” added David Reese Sr., whose son David Reese II played his first two years under McElwain and his latter two years under Mullen. “There are layers upon layers of competition. And it’s every moment of every day.”
Results of Savage’s efforts soon became evident, as players throughout the program began tweeting out pictures of the weight room gains they’d made under Savage in the first couple months of working with him. It certainly was a stark departure from the days where the players paid out of pocket for additional training because they just didn’t believe in the Florida strength staff. And it quickly had the players feeling good about themselves as athletes- as well as the program they were a part of.
However, there was more to the wide sweeping culture shift than just the physical aspect of it. “Night and day difference,” Houston IV told me in the kitchen of his apartment in Gainesville. “With everything. Mullen is laying the foundation for players to succeed both on and off the field. It’s not solely about football anymore. That’s part of it, but not all of it. It’s making sure we don’t miss a class or a tutoring session. It’s practicing our core values of life, not just preaching them. It’s literally everything that comes with being a Florida Gator. You have to get into the habit of being on your P’s and Q’s 24/7, or he’s going after you. We learned that very quickly.”
Easy enough to say for Houston. He’s a highly intelligent kid from a good family that raised him well. Doing what’s best for a cause greater than himself comes naturally to him, whether it’s inviting a special needs boy over to his house after a game to give him the experience of a lifetime or pushing himself to his absolute physical limits in the weight room.
But for some other players, adjusting to the new culture proved to be much, much harder.
May 2018-August 2018: “Buy in or get out”
“When Mullen first got here, he gave us a choice,” Tyler Jordan told me. “Buy in or get out.” Or in some cases, players made the choice by proxy.
Players and coaches will be the first to tell you that a drastically new culture isn’t going to be successfully implemented overnight. It takes time, and patience. There will be setbacks along the way, often of varying degrees and magnitudes, and dealing with the fallout of those setbacks can play a large role in how the program fares moving forward.
The installation of Mullen’s new culture hit its first real setback shortly after the spring game. In May, several of his players were alleged to have been involved in “the Fryer’s Club” incident, an episode in which nobody was charged with a crime but in which all involved displayed zero common sense. The lowlight of the whole ordeal was when two Florida players appeared to brandish weapons against a local gambler known as Tay Bang, a nickname that could not have possibly screamed “stay away” more fervently than if the word “death” was somehow worked in there too.
Though the worst thing the players were guilty of was bad judgment, Mullen saw a chance to continue his off-field development of his players by developing them as people. “This has been an opportunity for us to educate our players about the dangers and negative perceptions that can occur when conflict arises, and how important honesty and good decision making is,” Mullen said in a statement.
The lesson worked, and the players involved all chose to buy into what Mullen was preaching. In the nearly two full years since the incident, all seven players involved have avoided further off-field trouble.
Not so successful in buying into the Gator Standard was wide receiver signee Justin Watkins, a two-time flip on the recruiting trail from FSU and Texas. Watkins was arrested twice in a ten week span in the summer of 2018, first for trespassing on school property and the latter time for kidnapping and strangling his girlfriend. No sooner had Mullen read the police report from the second incident than he suspended Watkins indefinitely while he continued gathering all the information. Upon conclusion of that process, he forced him out the door.
Of course, the two incidents were drastically different, but they did share one common trait: how they were dealt with. Pretty much everybody who’s ever played for Dan Mullen will tell you that his primary interest is the personal development of his players. He’ll give them a second or even a third chance if he believes that that is what it will take for them to learn and grow, and perhaps no example of that stands out more than him allowing Jeffrey Simmons to enroll at Mississippi State after he was involved in an ugly fight while he was in high school. And he would simply not care about any criticism that came his way as a result, because he knew what he was doing was rehabilitating young men as opposed to condoning awful behavior. Yet as we saw with Watkins, Mullen will eliminate players from his program who he realizes cannot be trusted to uphold the Gator Standard.
But after having dealt with off-field problems before he’d ever coached a game, Mullen was about to endure some on-field problems, too.
2018 season: the players face adversity, buy in
To fans’ delight, Florida had no problem handling Charleston Southern to open the Dan Mullen era. The Gators’ 53-6 rout of the Buccaneers was just what the doctor ordered for a program that had had to hear about its 4-7 2017 campaign for nine straight months. So running out of the tunnel and blowing out an inferior opponent to begin a new era felt good- perhaps too good.
In one of the more shocking results in recent Gator football history, Florida promptly turned around and lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1986 in Gainesville. In the aftermath, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who did the chirping in the hyperlinked article at the end of the prior paragraph, was the team’s harshest critic. “They (Kentucky) came in with a chip on their shoulder; they came in to play,” he said at the time. “We went out there and went through the motions, and you can see what happens.”
Having now seen what would happen if they were the less motivated team, Florida’s players banded together and chose Option A of Dan Mullen’s “buy in or get out” ultimatum. They bought in. And they ripped off five straight wins to announce the Gators’ return to college football’s elite.
First came a 48-10 shredding of Colorado State to get all their frustrations out. Next, Florida went into a hostile environment in Knoxville and obliterated Tennessee by a 47-21 final score that didn’t come close to capturing the extent of the beating. The following week, the Gators handled the ultimate emotional test by returning to Dan Mullen’s former stomping grounds in Starkville and upsetting #23 Mississippi State, 13-6.
Meanwhile, confidence was building, both inside and outside of the locker room. Players’ demeanors had changed. There was reason to believe now, and that reason was built on premises other than false pride. And Florida converted that belief into a tectonic statement. With Tim Tebow in attendance- on the day he was inducted into Florida’s Ring of Honor- the whole world watching, and the Swamp roaring, Florida pulled off a fourth quarter comeback in a 27-19 upset of fifth ranked LSU.
The following week, Florida passed a different kind of test. After trailing Vanderbilt 21-3 in the second quarter, a bench clearing melee kick-started the Gators to life. Florida could easily have packed it in down eighteen points, just the way Florida could easily have let their emotions take over in the wrong way after the brawl. Instead, Florida chose to fight back and channel their emotions in the right way, and stunned the Commodores with a 37-27 victory. That placed the Gators in the top ten for the first time since 2015.
But then came more adversity. After putting up a fight for three quarters, Florida wilted down the stretch and lost 36-17 to archrival Georgia in Jacksonville. Stunned and still reeling the ensuing week, Florida got clubbed 38-17 in the Swamp by a very average Missouri team.
Stuck in reverse and with their New Year’s Six Bowl hopes hanging on by a thread, Florida players once more faced the ultimatum of buy in or quit. And, Houston IV says, it wasn’t much of a decision. “We knew we needed to buy in. End of story,” he recalled. “Because we wanted to play in even bigger games at the end of the year, and we knew that we had to get it together immediately and start playing like it to make that happen.”
Florida did play like it. Seemingly down for the count against South Carolina the following week, the Gators popped off the mat and scored 21 unanswered points to shock the Gamecocks in a 35-31 win. After a feel-good blowout of Idaho, the Gators traveled to Tallahassee, where they snapped not only FSU’s five game winning streak in the rivalry, but the Seminoles’ 36 year bowl streak as well in a 41-14 conquering that ended with Gardner-Johnson decapitating a Chief Osceola doll and dancing around with its severed skull like it was a million dollar bill he’d found on the street.
That impressive three game winning streak was enough to vault the Gators into the New Year’s Six, in the Peach Bowl against Michigan- the ultimate opportunity at redemption. The Florida seniors had been part of a 41-7 beatdown at the hands of the Wolverines three years earlier, as well as a misleadingly close 33-17 loss two years later. But things were different now. After a slow first half, Florida emerged from the locker room with a vengeance in the final 30 minutes and unleashed ten quarters of frustration upon the Wolverines, resulting in an emphatic 41-15 chomping and Florida’s highest finish in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls since 2009.
And thus, the bar had been set under Mullen. Next on the agenda: raising it.
First half of 2019: more adversity, more success
For the most part, 2019 followed the same pattern as 2018- and the program’s growth continued.
To begin with, several players earned headlines for the wrong reasons throughout the offseason. An accusation of violence against John Huggins from October of 2018 surfaced. Jalon Jones was accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. Chris Steele was widely presumed to have used the ugly allegations against Jones as a cover for homesickness, and threw the whole program under the bus on his way out the door by portraying the school as indifferent to sexual assault. Brian Edwards was accused of grabbing his girlfriend by the throat. And then-assistant director of player personnel Otis Yelverton was accused of cyberstalking his girlfriend and threatening to blow up her car.
One by one, Mullen dealt with each situation, ultimately determining that his program was better suited to move on without each of them. Misguided criticism rained down upon Mullen for allowing his players to do terrible things, but he and his Gators simply ignored the outside noise and pushed on. With a firmly entrenched collective belief in what was being built based off of the prior year’s 10-3 season, doing so felt like second nature throughout the turbulent offseason.
But the pushing on got considerably harder in the Camping World Classic in Orlando, where the Gators struggled against a clearly inferior Miami team for most of the way. Up 24-20 with four and a half minutes to go, Feleipe Franks threw a gruesome interception to give Miami the ball deep in Florida territory- a clearly sub-optimal situation for the Gator defense, which had been missing tackles left and right all game. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves or just letting their teammate take the fall with the type of “he threw the pick, not us!” attitude that was prevalent in 2017 and still present at times in 2018, the defense clamped down in the final seconds and finished the game off.
“We don’t win that game in 2017,” the elder David Reese said. “I don’t even know if we win that game in 2018. We were just another level of tough this year (in 2019). We didn’t stop building because we had a nice first year; we knew we had to keep pushing.”
No sooner had Florida cruised past Tennessee-Martin than more adversity came the Gators’ way. But this time, fate intervened. Florida found itself struggling again, trailing Kentucky 21-10 in the fourth quarter, when Franks broke his ankle. In stepped backup quarterback Kyle Trask, who took command of the offense and calmly led Florida to nineteen unanswered points and a 29-21 win.
Reese Sr. shrugged at this point when recalling this. “Man down, man up,” he told me casually. “Mullen and Savage have built a versatile program that can win games in so many different ways. When one piece of the dragon is gone, another piece is waiting and ready. That’s all part of this new culture.”
With Trask now at the controls, Florida was off to the races. The Gators blew out Tennessee 34-3 in Gainesville and easily handled Towson 38-0 in their next two games. Into the Swamp came Auburn, a team with an annoying history of being a thorn in Florida’s side- and the Gators dispatched them 24-13 in front of a raucous sellout crowd to earn a #7 ranking.
But as the euphoria of the Auburn win faded in the rearview mirror, Florida was subsequently faced with more adversity- and the ultimate program progress report.
Second half of 2019: new culture is cemented
Now we come full circle, to where our story began.
October 12, 2019, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Death Valley. A top ten matchup between Florida and LSU. Whether or not he’d ever admit it, this was nothing like anything Trask had ever been a part of before. As pretty much every media outlet has written about in some form now, before the Tennessee contest, Trask hadn’t started a game of football since his freshman year of high school, seven years earlier. Now he was suddenly in command of a top ten team in an extremely hostile environment.
To his credit, Trask was more than up for the challenge, and hung right there with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and eventual national champion LSU for three and a half quarters on their turf. But a late mistake doomed him and Florida, a frustrating setback for a team that knew it was in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth.
Then came the defining moment of Mullen’s tenure, even more so than any play on the field. Less than 24 months earlier, Florida’s program was in the process of crumbling with a coach and players who looked out for themselves first and foremost. But now, in the immediate aftermath of a crushing loss, here stood the entire Gator team in the purple end zone of Death Valley, helmets high, proudly singing the school’s alma mater and fight song.
“We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves,” James Houston IV asserted. “We sing it after every practice and game to remind ourselves of that.”
And that right there, in two short sentences, is the difference between the stewardship of Mullen’s administration and their predecessors. Because as it turned out, before Mullen’s arrival, not only did the players not sing the fight song every day to remind themselves of the brand they were representing, they didn’t even know the words to it.
“It’s not just a song or a tune,” Houston IV declared. “It represents our culture, and the Gator Standard we should all live up to. We didn’t have that in 2017. Instead, we had issues with groups and cliques, way too many distractions and people who were only out there for themselves. But when Mullen came in, he taught us the fight song as a symbol of playing for something bigger.”
Though the program had successfully bought in to what Mullen was preaching, it turned out that the Gators still weren’t quite ready to return to the top of the college football world in 2019. After a bounce back win at South Carolina, Florida’s dreams of a national championship ended in an ugly 24-17 loss to Georgia. But it was clear that they were drawing closer.
Rather than play dead the game after a tough loss as they had the year before against Missouri, the team once more banded together after the devastating defeat and chose to play for each other and their school. Back to back double-digit win seasons and New Year’s Six Bowl berths were still on the table, and this team had worked too hard to let that slip away. The week after the Georgia loss, Florida clobbered Vanderbilt 56-0 to begin a dominant four game winning streak to end the season. That four game winning streak also included a second straight blowout of in-state rival FSU, this time by a 40-17 margin. To cap it off, Florida took down Virginia in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-2- a one game improvement over the previous year’s 10-3 mark.
Which dovetailed perfectly with the message that Dan Mullen wanted to send to his players. Before the year began, Mullen issued a challenge to the team in the form of a simple statement: it had been easier to go from four wins one year to ten wins the next year than it would be to go from ten to eleven.
But if the Gators have proven anything with Mullen at the helm, it’s that not being easy is no longer a disqualifying factor for them. “That’s the culture,” Reese Sr. told me at the Orange Bowl. “That’s all the result of the new culture. We’re a blue-collar program now.”
Present: culture shift is complete
“It’s been a fun brand of football to watch,” former Florida punter Johnny Townsend told me.
Has it ever. And it’s been made all the more fun given the low point from which this program came.
Through the bumps and setbacks that it suffered through, the culture Mullen installed eventually won out. Things that may seem insignificant in isolation, like being a minute late to a tutoring session or forgetting a line in the fight song, add up. Mullen has made it clear that he understands nobody is perfect. But by living every second in an endless pursuit of perfection, you put yourself in the best position possible to be excellent in everything that you do. That’s the Gator Standard, and that’s what Mullen and Savage have been trying to preach to their players since the day they arrived. The ultimate altimeter- the on field results- has proven that it’s working.
And players’ parents- who send their sons off to play college football with the belief that the school they send them to will help mold them into high quality young men- noticed the culture shift immediately as well. “There’s just more accountability now,” remarked Chad Wilson, who runs the recruiting app GridironStuds. Wilson would know about accountability. He played for the dominant Miami Hurricanes in the early 90’s under Dennis Erickson, and has had one son play under McElwain (Quincy) and another play for Mullen (Marco).
It’s a culture that breeds unity, said David Reese Sr., but also hard work. “Every player believes that if he brings his lunch pail and comes ready to grind, there will be a space for him,” added Reese Sr. “That’s the way these players operate now.”
But it was James Houston’s father, James III, who summed it up best. “There’s so much more camaraderie amongst the players under Mullen,” he told me with a reaffirming nod. “A lot of players just seemed to have a personal agenda under McElwain. Now, with Mullen, they have a common goal to work towards.”
That common goal is not a tangible point in time or concrete event. It’s more of a permanent mentality that breeds consistent success over time. Certainly, this isn’t the end of Mullen’s journey. The work isn’t done. And it never will be, for any player or coach, until they decide to retire. That’s how champions are bred. The chase for greatness is something that can never be described in the past tense. It never ends.
But what can be described in the past tense is Mullen’s construction of a culture that’s conducive to winning at a high level. You can more or less lock in Florida as an annual player for a New Year’s Six Bowl under his watch, and outright dismissing his team as a CFP contender would be foolhardy. The current crop of Gators doesn’t just think that they can win at the level that the program’s storied history is used to. They know they can. That’s what Mullen meant at the Orange Bowl trophy presentation ceremony when he said, “These guys have restored the Gator Standard and are building what we want to build.”
Of course, as the chase for perfection never ceases, nor does the appearance of adversity. The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe has drastically complicated matters for teams across the nation. With spring ball having been canceled and the social distancing guidelines still in place in mid-April, players are currently in the process of finding partners to work out with via FaceTime. It’s different from anything the players have experienced before, but Houston IV says they’re up for the challenge. “It’s obviously hindered our progress,” he told me. “But our goal has become to get ahead of it and be the team that handled this difficult situation the best.”
If the monumental growth the Gators have demonstrated over the past two years is any indication, don’t you dare bet against this team’s ability to accomplish that goal.
And as for any future form of adversity that might obstruct this program’s path? With the blue-collar culture and program-wide sense of unity that Savage and Mullen have implemented, don’t you dare bet against this program’s ability to band together, ward it off, and continue to grow in the years to come.