I know why an article title like the one I chose here is potentially a bad idea, so yes, I’m proceeding here with a great degree of caution.
Every time a new head coach comes in to a given school, he puts his own unique stamp on the program. When the new coach’s predecessor failed to win enough games, the things the new coach does differently are bound to elicit praise from a fan base starved for success. It’s almost always impossible to know if the new coach’s different methods are actually going to make a difference in the win/loss column, but the prevailing thinking usually goes something like this: “Old coach did ABC and got run out of town, new coach is doing XYZ, so therefore he’s expected to win.” I won’t hold the Gator fan base to being that binary, necessarily, but most fans will have to grudgingly admit that they have at some point or another used that line of thinking to boost themselves up.
Because let’s face it. When a new coach gets hired, the majority of every fan base wants to be positive about that new coach, and whatever new flavor he brings. With a nod to the small percentage of masochists out there, virtually nobody wants to spend the inaugural offseason of the (insert coach name) era predicting gloom and doom. Most people would rather pump themselves up and become excited for what’s to come.
Of course, that’s a double edged sword; such confidence leads to something called “elite offseason lies.” For those of you who don’t realize that the term is self explanatory, it essentially means that the most minuscule off-field or practice occurrences are blown way out of proportion and become the catalyst for a real belief that a team is going to accomplish something real when autumn rolls around. And more often than not, those “elite offseason lies” are unmasked for what they are soon enough.
So having just gone into detail about how little stock I put in those elite offseason lies, I can’t help it: I really like the direction Dan Mullen has taken this program in so far. Something just feels different.
Sure, Mullen hasn’t even coached a spring game yet, let alone a real game, but he’s done a lot of the little things that go undetected at first, such as:
- Making the whole team run whenever a player is late to class. Great way to build the team’s trust and teach players that when they do stupid things, the whole team suffers- a lesson you’d hope the players learned after last year’s credit card fiasco, but that you can never teach too many times.
- Involve former players in the program. Sure, past coaches have done that, but Mullen has a decided advantage over all of them because he either coached or coached against in practice many of them depending on which side of the ball they played. And I’m not just talking about inviting them to cookouts. When Percy Harvin and Brandon James come back to speak to the team a decade after torching opponents with Dan Mullen as their coach, it has a decidedly different feel.
- Re-installing special teams as a primary function: How many times did Florida’s special teams give the Gators a distinct edge over their opponents under Urban Meyer, either by blocking kicks, booming punts or setting up big returns? Well, Mullen is trying to bring that back with a simple mantra: “if you can’t play special teams, you can’t play.” The idea is to make special teams feel special and make the team’s stars want to participate on the unit typically listed third in the hierarchy of “offense, defense and special teams.”
- Recruiting extremely well. If you like recruiting rankings and stats, perhaps it means more to you than most that Mullen landed the best recruiting class by star average of any first year Gator coach since recruiting services became a thing. And to be honest, I don’t, Still: Mullen did a tremendous job with his inaugural recruiting class, landing an instant impact playmaker at QB (Emory Jones), two more at running back (Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement) and two more at wide receiver (Justin Watkins and Jacob Copeland) to highlight a unanimous top 20 class- not bad after finishing 4-7. He even landed the nation’s top kicker (Evan McPherson).
- Getting to know the student body. Some past coaches have felt like employees of the University of Florida. Dan Mullen feels like a Florida Gator. Big, big difference. Mullen even visited different fraternities at UF and hung out with them for a little bit at their houses, building a solid rep with the local Greek life. Google “Ron Zook fraternity” if you don’t know why that’s a big deal. (Fun fact: my cousin was a member of that fraternity and directly involved that night, but that’s a story for another day.)
And so on. Mullen hasn’t had the chance to prove himself in the terms that ultimately matter, but he’s done the little things- which are prerequisites to best situate himself to do so.
Let’s put a pin in this whole idea and revisit it in nine months.