Florida is winning, but Dan Mullen is holding everyone to the Gator Standard -- even his assistant coaches
Dan Mullen was mad.
His Florida program was locked in yet another dogfight with Kentucky, tied 7-7 late in the second quarter with the Wildcats driving. It didn’t matter that Kentucky was down 17 scholarship players or that the Wildcats entered Saturday’s game ranked 116th in total offense and 92nd in S&P+ offensive efficiency. Florida’s defense couldn’t get off the field, Mullen’s offense couldn’t get (or keep) the ball and the Florida sideline looked sleepy.
As Kentucky drove the ball the length of the field, swallowing up most of the second quarter and converting multiple 3rd downs along the way, Mullen stalked the sideline back and forth, a volcano of frustration and concern about to erupt. When Kentucky’s Terry Wilson darted through the Florida line of scrimmage for a first down on 3rd-and-10 at the Florida 25, Mullen had seen enough.
Todd Grantham just got an absolute earful from Dan Mullen. pic.twitter.com/wE3J6irSyD
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 28, 2020
Mullen exploded on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, wondering what in the world Florida was doing electing to play man coverage with no spy on Wilson on a critical 3rd down.
Whatever Mullen said, it worked. Put differently, first Mullen erupted, and then so did the Gators.
Florida’s defense stiffened, limiting Kentucky to a field goal and keeping the game 10-7 late in the 2nd quarter. Then, after a quick Florida punt, the Gator defense got an even quicker stop, allowing Florida’s special teams, which kept the Gators in the game in the opening quarter by converting a vital fake point, to make a huge play just before halftime.
Kadarius Toney’s run to paydirt was the first score in a 27-0 Florida run, all of which came after Mullen’s sideline soliloquy. Coincidence? Just a case of talent winning out against a brave but shorthanded Kentucky? Perhaps.
Then again, who could blame Mullen for boiling over about this frustrating Gators defense?
Yes, this defense entered the season a little young. Yes, Florida replaced a 3-year starter and first-round draft pick at corner, one of the program’s prolific tacklers at middle linebacker, and 2 All-SEC defensive linemen from a season ago. But this is a talented defense, a group that, at least according to the 247 Talent Composite, is actually more talented than the high-flying Florida offense. Even if plenty of that talent is young, much of it isn’t. Marco Wilson has been through the SEC many times before. Zachary Carter understands the SEC grind. Donovan Stiner and Shawn Davis aren’t strangers to the spotlight. Given Florida’s blend of experience and talent, it’s difficult to explain its inability to get off the field at home against an anemic, one-dimensional Kentucky offense.
Mullen knew it. So he lost it. But critically, he didn’t lose it on his players — at least not in public. Instead, it was Grantham whose feet were held to the fire. Grantham already is the subject of heightened fan base scrutiny. Fans think Florida should be far better on that side of the ball, and Mullen’s sideline butt-chewing showed fans that he sees and hears them. But it wasn’t just virtue-signaling.
When Mullen Gator-chomped his way off the plane 3 autumns ago, he spoke first and foremost about restoring “the Gator Standard.”
What is the Gator Standard?
In an early media session before his first season, Mullen explained it like this. “Florida has championship expectations and a history of winning championships. You are expected to win championships at Florida. That’s the Gator Standard, and you don’t come here or coach here without understanding that. To play to the Gator Standard means you are playing with maximum, relentless effort on every down. (To play to the Gator standard) means you aren’t bored with the task of getting better. You embrace every repetition. You hold each other accountable and that’s the standard we play to Florida.”
There’s plenty to unpack in there, but what stands out is that the Gator Standard applies to everyone at Florida, players and coaches alike. You don’t play to the Gator standard if you sleepwalk through a noon kick against a 3-5 Kentucky, and you don’t have the culture of accountability the Gator Standard demands if you only criticize players. By lambasting Grantham on the Florida sideline, Mullen showed that the Gator Standard means something to him, and it needs to mean something to his coaching staff, too.
After the win, Mullen laughed off the incident. He joked that he was lecturing Grantham about putting out his Christmas lights too soon.
“I’ll be honest with you, I got home Thanksgiving dinner and we’re neighbors,” Mullen said, a blank stare becoming a smug smile. “He had his Christmas lights up before dark and I said, ‘We don’t put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving,’ and (Grantham) said adamantly, ‘Yes we do,’ and I said, ‘No you don’t.’ So we agreed to disagree.”
Whether Grantham really puts his Christmas lights up before Thanksgiving (a cardinal sin and part of the troubling war against Thanksgiving plaguing our society), he hasn’t coached much defense before Thanksgiving this season. What Florida showed after Mullen’s rant was vastly better — a swarming unit that allowed just 47 yards on 24 plays, forcing 3 turnovers, after the Christmas lights conversation.
“The second half. That was Florida defense,” Mullen said after the win. “Our guys made great adjustments.”
It was and they did. Whether this coaching staff and these players can build on that improvement, and apply the relentless effort demanded by the Gator Standard to getting better, will define this Florida team’s ceiling. The defense will always have some weaknesses, but the talent is also there. Mullen knows it.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Mullen said. “We are where we’d like to be at this point in the season. We’re in first place in the SEC East. We control our own destiny. But I don’t think we’ve played a complete game yet. That’s OK. We’re not looking to peak in the middle of the season.”
They aren’t. But maybe, as the end of the season edges closer, Florida got a little closer to peaking Saturday. They just needed a wake-up call from their head coach to do it.