In Orange Bowl triumph, Florida leans on program-changing seniors
MIAMI — Dan Mullen tossed oranges to his players and coaches from the Orange Bowl trophy presentation podium, wearing a mile-wide grin.
Florida’s 36-28 win over Virginia on Monday night wasn’t perfect, but it was comprehensive, a game Florida never trailed and one where the outcome rarely felt in doubt. For Mullen and his resurgent Gators program, all that mattered was the chance to celebrate their clear status as the state’s flagship program in the recruiting hotbed of their home state.
Then, with the fireworks and confetti done, Mullen took to a different podium, where he couldn’t help but gush about his seniors, the ones that won only 4 games the season before he arrived.
“I want to congratulate our players,” Mullen said. “This senior class, a couple of years ago they got a new coach and we told them: ‘Hey, if you buy into what we’re doing, believe we’re going to be successful, and so on. And they did that. They bought in. Back-to-back 10-win seasons, back-to-back top 10 teams, back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl victories. They bought in. They’ve restored the Gator Standard. They get to walk out the door knowing they’ve restored the Gator Standard to what it is, building the foundation of a team that expects to — yeah, we haven’t got to where we need to be yet to compete, go win an SEC and a national championship, but they’re certainly living up to the Gator Standard of being one of the best teams and programs in the country.”
Mullen’s seniors shared their coaches’ affection and respect.
Van Jefferson took a chance on Mullen and Florida and transferred into Gainesville just after the program hit rock-bottom in November 2017. He closed his Gators career with a brilliant 6-reception, 129-yard effort in the Orange Bowl. Jefferson, holding a half-peeled orange and wearing an Orange Bowl champions shirt, said Florida’s ascendancy back into the national conversation begins and ends with Mullen.
“When I first came in the locker room, I found Coach Mullen and just told him I appreciated the opportunity to come and be a Gator. He brought the Gator Standard back. He was relentless in challenging us to be better and buy-in. The future Gators are going to be a problem. He’s such a great football coach.”
Another transfer, Jon Greenard, came to Florida knowing what a broken culture looked like. He left a 2-10 Lousiville program coming off a terrible injury, and no one, even Greenard, quite knew what to expect. Greenard, who added a sack of Bryce Perkins Monday night to finish the season with an SEC-high 9.5 sacks, valued that Mullen believed in him.
“I went through a 2-10 season (at Louisville). Dan Mullen gave me an opportunity coming off this injury, believed in what I was capable of being. To get a victory, I never even won a bowl game before, so to win an Orange Bowl with these boys. It’s everything.”
Jefferson agreed, saying Florida’s culture is just different under Mullen.
“At Ole Miss, I learned a lot of lessons, went through a lot of trials and tribulations. But coming here, football brings joy back to my face, being around this coaching staff and Coach Mullen,” Jefferson said.
Mullen was right to gush about his seniors and they were right to return his admiration.
The group of seniors that played their final game as Gators Monday night in foggy, humid Miami were the bedrock of the foundation that helped Florida win 21 games in Mullen’s first two seasons and helped Mullen make a little bit of college football history in the process.
Here’s the list of coaches who won a New Year’s 6/BCS bowl in each of their first 2 years at a school:
That’s the list.
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) December 31, 2019
Perhaps no senior players better exemplify the joy of playing for Florida — and the Gators’ remarkable turnaround — than wide receiver Freddie Swain and running back Lamical Perine.
Swain, a blue-chip recruit from just outside of Ocala, grew up a Gators fan and dreamed of playing in The Swamp, but was mostly a seldom-used afterthought under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier’s offensive stewardship. He could have sought a transfer, likely with a waiver, when Mullen arrived, but he elected to stay, making a constant impact on special teams, and ever so slowly, becoming a staple of the Florida passing offense.
Monday night, he got open on a vital 4th-and-8, catching a slant for a 1st down, and then, with the game on the line, made one more huge special teams play, recovering Virginia’s desperation onside kick with 30 seconds remaining.
When Mullen talks about buy-in, that’s the type of play he’s talking about. A senior willing to play special teams, making a play on a hands team.
Then there’s Perine.
Playing his final game as a Gator, the Florida co-captain and playmaker turned in a masterful performance, with 181 total yards of offense and 3 touchdowns on 18 touches. On his 1st touch of the game, he made a single, simple and devastating cut through a relatively small hole to take the play the distance — a play that set the tone for the evening he would have.
Lamical Perine goes for 61 yards and a GATORS TD. 7-0 Florida pic.twitter.com/QXSjBtgMVQ
— libgator (@lib_gator) December 31, 2019
The night ended with deserved Orange Bowl MVP honors and Perine joining Percy Harvin as just the second Florida player to score a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in multiple bowl games.
As a high school senior from the Mobile, Alabama area, Perine bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Gainesville so he could attend a football camp at Florida, hoping to get noticed. Perine showed out at the camp — because of course he did — and Florida offered him a scholarship, even as other programs, including in-state and nearby Auburn, felt he was “too slow.”
Perine’s only other Power 5 offer when the Gators offered? That came from Dan Mullen and Mississippi State.
It’s funny how life works. Perine picked Florida over Mullen and the Bulldogs and a late-offering Alabama, but ended up playing for Mullen anyway.
The usually reserved playmaker, who prefers to lead by example, was forthright in his praise for his head coach Monday night after the game.
“When they got here, we were a 4-7 team with a four-win culture. Now we are an 11-win program with back-to-back New Year’s 6 wins,” Perine said. “It wasn’t an easy road. Believing in the process and doing the hard part- the intense workouts and practices and things like that- are two different things. But we did that. And the head coach right next to me, a great head coach and a great person, he just schemed it up every week. He puts you in the best position to succeed.”
Put players in a position to succeed.
That’s what the best coaches do, but it still takes invested players to win.
Mullen said Perine embodies what that investment looks like.
“Lamical comes back for his senior year and everyone is like, OK, he’s one of the top running backs in the SEC. He is. I think you saw that tonight. Everyone gets caught up– well, his stats say this. But you know what, every time we needed a big run during the season, Lamical came up with a big run. He showed he’s probably one of the top receiving backs in the country coming out of the backfield. Instead of worrying about, hey, where are my stats, Lamical is always about what do I need to do to help the team win. Is it a run with the game on the line? Is it protecting the quarterback? That’s really special. That’s something you have to embrace and doing things the right way is how you are successful in life,” Mullen said.
Now talk will turn to the next step.
Playing — and winning — in Atlanta.
It won’t be easy without this special group of seniors — which includes other players this article didn’t mention, including four-year starting linebacker David Reese II and 2 other wide receivers, Joshua Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland.
Who replaces that production, and more vitally, who replaces that leadership? Who is the Lamical Perine, the first one to summer workouts and the one pushing the young guys when it’s August and they are hot and tired and sore.
Greenard, for one, felt like Florida’s culture under Mullen was just different, and one primed to answer those questions and compete for championships.
“It’s just a different culture under (Mullen). Looking at what Florida has coming back, they can do more. The guys coming in. This is just the beginning. We keep building. 11 wins is really difficult. But next year, a couple of play this year and we would’ve been right where we wanted. Now, you just have to capitalize off that, and a national championship, we’ve got that in our eyes now.”
Florida is close, but if the gap between 10 wins and 11 wins is large– and it is– the gap between 11 and 12 is even more difficult to bridge.
Florida will, as Mullen put it last night, “have to grind.”
More challenging, they’ll have to do it without a special band of program-changing seniors. But those seniors re-established the lofty Gator Standard. Now it’s up to who’s next to go play to it.