GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As I made my way back to the main concourse at Bill Hill Griffin Stadium to go up to the press box on Saturday night, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin turned the corner to walk right past me.
I had just seen Stricklin a few minutes earlier in Dan Mullen’s postgame press conference. Stricklin wanted to bask in the victory after the Gators knocked off No. 5 LSU, which marked their first win against a Top 20 team at home in 3 years. You couldn’t wipe the smile off Stricklin’s face as he watched Mullen spend roughly 20 minutes breaking down his first marquee win in Gainesville.
When I came face to face with Stricklin later on the main concourse, he was still giddy. Even though we had never met and I was just another member of the media, he gave me a big smile and greeted me.
It wasn’t until that moment that it hit me — this was a huge, huge win for Stricklin, too.
It was 10 months ago that Stricklin reportedly whiffed on the likes of Scott Frost and Chip Kelly, both of whom dropped to 0-5 with their new respective teams the same day Mullen improved to 5-1. Mullen was not believed to be Stricklin’s first choice, and in hindsight, that seems baffling.
After all, it was Mullen who brought the Gators back to top-15 status a year removed from a disastrous 4-win campaign. It was Mullen who had worked with Stricklin at Mississippi State, where they built that program from the ground up. Still, Mullen was believed to be the safe choice and not the splashy hire.
Maybe Stricklin took great satisfaction in seeing media members like myself, who criticized him 10 months ago for not being able to land his top choices, have to acknowledge that he got the right guy after all.
Maybe? Scratch that.
One thing is for sure. Neither Frost nor Kelly would have had the understanding of Florida that Mullen does. We got several reminders of that Saturday.
With Tim Tebow in the house, Mullen couldn’t stop referencing “The Gator Standard.” That is, when players from that 2008 team return to The Swamp like they did on Saturday, they take pride in watching the 2018 team play.
Any other coach could have said all the right things about “we’ve got to appreciate the history and tradition” when the 2008 team was honored, but it would have sounded a bit hollow. With Mullen, it felt genuine. I mean, the guy was there, calling plays when Tebow and Co. were creating The Gator Standard.
I asked Mullen why he was so animated in an attempt to pump up the crowd on Saturday. He gave an answer that nobody else could have given.
“You know what part of it is? There are a lot of students who weren’t here 10 years ago,” Mullen said Saturday. “There are a lot of people who are maybe new Gator fans or they haven’t experienced it. I’m watching them, too. That wasn’t just about our team. That was to make sure that every single person in that stadium knew that the game was on the line right there.
“They needed to get up on their feet and go crazy for the student body and the Gator Nation to help us close out that game. And they did that.”
Mullen is exactly right. His goal in returning to Florida was never simply to get it to the level that Jim McElwain had it at for his first 2 years in Gainesville.
Ten months ago, it was fair to wonder just how much upside Mullen had. For all the success he had at Mississippi State, he delivered 1 winning season in conference play and finished better than fourth in the SEC West once. Mullen was 7-32 against Top 25 teams, and 4-15 against Top 10 teams. On top of that, he never finished in the Top 10.
Compared to Frost, who was coming off an undefeated season a couple hours away at UCF and was 3 years removed from helping Marcus Mariota earn the Heisman Trophy at Oregon, Mullen had a vastly different résumé. The same could be said about Kelly, who led 3 top-4 teams at Oregon before heading to the NFL.
It was easy to think that the top up-and-coming coach in America (Frost) or the guy with the possible Saban-like return from the NFL (Kelly), would be the best fits to turn around Florida’s anemic offense and get the program back to where it was a decade ago.
But somewhere between watching Feleipe Franks pull off a Tebow-like rock-back pass and watching Mullen do the Gator chomp after Saturday’s win, it should have become perfectly clear. Mullen was the right person for this job all along. Nobody was better suited to get Florida back to national prominence.
Unlike McElwain, Mullen won’t cave when the pressure mounts in Gainesville. Mullen might be new to running the show at Florida, but this is his 10th year as a head coach in the SEC. His understanding of the task ahead was never more transparent than Saturday.
He still has a ways to go to get Florida back to its former self. While the defense appears elite, the offense Mullen was hired to rebuild is still in, well, the rebuilding phase. But it does appear to be establishing an identity, and one that Gators fans can actually rally behind.
“I came back to Florida and there’s a Florida that I know and there’s a Florida that I love,” Mullen said after Saturday’s win. “There’s a certain Gator standard that they expect the team to live up, but they also expect the Gator Nation to live up to. And it was that way tonight. The Swamp was an intimidating place to come play. It gave us an unbelievable home-field advantage.”
Mullen’s presence is going to continue to give the Gators an unbelievable advantage. That’ll still be true even if Florida loses to Georgia and doesn’t earn a trip to the SEC Championship Game.
The program is better off with Mullen moving forward, no matter how many coaches were considered before him.
Stricklin can keep smiling knowing that.