GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Like everybody else, I knew things had gotten bad for Coach Jim McElwain at Florida when the Gators lost back-to-back home games to LSU (17-16) and Texas A&M (19-17) last October.
And it certainly didn’t help matters when McElwain claimed that death threats had been made against him and his family but then offered no help to the Gainesville Police to back up the claim.
But I didn’t know the full scope of the problem until I spoke to the Gainesville Quarterback Club on the Tuesday before the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. When I arrived at the Gainesville Country Club, one of the heavy hitters, cocktail in hand, pulled me off to the side for a private conversation.
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“This #$%^& has got to go,” said the man. “And he’s got to go now.”
So it came as no surprise when McElwain, who led the Gators to a pair of SEC East titles in his first two seasons (2015, 2016), was dismissed the day after a 42-7 loss to No. 3 Georgia. The Gators simply did not compete and McElwain was clearly miserable. Both sides needed a change.
Randy Shannon was elevated to interim head coach for the rest of the season. The Gators finished 4-7 (a non-conference game with Northern Colorado was cancelled due to weather).
Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly got into the conversation but the Gators eventually hired the obvious and logical choice in Dan Mullen who:
**--Was a former assistant to Urban Meyer when the Gators won national championships in 2006 and 2008. Check.
**--Had been a head coach in the SEC for nine years, leading Mississippi State to an unprecedented eight straight bowl games. Check.
**--Led Mississippi State to the first No. 1 ranking in football in school history. Check.
**--Had a long history of recruiting and developing quarterbacks like Josh Harris, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald. What had Florida’s No. 1 weakness been since Urban Meyer left in 2010? Say it with me: “Recruiting and developing quarterbacks.”
But upon taking the job, athletics director Scott Stricklin presented Mullen with his most important task as the 27th head football coach at the University of Florida.
“I told Dan and I told the media that we want to make Florida football fun again,” said Stricklin.
That’s it. MFFFA. Make Florida Football Fun Again. Put it on a T-shirt.
And understand this: The funk that the Florida fans found themselves in went a lot further than just wins and losses. In McElwain’s first two seasons (2015, 2016) the Gators won what was a watered-down SEC East and then got boat-raced twice in the SEC championship game against Alabama. And this much we know: Since Steve Spurrier (1990-2001) Florida fans have not enjoyed winning unless the Gators are scoring a lot of points. Just ask Will Muschamp.
Mullen knew that a big part of his job in the early months was to rally the troops, who were beyond frustrated. To that end he spoke all over the state. He sent a letter to former players inviting them to the spring game and to reconnect with the program. He invited fans, faculty members, and University staff to practice, which was a common occurrence under Spurrier He spoke to fraternities, sororities, and Gainesville officials about making the Game Day experience at Florida the best it can be.
“It was very important for me to let everyone know how excited I was to be the head coach of Florida,” said Mullen as we sat in his office. “I had been here before when the excitement level was so high. And now we all have the chance to get it back to where we need it to go.”
Here is a number that caught Mullen by surprise when he returned to Florida. Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has a seating capacity of 91,916. Not once in six home games last season did attendance top 90,000.
With the advent of high definition television and with so many games being broadcast, Mullen believes “we’ve made it easy not to come.”
To that end Mullen is working with school officials to juice up game day in Gainesville.
Example: Florida is considering blocking off a stretch of University Avenue in front of the North end zone of the stadium and bringing in food trucks and a beer garden for the fans to enjoy. Florida officials tried it out for the spring game in April.
“We have to remember that Game Day isn’t just about the game,” Mullen said. “It’s an event. Game Day should be a combination of a football game, Broadway musical, rock concert and a state fair. When you walk into a football game it should be alive and electric and energetic.
“We want coming to Gainesville in the fall to be a special event. We want people to understand that they don’t get the same experience and electricity watching at home. I can watch a U2 concert on YouTube. But it’s not the same as being there.”
Now Mullen also knows that all the food trucks and beer gardens in the world are not going to matter if Florida doesn’t get better on offense--soon. And that means the Gators have to get better play at quarterback.
It’s pretty simple: Florida has three quarterbacks competing for the job: Redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask plus true freshman Emory Jones, who enrolled early. Franks has the most experience with eight starts in 11 games last season. He threw the 63 -yard bomb on the last play of the game to beat Tennessee 26-20 at The Swamp.
Trask didn’t start for his team as a senior in high school but missed the entire 2017 season with a foot injury. He had some standout moments this Spring.
Jones, from Franklin, Ga., originally committed to Ohio State but changed his mind and signed with Florida in January. He is raw. But so were Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald when they came to Mississippi State to be coached by Mullen.
“The issue is that they are all pretty young,” said Mullen. “The biggest part of my management is to put these guys into positions where they can be successful. Confidence building is going to be as important as reads or play making.”
Jalen Jones, a four-star dual threat quarterback from Baltimore, has already committed to sign with Florida in the 2019 class.
QUARTERBACKS COACHED BY DAN MULLEN
*--Josh Harris, Bowling Green
*--Omar Jacobs, Bowling Green
**--Alex Smith, Utah
**--Tim Tebow, Florida
**--Chris Leak, Florida
**--Tyler Russell, Miss. State
**--Dak Prescott, Miss. State
**--Nick Fitzgerald, Miss. State
With 19 starters (10 offense, nine defense) returning, how much Mullen is able to coach up these quarterbacks will go a long way in determining what kind of season the Gators night have in 2018.
The schedule is not easy with Tennessee in Knoxville, Mississippi State in Starkville, Georgia in Jacksonville and Florida State in Tallahassee. Circle Sept. 29. That’s when Mullen goes back to Mississippi State. Mullen did not leave the cupboard bare for new coach Joe Moorhead.
“Now that,” Mullen said about the trip to Starkville, “has a chance to be pretty intense.”
It also has a chance to be pretty fun.