Florida's coach became a piñata for the national media. (GatorBait Photo)
So Dan Mullen has been a little bit eccentric lately, barking at the Harvest Moon like a semi-possessed bounty hunter tracking his prey, dodging in and out of character from a New Hampshire nice guy to the pissed off dude on the sidelines, at times losing track while trying to shepherd his tribe back onto a path of equanimity. Perhaps imbued with a touch of fall madness and human quirkiness.
Personally, I like my coaches a little bit quirky, if not downright eccentric. Some also like their presidents that way. And, frankly, so do many Gator fans.
“At last, we’ve got a coach again that is hated by everybody in the SEC,” a fan texted me this week after Mullen was fined $25,000 and reprimanded by Commissioner Greg Sankey for his antics in the Gators’ 41-17 win over Missouri. You apparently can’t go out on the field to chastise officials and get into the face of your opposing coach, even if the clock is stopped at halftime. OK, a little out of control, but sticking up for his quarterback who was hammered on a late hit.
Some his friendly contemporaries are casting a raised eyebrow at Mullen, the 48-year-old Taurus, who, granted, has been acting a little bit like a bull. However, to the contrary of what some amateur psychologists and out-of-town criers have been recommending lately, Mullen is not being fitted for a straight jacket. And on top of a halftime dustup partially inspired by Mullen’s emotional outburst, critics say, he shows up in a Darth Vader Halloween costume for a post-game presser. His critics are acting as if they were connected.
I am pretty sure that Mullen is trying to become a different coach because he sees a different path to his success. Some media commentators are painting him as Coach Beserko, suggesting he be treated like an ax murderer. The other day on the Paul Finebaum Show, there was a jailbreak Mullen bashing. One guy even called for him to be fired. A number of out-of-towners said he should be suspended.
I went on the Finebaum Show and pointed out that if only the officials called the late hit on Kyle Trask and taken control of the game, none of the halftime scuffling likely would have happened.
Later, as my guest on The Buddy Martin Show, Finebaum admitted he had been caught up in the early emotion of the callers’ mob mentality in which he described Mullen as being treated like a “piñata.” In our chat, Finebaum and I finally agreed that the pressures of the pandemic and the high degree of uncertainty, plus fatigue, can make anybody a little crazy – including Finebaum himself, who came off a grueling 2019 season, got sick with a bug and then returned to his 20-hours-a-week talk show to fend off the loonies. He admits to not being himself for a while and said he could understand Mullen’s angst.
Who among us hasn’t been a little wacky during these Pandemic Days?
Just figuring out the sports calendar is yeoman’s work. Did they play the World Series yet? What? The Masters is next week, in November? What did you mean that the Florida-Florida State game isn’t being played? And by the way, have seen my glasses? And get off my lawn! And YOU – get outta my chair … oh wait, wait, that’s my wife. Sorry honey. We’ve been seeing a lot of each other lately, quarantined here these last eight months. Kiss your what?
On the flip side, Mullen’s team is suddenly playing with an edge. Many Gator fans are embracing his bold new don’t-give-a-damn, I’ll kick-your-ass persona. His eye-for-an-eye Old Testament response to seeing his star-quarterback being cold-cocked late at the echo-of-the-echo of the whistle by a Missouri lineman with no yellow flag thrown drove him over the edge. And he wound up where he shouldn’t have been: On the field, stalking the white hat, in the face of his coaching adversary, then pulling his team off to the locker room, only to stop for a few pom-pom moments and jack up a handful of end zone patrons.
Which brings us to Mullen, himself quarantined about 10 days with Covid-19, trying to coach a football team, itself half-infected with the virus, put on pause for nearly three weeks. And when the team had showed up in late August, not having a spring or any organized practices in 2020 -- not even certain there was going to be a season -- experts were talking about the Florida Gators as championship timber for the SEC East.
No wonder Dan Mullen has been a bit eccentric lately. Haven’t we all been? Perhaps that explains a little bit some of his unusual -- if not downright bizarre – behavior.
This is me playing Dan:
“C’mon Gator Nation! Pack the Swamp with 90,000! They’re cramming them in Kyle Field, so why can’t we? I’m trying to win a championship here, but we’ve lost our edge at the Swamp, because our fans have been limited to about 17 percent, if not discouraged from coming to the games.”
“I’ve got what? Me? Covid? I can’t have Covid! I wear a mask all the time and wash my hands. I can’t be isolated. I’ve got a football team to coach. And I’ll go nuts if I have to stay home for 10 days. Can’t I at least be in the booth helping to call the plays? Wait, wait, we’ve got how many cases?”
“Hey, did you see that? They hit Kyle late! I’m not going to stand by and let my quarterback be assaulted while you swallow your yellow flag. That’s bull-----!”
Most Gators are okay with lobbying the officials. Happy to see Mullen standing up for Kyle Trask. Thought the Darth Vader costume (unrelated) was no big deal. But didn’t like the appearance of Mullen stirring the pot while on the field. It was a mistake. He paid for it. Move on. So Mullen will be very much at the helm for this week’s Florida-Georgia showdown, the biggest game of his three seasons as head coach at UF because it has championship implications. It is Mullen’s Magnificent Obsession.
"You know, I don't know,” he said in seemingly conflicting terms. “It's such a different year. I'd love to be a championship team this year. I would love this year for us to go on and win the East, win the SEC Championship, win a national championship.”
It’s within his grasp, but in this quirky 2020, maybe it requires a little eccentric thinking.
Mullen Presser: Seeking a path to a championship. (Buddy Martin photo)
“I hope I never have anybody having to call me and saying, 'OK, when we have to shut down the world, how do we win a championship when that happens?' I hope this is just a one-time deal, because I think it's scvery unique, different situation from those.
“I thought coming into the season we had the potential to be a championship team. I thought there were certain things I wanted to see us grow on. I think we talked about it, then you never got to see it through spring. We never got to see if we could develop all those things. But to be honest with you, I think that to be a championship team this year it's going to take something a little different than it would in most other years. And if we're able to do that I hope I don't ever have to replicate it the exact same way because we don't have to deal with what we are all going through again.”
Wacko? Beserko? No, but hyper-focused on trying to consummate this championship run Saturday on the banks of the St. John’s River. I find this semi-normal for a football coach with eccentric tendencies – all the great ones have them – perhaps overdosed with hyper-competitive juices.
I mean, Les Miles chewed grass, Ray Graves secretly smoked cigars and went pond-fishing in the Ocala National Forest with his hated FSU rival coach Bill Peterson, Jim Harbaugh has a fetish for $9 khakis, Mike Leach talks about UFOs and BigFoot, Woody Hayes wouldn’t buy gas over the state line in Michigan so his money wouldn’t go for taxes to support the Wolverines’ program. And it is said that General Robert Neyland watered down the Shields-Watkins field the night before the game.
Of course, the beloved Steve Spurrier kept his foes off balance with numerous pithy, humorous jabs, dripping with sarcasm. One day he tried to goad fellow SEC coaches into donating their own money to the cause of players. He also ripped into Bobby Bowden and his staff for encouraging “echo of the whistle” late hits on Danny Wuerffel. A different kind of guy. Yet Spurrier remains the most revered Gator coach in history. And by the way, the HBC beat Georgia 11 out of 12 seasons, won six SEC titles and a national championship. If that’s “eccentric,” yeah, Gator fans will take some.
Is there a championship on the horizon? Do you see a Gator? (File photo)