Updated: May 1, 2020
There are some days Dan Mullen still wakes up at 3 a.m. He’ll sit there for a couple of hours, letting his mind readjust to the new normal that resembles nothing like what he’s been used to since he was a teenager.
“I’m somebody that probably since I was 15 years old, I’ve gone to work every day. Whether it was having a job when I was in high school, going to college and summer jobs and all that. Just kind of being thrown off in this way.”
Now the Florida Gators head coach is finding a groove with a new schedule while the world deals with the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. A day in the life of Dan Mullen now looks something like this.
He gets up and goes for a run or has a morning workout. He holds Zoom staff meetings at 9am a couple of days each week. He’ll take the Mullen’s dog, Heisman, for a walk. He helps his son Cannon with his homework—he’s still trying to figure out the “new math” he admits—and he’ll even become the P.E. and dance teacher for his daughter Brynn.
There’s a lot of time spent on recruiting. And he’ll try to pop in on the Zoom position meetings when possible.
“I kinda just come in with no video, no audio. I just sit, kinda like sitting in the back of the room. But I get to do it for, you know usually we’re all always meeting everybody at the same time. I can sit in during the day and I can sit in on three or four different position meetings every day. And you know so that’s pretty good learning for me and learning what our players do and what’s going on with all of them. So that’s kinda exciting. And it is. I mean the ability to learn, we’re trying to make the most out of this.”
And then he spends time hanging out with his family.
“There could never be enough though. Never,” says his wife Megan, popping into the Zoom call that Mullen was conducting with local reporters from his kitchen, giving credence to the at-home feel everyone’s lives have necessarily taken during this nation wide quarantine.
Mullen’s staff is notoriously allowed more family time than most college football programs. But when the entire life shifts to the kitchen counter, things are bound to look different. So the Gators coaches are guiding everything they do between themselves and players by one question.
“When this is over, are we gonna be the team that’s prepared?”
That begets more questions of course, and Mullen explains those are what then drive the individual areas of focus.
"Are we the team that continued to stay in great physical shape. Are we the team that put in extra conditioning, extra training. Are we the team that spent extra time learning and maximizing what we can do and maximizing ourselves of what we can do so we’re a better football team when we get back together than we are when we left.”
Strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage talks to every guy on the team at least once a week and has set up a private YouTube channel where they can watch the workouts he wants them to do at home. And once the SEC allowed Zoom position meetings, the ability to at least go through the playbook became possible. As such Mullen says the’ve done all of the installation they would have done during spring practice, but are still searching for new ways to teach.
“We’ve installed everything. I think the issue is, I mean everyone’s a different type of learner so you know if you’re a kinetic learner, I mean it's a very difficult time for you. If you’re a guy that needs reps on the field, it’s a difficult time for you. So you know I think when you look at how guys learn that way, we’re limited in how we can teach. So we’re trying to maximize what we can do instead of worrying about what we can’t do.”
There still will have to be on-field workouts for any hope of a football season though. The SEC head coaches have been conducting conference calls with the league to discuss what would be needed to safely field a team. As Mullen explains, eight weeks is ideal, six is doable, four is pushing.
“Obviously the sooner we get our guys back, the better, the less time you need. Is there—because part of it is, 'can you get away with four weeks of practice?' Yes, if you had two or three weeks of 10 guys at a time in the weight room. Or, you know, some other sort of physical testing and training.”
The states of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have began to open back up sooner than others. But all 14 schools—spread amongst 10 states—will need to have an equitable plan. Meaning if one teams returns to their facilities and by proxy their practice fields, the other 13 need to be able to as well.
“I would say I’m much more hopeful than optimistic,” admits Mullen.
“I think right now we have such trying times, there’s so much going on, there’s so much we’re still learning, we don’t know about, that it is hard to project where we’re going to be four months from now. If you look four months ago we were in a very different place in this country than where we are right now. So, to say where we’ll be in four months is hard to do. But I’m certainly hopeful. I’m sure as everybody is out there. Hopeful that we find a vaccine and a cure. Hopeful that people are working hard to limit the spread of everything going on. Hopeful that people are trying as best they can to follow the regulations and making the most out of each day that’s going on. And hopeful we get back to whatever our new normal is going to be, and that includes having a football season this fall.
“For our team, I think the one positive thing is, we've established within our program that we have high expectations as a program and our individuals within our program have high expectations in themselves. So, I don't know if that makes us better equipped to handle what's going on. I don't know if anybody's really like, to say this is a great advantage for us with everything going on. But I do certainly think the expectations that we have within our program and in our team - that our players have themselves, the experience our coaches have, that we have great teachers - that we're making the most out of this time.”
The likelihood of life returning completely to what it looked liked before is low, and maybe that’s for the best. There are positives from this time we can take into life post COVID-19. But no matter what the new normal might become, sports will return. And that will provide something better than normal. It will provide hope. East coast native Dan Mullen knows the heady power that sports can hold.
“The image of what sports was able to do, even though sports returned, of seeing President Bush out there throwing the first pitch of the World Series after 9/11. After you go through massive tragedies there's so many things that sports bring back together. Just the lasting memory of what sports are that are so special.”