Updated: Apr 10, 2020
The last decade for the Florida Gators Football team ended on a high note. The success was born out of a hundred different moments. But two of the most important moments arguably came from an impassioned speech and emotional reaction that were controversial at the time but inspiring in the long run.
BY: KASSIDY HILL
When Dan Mullen came gator chomping off the plane on a tarmac in Gainesville, illusions of grandeur and dreams of a new era were immediately born for Florida Gators fans, players and staff alike. And despite an early 2018 loss to Kentucky for the first time in over 30 years, Mullen’s Gators reeled off five straight wins including victories over ranked Mississippi State and LSU. A loss to rival Georgia was painful but not a shocker. The loss to Missouri though? The lackluster performance from Feleipe Franks after a slightly inconsistent but overall solid season to that point? The lay down by the defense? That was a shock.
Players from that 2018 team later said it was as if Georgia beat them twice. Heading into that Top 10 Cocktail Party, whispered talks of the playoff had begun. It was feasibly possible and a win over Georgia would mean likely only the SEC Championship stood in the way. After the loss, the season was over in so many minds. What else was there to play for, and therefore, what reason was there to even attempt a win over Missouri?
Following the 38-17 loss, Mullen was asked just that; what else is there to play for? It was an understandable question in that moment, a softball as it’s known in the business that allows the coach an open ended opportunity to present a challenge to his team. Dan Mullen dispensed with just the cookie cutter answer though. This was more than a moment for a stock response. It was an opportunity to set the tone for the program he hoped to run and the attitude he wanted from his team from that day forward.
“We get a great opportunity to see where we’re at as a program right now. More than just as a team, as a program. You know, when things get tough, how are we? This is when you gotta buckle down and the toughness comes through, right,” he began.
“I mean there’s, we got three more games to go play here in the regular season and then we get a bowl game and we get to go see what we’re all about as a team and you know what this team’s made of where the program’s at a little bit with all of us pushing and moving forward cause there is still an awful lot to play for as the season goes on. Most important, everybody in that locker room, hopefully, play for each other, play for the Gators, play for the team; I’d be really disappointed if people didn’t wanna play for themselves.”
Dan Mullen thrives on passion. It’s what endures him to fans and makes foes hate him knowing that they’d love him if he was theirs. It’s what brought him chomping off that plane and almost got him into a fight with Derek Mason and it’s what helped fuel his team to late wins over Mississippi State and LSU that 2018 season. He didn’t try to tamp it out of players like previous staffs but instead expertly manipulated it towards a positive trajectory.
It’s what led him to challenge the reporter who asked the question to any sort of competition and issued a mantra that would come to define his team and program.
“They keep score. Someone wins and someone loses. I don’t care what we’re doing. You wanna thumb wrestle me right now, I’m gonna kick your ass,” he lamented as the room chuckled. But Mullen was serious as he motioned for someone to come forward and answer his challenge.
“Come on up, I gotcha. You wanna go run stadiums? I’ll kick your ass. You’re gonna keep score and someone’s gonna win and someone’s gonna lose, I wanna beat your ass.”
With a somewhat exasperated voice he continued.
“If we don’t have that attitude in the locker room, you’ve got a problem. What are we even doing? There’s a lot to play for. Namely you put the ball down next week and someone’s winning and someone’s losing on that field. If that ain’t enough, boy, never mind representing too. You gotta represent the Gators, you got pride in the University, you got pride in the program, seniors playing their final games coming up. individual, either you’re a competitor or you’re not. That’s all I need, right? That is all I need. Certainly I hope that rubs off and that’s the attitude of every single guy in the locker room.”
The next week, unknowingly to the rest of the world, it was rubbing off on the guys in the locker room—one in particular. Feleipe Franks had had the unwavering support of Dan Mullen the entire season. But he was pulled against Missouri after going 9-22 for a mere 84 yards. Backup Kyle Trask came in and went 10-18 for 126 yards and a touchdown. By that point it was a losing effort but the performance from Trask was promising.
When Trask suffered a season ending foot injury in practice the following week, Franks received the break that can make a difference in a legacy. The kid who had never been afraid to leap before looking, who relied on his heart more than his head, he finally had a coach who didn’t see that as a deterrent but instead cultivated it, asking Franks to turn the pain into passion. He asked him to remember “there’s a lot to play for. Namely you put the ball down next week and someone’s winning and someone’s losing on that field.”
As I wrote about the act at the time;
“Franks has faced criticism his entire playing career in Gainesville. From worries that he was being started too early to assertions after losses that he was absolutely being started too early, to being started then benched then put in again only to be pulled again, to moans when he was named the starter this season as fans publicly called for Kyle Trask and Emory Jones to receive a shot instead. He’s heard it all, stuck in a vacuum that comes with being the starter at University of Florida.
That’s part and parcel with being the quarterback at Florida as Dan Mullen continuously reminds Franks, helping him learn the nuances of the position off the field.”Dan Mullen warned Franks leading up to the South Carolina game that fans had wanted to see Trask and they were probably going to boo him. Fans did just that in the first quarter when Franks and the Gators found themselves facing a 3rd and 19 on the very first drive. But still, “there’s a lot to play for” and that’s the attitude Franks kept in mind.
After being down by two touchdowns, Franks ran in a score to tie it at 14. After emerging from the scrum of his celebratory teammates, Franks turned towards the home crowd that had booed him the first two drives and shushed them. It was quick but unquestionable. The Gamecocks and former coach Will Muschamp went up again, this time 31-14. But a fire had been lit under the teams emotional leader and he had something to prove. And he did just that. The Gators reeled off three touchdown drives. On the final one, Franks threw his body into the line, taking hit after hit. They kept him out, but the next snap, he flew his 6’3” body through a hole and past the pylon. Florida went ahead for the winning score, 35-31.
“A lot of people are gonna like me and a lot of people are not gonna like me. And maybe that’s something I shouldn’t have did. But at the same time I’m emotional player, I wanna win as much as anybody in the world,” said Franks after the game.
“I’m a competitive guy, emotional guy and that’s the way I play my game and you know, so I do apologize for that but it’s just great to get another W.”
After being down 31-14, Florida went 4-0 to finish the season and outscored opponents 166-39 during that time. Feleipe Franks played arguably his best ball while in a Gator uniform and made easy work of Idaho, Florida State and the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines—who had a Top 2 defense to boot.
In the moment, a huff of indignation at Franks’ shushing would have been understandable. And he apologized for it immediately following the win. Yet his heel turn also saw him finally embracing the passion that had kept him at odds with the fanbase for so long. He was taking his coaches advice and playing “to beat your ass.” He brought his team along with them and they went on one of the most impressive streaks to end the season.
And as Chauncey Gardner-Johnson predicted after the South Carolina game, a lot of that coming success can be pinpointed to Feleipe Franks shushing his fans.
“It’s his team. A lot of people have doubted him since he’s been here, talking crazy about him. But that’s on him, he’s shushing the crowd telling them ‘we’re not going anywhere and I’m going to continue to lead this team.’ He led us to a victory today.”
It was the same passion with which the Gators began the 2019 season. And when Franks went down with a season ending injury against Kentucky, Kyle Trask finally got the shot that he’d had to conced to Feleipe the season before. Florida finished the season 11-2 and in the Top 10 for the second season in a row. There are plenty of moments from that 2019 run to pull out and examine as pivotal. But there’s one in particular that is easily overlooked but telling.
Kyle Trask has always been the shier of the quarterback group. Hesitant to speak more than necessary in public and shuttered with his feelings. His teammates say they see him open up more in practice and during games, but there’s little question that Franks was the emotional leader while Trask was more reserved. If this was truly going to become Kyle Trask’s team—and as the season went on it became clear that was the case—then he would need to find some of that passion that had driven his teammate, that his coach had asked for in everything down to a thumb wrestling match, and channel it into his role at quarterback.
So against South Carolina in 2019, during a game where boo’s of disgruntled Gamecock fans rained down as hard as the rain from Tropical Storm Nester, Trask ran in a touchdown, turned towards the South Carolina student section and shushed them. They weren’t his own fans this time, but the situation was markedly similar and purposely done as Trask revealed after the 38-27 win.
“Yea I had to do one for Franks right there,” laughed Trask.
Feleipe Franks didn’t announce his decision to transfer until after the regular season was over. He supposedly didn’t even make up his mind until the Sunday morning following the FSU win. But one has to wonder, if that was the moment he knew it was ok to leave.
When Dan Mullen stood at the podium following an embarrassing Missouri loss in 2018, he asked for his team to fight for nothing but the pride in winning. To unabashedly let their passion fuel their game. When Feleipe Franks shushed his own home crowd in a comeback win against South Carolina, he put Mullen’s message into action and turned the Florida Gators not only into contenders but a team that finally believe they deserved to be contenders. Then when Kyle Trask brought Florida back after being down against the Gamecocks again in 2019 and shushed the crowd, he proved he was ready to take responsibility of every single aspect Mullen and Franks had embedded in the team leader role.
Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask leave The Swamp after wins—Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd
It’s a new era for the Florida Gators, one that looks poised to be legendary for them in this new decade. When we look back in 10 years on whatever is to come, don’t forget what started it all at the end of this past decade. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, the Florida Gators became a team ready to beat your ass and shut you up in the process.