The Dan Mullen Rule; Fair Or A Shot At the Florida Gators?

Florida doesn't wear numbers during warm-ups...until now. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

“The Dan Mullen rule, right?”

The Florida Gators head coach was poised, ready and virtuously upset. He smirked, not knowing that the question had been coming but seemingly satisfied that it had, as if he’d hoped—maybe even prayed—that it would arise so he could justifiably assign ridicule and maybe even some vitriol at a new rule that felt personal.

The “Dan Mullen Rule” as the coach has taken to calling it, is a new rule for college football pregame beginning this fall. It’s seemingly insignificant and most likely went unnoticed by the vast majority of coaches and football offices. But Dan Mullen noticed. And Dan Mullen had something to say.

“The Dan Mullen rule, that is horrendously ridiculous.”

The Pregame Warmup/Officials Jurisdiction rule—which is the official, albeit not as catchy name—was created this past winter, following the conclusion of the 2019 football season and before the coronavirus COVID-19 shut down in person meetings. It reads as follows:

The Rules Committee address issues of Unsportsmanlike behavior in the pregame and took steps to clean this action up. The officials’ jurisdiction will now begin at 90 minutes before kickoff (previously 60 minutes).
“Additionally, when any Squad Member enters the playing enclosure prior to the game, the head coach or an assistant coach from that team must be present on the field. Furthermore, when any Squad Member is present within the playing enclosure after the officials’ jurisdiction, they must be wearing their jersey or have their numeral readily visible. Players without their numeral readily visible must leave the playing enclosure.”

So what does all this legalese mean?

To understand that, we went to Steve Shaw. A former college football official, Shaw became the CFO National Coordinator of Football Officials in March. He previously served the Southeastern Conference and Sun Belt Conference as coordinator of officials. He also serves as the Secretary-Rules Editor of the NCAA Football Rules Committee.

"The rules committee reviewed several concerning trends in the pregame warmup period and viewed many video clips of issues that happened nationally before games," Shaw explained to GatorBait.

"Many times these incidents took place before the officials took jurisdiction.  The changes to the pregame warmup period for 2020 are all woven together to create a better pregame experience, and are not directed in any way to one program, conference or area of the country."

But why does it matter to Mullen?

To understand that part of it, we have to go back to 2014.

Mullen was head coach at Mississippi State. His players were preparing to head out for pregame warm-ups, and the bottom fell out. Not wanting to have their jersey’s and pads soaked before kick-off, they asked if they could warm-up in their shorts and t-shirts. Mullen didn’t see a problem with that given the situation and told them to go ahead.

The players loved it.

Warm-ups are glorified walk-throughs. There is stretching and light jogging. Linemen will lightly hit a goal post and receivers and defensive backs run shallow routes without another person in a 5-yard radius. It’s a way to get the heart rate going and put your body into the groove of running on the field. There may be one last run through of a play that has been difficult in practice, but never one that will tip a hand to the opponent and let them know the game plan.

There is no reason necessary to have jersey’s, much less pads, on during this time. They can be heavy to wear for an entire game but crucial when on the field. But during warm-ups? They can be a nuisance. So when the Bulldog players asked the following week if they could warm-up in shorts and t-shirts again, Mullen didn’t see a problem.

He also saw an advantage.

“The weather deal, our kids loved it, so I think we just started doing it. And the administration loves it, we clear the field earlier, used to be more time for the band to go out and play, all that stuff.”

Shockingly, clearing the field for the band is not the advantage. It’s holding your cards close before kick-off. Teams flood the field with their entire coaching staff before a game. Quality control assistants, position coaches, graduate assistants, everyone has a pad and pen and are jotting down any information that could possibly be exploited during the game. That includes knowing ahead of time if someone isn’t playing.

If someone is injured or suspended or maybe just playing a different role one week, unless opponent coaches know their face, then without numbers, they can’t tell who is out there and who isn’t. Who is returning kicks and who isn’t. Who is running at corner and who is running at nickel. So on and so forth.

The rule change said it was addressing “unsportsmanlike behavior in the pregame” which would allude to fights and scuffles. Officials need to know who is taking swings and throwing jabs and having numbers readily visible would seem to help.

"I believe that the multiple adjustments to the rules for this year will positively impact the image of the sport," Shaw opines.

"Coaches and officials being present will assist in limiting unsporting conduct and separating the teams more definitively will also assist.  The officials being able to identify players in the pregame will also be a part of the changes that are important.  These changes coupled with the changes in Rule 11-1, altering the time the officials take jurisdiction and further separating the teams are all intended to positively impact the pregame warmup period."

But Mullen can’t help but think there were some more nefarious motives as well.

“These staffs, people have like 75 quality control coaches that get all mad, because they can't, they've got like 30 guys that are trying to take notes.”

Who do you think turned you in, Mullen was asked.

He gave a pointed look and responded, “Who do you think?”

The reporter quickly answered, “Georgia.”

Mullen smirked.

“You said it, not me.

“Our guys…listen, it's not the game, I mean our guys, we know how we warm up, our guys like warming up how we warm up, so, but anyway. It is what it is.”

Florida can keep warming up in t-shirts, but they'll have to add numbers. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

It is what it is, but is it fair?

Granted, given the way the rule is worded, the Gators will still be able to don the simple, lighter shorts and t-shirts.

“We'll create something, we'll have some sort of T-shirt with numbers on it this year,” Mullen explained.

But should they have to?

He’s right; it’s not the game.

There is something to the argument that officials need to know the players that get into pregame scuffles, although it’s an entirely different topic, arguing whether or not pregame discipline should carry over into the game from anyone other than the coach.

Still, the biggest question there would have to be, how often have officials found themselves not knowing who started a fight versus how often opposing coaches have complained about a team not having numbers on during pregame? The answer to that question will decide whether or not this new rule is truly fair.

Shaw says they have nothing to do with Mullen.

"These rule changes are not directed at any team.  Coach Mullen, while at Mississippi State was an early adopter of players not wearing their full uniform in the pregame warmup period.  He brought this approach with him when he moved back to Florida.  This has now become a big trend in NCAA football, as more and more players are wearing something other than their game jersey for warmups."

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (left) is more difficult to identify here than the FSU players, arguing before the 2018 game. That seems to be a focus of the new rule. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

After sharing a video of Mullen reacting to the new rule, the responses were evenly split. Florida fans loved it, feeling their coach was standing up for himself and his players against what felt like a personal rule. Georgia fans thought it was ridiculous and Mullen was whining about something just to pitch a fit against a team he couldn’t beat. Florida State and Mississippi State fans were 50/50 on which side they agreed with, although a few former Mississippi State players did speak up, adding their agreement that switching to the shorts and t-shirts had made the entire day nicer for them.

No matter its origins though, the rule is here to stay. It will heretofore be known as the Dan Mullen Rule, and it’s one Dan Mullen himself will follow…with his own twist.

“I will abide by the Dan Mullen rule, I try to be a good soldier in the SEC, so I'll abide by the Dan Mullen rule, and we'll put some number somewhere.”

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