Part Darth Vader, part Yoda: Inside the two worlds of Dan Mullen

  • Covers the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of Auburn University.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen arrives at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one morning in August looking like death warmed over. Florida’s head football coach isn’t doing a bad Ed Orgeron impression as he croaks hello, sounding as if he has gravel lodged in his windpipe. He has strep throat.

He trudges upstairs to his office and downs a packet of Vitamin C before heading next door to lead the daily staff meeting. When an athletic trainer provides an injury report, Mullen’s eyes light up about a player who by all accounts should be back practicing but isn’t available. He smirks. “Players take after their coaches, I guess,” he says.

Those in the room chortle, looking over to the player’s position coach, who takes the jab in stride. They’re used to this. Mullen might be under the weather, but he rarely misses an opportunity to needle others, whether it’s his staff, his players, opponents or the media. Weeks earlier, when he was asked about Georgia being the preseason favorite to win the SEC East, he couldn’t let it slide. He quipped, “Didn’t they say that last year?”

They did, and the Gators beat the Bulldogs 44-28 and won the East. If a late onside kick ricocheted differently, Florida may have upset Alabama and won the SEC. That team last season was loaded. It had a Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback, Kyle Trask, and the highest drafted tight end in NFL history, Kyle Pitts, who was selected fourth overall by the Atlanta Falcons. Kadarius Toney, a human joystick at receiver, was taken 16 picks later by the New York Giants.

The season should have been viewed as an all-around success — a key step forward in Mullen’s rebuilding efforts. Four years after returning to Gainesville, he had led the program to within shouting distance of the College Football Playoff and had broken a drought of offensive skill players selected in the first round of the draft that dated back to Tim Tebow in 2010.

But Mullen’s national reputation took a hit. He was roundly panned for saying the crowd was a “major factor” in an October loss at Texas A&M and for calling on UF to “pack the Swamp” despite an ongoing pandemic. Two weeks later, he got into a shouting match with Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz after an apparent late hit on Trask led to a brawl at the end of the first half. When the field was cleared, Mullen returned to incite the crowd. Then, during his postgame news conference, he answered questions while wearing a Darth Vader costume. He was fined $25,000 for “violating SEC bylaws governing sportsmanship.”

The bitter cherry on top came after a 35-point loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. While the loss itself was understandable — multiple starters, including Pitts and Toney, didn’t participate — Mullen’s postgame comments missed the mark. He came off as dismissive when he said the Gators didn’t have to play the game; how the last time the “2020 team” was together was 11 days earlier; how “I thought our scout team guys played well.”

Mullen was cast as a pariah, as an actual Vader, as a villain.

And that, he insists, is not who he is.

“I guess I should have worn a Yoda costume,” he says.

EXCEPT HE’S NO Yoda, either. At times, he can be brash. He likes to mix it up.

During a film session with the offense, he turns his sights to the running backs. There’s a play on an overhead projector that, if executed properly, will be an opportunity to catch a pass coming out of the backfield.

“What about you, Demarkcus?” Mullen asks Demarkcus Bowman, a talented transfer from Clemson.

“I’m open like 7-Eleven,” Bowman shoots back. “All day.”

Mullen smirks.

“You know why they called it 7-Eleven, right?” he says. “Because their hours were from 7 in the morning until 11 at night.”

The room fills with laughter.

“That’s why you gotta go to Wawa,” Mullen says before pressing the clicker and moving on to the next slide.

While Mullen will gladly extol the virtues of the gas station/convenience store giant Wawa — seriously, he loves the place — talking football is his true gift. He emerged on the national stage as an offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer in 2005, helping the Gators win two BCS national championships before becoming the head coach at Mississippi State at just 36 years old.

In Starkville, Mullen took over a program that had gone 32-65 in the eight years before he arrived. And, truth be told, turning things around wasn’t a smooth process. There was some friction between the first-time coach and administration early on. Mullen wasn’t the genteel Southerner that Mississippi State folks were used to; he was a demanding Yankee whose default setting was brutal honesty.

Scott Sallach, who played with Mullen at Ursinus College and coached tight ends with him at Mississippi State, recalls the thick skin it took to be part of the program.

“When you talk about honesty, it’s like you asked a pretty girl to prom, and she says yes. So she told me the truth and that’s great,” Sallach says. “How about when you asked the pretty girl to prom and she says no? Well, you’re kind of distraught. She still told you the truth, but that hurts.

“So yeah, I think it would be fair to say that some people had a hard time adjusting to his commitment to success. If it wasn’t done the right way, he was going to let you know. And some people weren’t accustomed to that.”

They learned to live with what Sallach described as the cost of winning, and after a 5-7 debut season, the Bulldogs wouldn’t miss a bowl game for the next eight years. Mullen was still the same old Dan, getting into it with the media on occasion. He once called defensive coordinator Geoff Collins’ decision to leave for the same position at Florida a “lateral move,” which seemed petty at the time and ironic in retrospect. But Mullen won big, leading State to its first-ever No. 1 ranking in 2014.

He too would leave for Florida in 2018 after having amassed a record of 69-46 in Starkville. But the Gainesville he returned to was teetering. The offense had never found its footing after Meyer’s pseudo-retirement, and the quarterback position had become a turnstile of mediocrity.

Mullen, whose work with Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott had earned him the reputation as a QB whisperer, made an immediate impact as Feleipe Franks threw two fewer interceptions, 15 more touchdowns and improved his QB rating by 31 points in 2018 as compared to the season before. Florida went from 13th in the SEC in scoring to fifth and won 10 games.

The next season the Gators won 11 games, including the Orange Bowl. Franks had suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, but Trask was able to pick up right where he left off and then some.

But as good as the Gators were last season, with the two Kyles and Kadarius powering the No. 1 passing offense in college football, it wasn’t easy. Mullen contracted COVID-19 and the entire program was shut down after a slew of positive tests. The numerous protocols, not knowing who would be available from game to game, was taxing.

“It was mentally, emotionally exhausting,” Mullen says. “I mean, exhausting. I’ve never been more completely drained at the end of the season.”

Which might explain some of his PR gaffes.

“Some of it came out wrong,” he says. “And then it kept piling on. But like I said, last year was emotionally exhausting too, so you’re probably not in your normal mental space.

“But you’re also trying to figure out how I’m motivating this team to get them through this season. You know, there’s a lot to that.”

Which leads him back to the now infamous Darth Vader costume.

People forget, Mullen says, but that was Halloween night and the team was coming out of a long quarantine. During that two-week stretch of isolation, a number of players asked whether the season was over. Mullen himself was questioning, “Is this it?”

Returning to the Swamp to play Missouri was going to be a big deal, maybe too big of a deal, and the initial idea was for Mullen to wear the costume coming off the bus before the game in an effort to alleviate whatever anxiety might exist — to get the team laughing and loose. But when Mullen thought about it, he wondered whether people would think he wasn’t taking the game seriously enough.

So he switched plans at the last minute.

“It was in my locker, so hey, postgame I’ll do it if we win,” he says. “So I wore it during the celebration and guys were like, ‘Ahhh!’ They felt normal for five minutes. Then everyone spun it into something totally different.”

Maybe he should have gone with a Yoda outfit instead, he says. Maybe he could have spoken in Yoda’s backward-style dialect, too.

Mullen is joking, of course, because that’s what he does, but the point is that he knows he could have done things differently. He says he has considered his actions last season and has vowed to try to improve his messaging.

“Like all of us, he can be a little rough around the edges,” Sallach says. “But it’s intended to be good-natured.”

Florida quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee believes what people don’t understand is why Mullen says the things he does. Take the “pack the Swamp” comments. Gov. Ron DeSantis had recently lifted COVID-19 restrictions in Florida and Mullen urged the university to follow his lead and welcome back full crowds. University president Kent Fuchs and athletic director Scott Stricklin wasted no time responding, saying there were no plans to go beyond 20% stadium capacity, citing CDC and local health recommendations. Mullen later apologized for his remarks.

“OK, those are the words,” McGee says, “but the players are saying, ‘Let’s get motivated. Let’s go. Our coach is with us.'”

McGee, a former head coach himself, wishes people could see how the team responds to Mullen — how when it comes time to run extra laps after practice because someone missed a class, Mullen is right there running with them.

“That’s why players are like, ‘We have his back all the way,'” McGee says.

IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL, time and winning heals all wounds. Take Florida’s opponent on Saturday, No. 1-ranked Alabama, and its head coach, Nick Saban. In 2007, after the Crimson Tide were upset by Louisiana-Monroe, Saban was excoriated for comparing the magnitude of the loss to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Saban was 55 at the time, and his careless remarks seem to have faded from memory, obscured by so many national championships. He’s still prone to the occasional rant — just last week he went on another heater — but they’ve become more a source of entertainment than concern or criticism.

During a wide-ranging interview with the Orlando Sentinel recently, Florida director of athletics Scott Stricklin pointed out that Mullen isn’t yet 50. He’ll reach that milestone in April, and yet he’s already the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC, right behind Saban, with 13 years under his belt.

While there are some within the administration who would like to see a more buttoned-up version of Mullen moving forward, there’s still plenty of support for him. In June, the school announced a three-year contract extension that raised his salary to $7.6 million per year.

“I continue to believe that his best coaching days are ahead of him,” Stricklin told the Sentinel.

A big reason for that is Mullen’s work at quarterback. Back in August, Mullen expressed overwhelming confidence in Emory Jones, who waited three years behind Franks and Trask to finally become the starter. Mullen went so far as to say he saw some of Lamar Jackson in Jones’ ability as a runner, invoking the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and 2019 NFL MVP.

But through two games, while Jones has run the ball well, he has been consistently inconsistent as a passer. Against Florida Atlantic and South Florida, his passing numbers were nearly identical: Each game he had a 63% completion rate, fewer than 200 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Meanwhile, freshman Anthony Richardson has been a revelation every time he steps on the field. Playing only the odd series, he has completed 6-of-11 passes for 192 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He has also run the ball 11 times for 275 yards and two scores.

Tall, athletic and difficult to tackle, Richardson looks like a young Cam Newton, whom Mullen coached at Florida in 2007 and 2008 before Newton left for a junior college and later became a star at Auburn.

Fans and media have been clamoring for Richardson to be given the starting job, but Mullen isn’t biting. And he’s doing so in his usual sardonic style.

After the USF game, Mullen laughed off the question of replacing Jones. Then he tried to turn the tables on reporters.

“You know what you never ask?” he said. “Why don’t you ask who the starting running back is? Who started today?”

It was Malik Davis, but that’s beside the point. There’s no controversy at running back and Mullen knows that.

Maybe deflecting is his way of shielding Jones and showing loyalty to a player who could have transferred somewhere else to play sooner. Remember what Mullen said about the difficulty of motivating a team throughout a long season? Maybe this is his awkward way of motivating Richardson.

As usual, you have to read between the lines. Just look at what Mullen said about Richardson last Saturday: “He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he does special things.”

Talk about a balancing act, squeezing a criticism and a compliment into the same 12-word sentence.

If you were looking for Mullen to come out and say what he would do with his quarterbacks heading into the Alabama game, you haven’t been paying attention.

“Everybody loves just looking at the two quarterbacks,” he said. “There are 10 other guys on the field on every single snap — until I put in our two-quarterback offense, which I haven’t shown yet.”

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