By BUDDY MARTIN @TheBuddyShow Special to WoodyPaige.com
Florida fans can exhale now – and be thankful that it’s so much greater to be a Gator than a Vol right now — not to mention a Seminole. Hard to believe it hasn’t even been a week since Gator Nation felt like its world was spinning out control, Tennessee style, after they were jilted by Benedict Arnold Kelly.
On the other hand, Knoxville looks like the Little Big Horn of college football: Didn’t win an SEC game, coach fired, another coach fired before he got there and now a deposed athletic director.
Instead, Scott Stricklin brought it home and closed the deal with Dan Mullen, who is 1-0 in press conferences. But it felt like 10-0 after Gator Nation nearly got boondoggled and wound up feeling empty-handed. The solution came so fast, Mullen had a tough time grasping the reality that he was the new coach of the Florida Gators. And there was also a sudden reaction by Gator fans that maybe this was what karma had in store all along:
“Of course! Dan Mullen! Why didn’t we go there in the first place? What were we all thinking when we bought into Chip Kelly’s snake oil? After all, The Chipster was hiding up there in New Hampshire, afraid to be seen near the Florida campus, appearing for only those later-afternoon trysts. And playing “Three-Card Monte” with Scott Stricken. Dan Mullen! One of us! Gator DNA! Scores the football! Competing among the monsters of the SEC West with only a slingshot and holding his own. Yeah, that’s the right guy. Had him No. 1 all the way.”
At the press conference Mullen’s heart was full, but his brain was probably wondering: “What the hell just happened to me in the last 48 hours?” And then came his money lines:
“I can promise you that I will give relentless effort in everything I do to make sure that we return the football program to a National Championship level. That’s what it’s all about for us here is to be judged and win championships at the University of Florida and I’m committed to doing that. If you see our team play, you’re going to see a team that plays, as I talk — with relentless effort. That’s what’s most important to me.”
The affirmation: Championships. Commitment. Relentless effort.
All the while, 5-year-old Breelyn sat in the lap of her mother Megan, spinning a bejeweled National Championship ring on her tiny thumb as her daddy paused for two seconds, took a breath, braced both sides of the lectern, and ingested the glorious moment.
There was this sweet innocence during the official induction of Mullen as Florida’s 27th head football coach, one that healed whatever social media wounds may have been inflicted over a false notion about the coach’s wife not wanting to live in Gainesville. Megan beamed like the diamonds in that national championship bling, won by Dan’s teams in 2006 and 2008, cuddling with her children Breelyn and Canon, smiling acknowledgment as her husband declared:
“We certainly understand the pressures and expectations and standards here of what it is to be the head coach at the University of Florida because we understood what it was even to be a coordinator here.
“If Megan didn’t pick Florida, we wouldn’t be at Florida. I think I’m a good coach and I think I’m smart in some ways, but definitely am smart enough to know that…that decision’s coming from the top down…we loved our time here when we were here before…I know the whole family can’t be more thrilled to be back here and I think we do, you know, understand what it is, the lifestyle we’re walking into here as a family…
“…I’m not all at the grocery stores. I’m not always out around town. I’m not in school picking up the kids in line, the kids going to school. And they are around the passionate fan base a lot more than maybe I am on a daily basis, and I think they certainly understand what it is and the expectations people have here as the football coach.”
By the way, Megan had hundreds of volunteers to be her personal shopper at Publix if she didn’t want go back there. Small point though: When she referred to shopping in Orlando instead of Gainesville and not hearing all the “noise” from Gator fans, some people may have missed that she also worked in Orlando for Golf Channel then.
Turns out Florida not only got the right guy, but the right woman as well. Not only had Megan been miscast as a misfit, but underrated as a potential huge asset.
A friend told me, “Gator Nation will fall in love with Megan. She reminds me so much of Jerri Spurrier. And a little bit of Shelley Meyer. Three of the greatest First Ladies of Gator Football.” Her husband had warned us that when he visited various Mississippi State groups to speak where Megan had spoken before and was told, “We’d much rather have Megan come speak because everybody likes her a lot more than you.”
I decided to test that statement and as soon as the presser was over, reached out to Megan sitting next to me and said: “Welcome. I hear you’re a great speaker. On behalf of the Ocala Quarterback Club, I’d like to invite you to speak to us next season.”
Megan quickly responded: “I accept!”
This whole big happy Gator family thing pervaded the room and even hard-bitten journalists had checked their cynicism at the door. One of them, Mark Long of the Associated Press, who had gotten a testy reaction from Jim McElwain after once comparing him to a “used car salesman” on a radio show, was downright smitten.
“She’s going to be a huge part of this thing,” Long said of Megan on The Buddy Martin Show. “Jim McElwain’s wife Karen, we met her on the day Jim took this job. And we never heard from her again. She was a ‘First Lady in Hiding.’ I’m not saying she has to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis. But she needed to be a part of it, out there in there in the community, making it seem like fun … like ‘you guys are all in.’ She was at the games. She was wearing orange and blue. And I’m sure she did things with the wives. But she just wasn’t present.
“I think we’re going to see a complete 180 (degrees) with Megan. I think she’s doing to be much more like Jerri Spurrier. She came up (after the press conference) and was high fivin’ some of us she remembered — it was just a different environment.”
Speaking of family, the one “missing member” of the Mullens was his former Gator Quarterback who had spent so many nights eating dinner with them and was a regular fixture at holidays like Thanksgiving. Dan Mullen and Tim Tebow were tight. They climbed mountains together. They’ve stayed in touch.
One day when Tebow was still playing at Florida, Urban Meyer said to me, “Tim Tebow should be the coach at Florida some day.”
Tebow’s name came up a lot but this wasn’t the right time. So naturally we wondered if Mullen had considered old No. 15 as an assistant coach. And what kind of advice he’d gotten from Tim. Mullen did admit he had queried Tim, but was told, “He still had a few home runs to hit.” Remarkably, en entire hour presser went by without anybody asking about Tebow. So I requested and was allowed one more question even as it ended:
ME: “You said you learn from your quarterbacks. You must have learned from Tim Tebow. What did he tell you about this job, and what advice did he have and did you talk to him the last couple of days?”
MULLEN: “I talked to him, I think as it progressed Saturday afternoon, I talked to him. Tim was unbelievable, you know what I mean. Tim is like a family member to me in our family. Every Thanksgiving, he’s at my house when I was here, every Thanksgiving, he was at dinner for Thanksgiving dinner.
“He’s kind of a family member. Even we found a way to get an old NCAA Football on eBay to play on the computer, and knowing Tim as a competitor, Tim was over at the house, the SEC Nation one night. And all I heard, ‘Tim, you threw another pick.’ He started yelling at the game.
“You know what, I think Tim loves the University of Florida, knows how special a place it is. But also, more of our discussion, was not about that, but was what’s best for the family and me.
“Really that was the discussion than how great a place Florida is and what we can accomplish and all of those things. It was much more based off of discussion about what’s best for me and what’s best for Megan and the kids and the family. That’s just because that type of relationship that Tim and I have and that we have with the family, so it goes way beyond football, that relationship.”
That’s kind of how we all wound up feeing after the press conference. Like “it’s way beyond football.”
I’m not sure Mullen will win a championship, but I think he certainly could and under his guidance, play-calling and high scoring and high standards the Florida Gators have the best chance of doing it in over nine years. I’ll be willing to bet you my Steve Spurrier autographed football that’s not how they’re feeling today in Tallahassee and Knoxville.