Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen has been on his post-Junior Day, pre-spring tour of the Sunshine State this week. He’s spoken in front of what seem like robust crowds, with the goal of drumming up enthusiasm for the Gators in Gator Nation.
He’s been quipping about the cost of tickets to Florida’s spring game, talking up the “arm talent” (and starting potential) of Feleipe Franks, describing a Gainesville gameday as either heaven or hell on Earth, predicting black jerseys while offering a shrugging defense of the monstrous green ones, and, uh, engaging in some hyperbole.
And I ... just ... don’t ... care.
I’ve been doing this job, writing about Florida on a near-daily basis, for going on eight years now. I’ve been on this beat for the full tenures of two separate football coaches, and for the honeymoon periods of three new coaches in football and men’s basketball, all of whom had the same new-hire smell. I can tell you with full confidence that Mullen is not, in actuality, significantly better or different or more expressive or more convincing in these speaking sessions from Will Muschamp or Mike White, both of whom are excellent talkers and good at the political part of being head coaches, and that any advantages Mullen has on Jim McElwain — a somewhat less comfortable figure in those rooms — will not matter if his football team does not perform any better than the best Muschamp or McElwain outfits did.
Muschamp memorably promised wins over Georgia and didn’t get one until his last year in town. McElwain talked about kicking the door down in Atlanta in early 2017; he was kicked out the door before Thanksgiving last fall. Neither coach was fired for saying something at one of these rile-up-the-natives events and not doing it; both got let go for not winning football games, more (Muschamp) or less (McElwain), and would have been able to say whatever the hell they pleased at these events with no consequences so long as wins were the echoes of their words.
(The phenomenon of words not really mattering so long as wins happen is not limited to February speaking engagements, of course. Few recall — and fewer care — that Nick Saban once compared Alabama losing to Louisiana-Monroe to the September 11 terrorist attacks and Pearl Harbor in one of the most ill-conceived metaphors a coach has ever spoken in public, quite possibly because Alabama has lost just 13 football games in the 10 seasons since that one.)
This is talking season, and it’s the alternative to playing season, and it is something I just don’t have the energy to pretend truly matters.
Mullen, when emphasizing the importance of fan support or suggesting that Franks — Florida’s most experienced quarterback, and one with prodigious physical talents — is saying things that are already well-known by fans and reporters alike. Those fans mostly want to hear these things to be reassured that Mullen knows what they do, and to be excited about Florida football again — something that was already mostly accomplished by Florida hiring Mullen in the first place — and any scribes in attendance at these gatherings are simply listening to see if the guy at the dais says something completely outlandish.
That rarely happens — coaches only feel their oats enough to suggest dropping one to Louisiana-Monroe was like a loss of thousands of lives every so often, after all — and so the net effect is that everyone leaves such an event feeling as if their flesh has been pressed. Mullen is now in line to win the popular vote among Florida fans — just as he was before this week, and which is very hard to not do when running unopposed.
There are, yes, benefits to doing this sort of fan outreach. Some of the fans in Jacksonville and Orlando and Tampa might go to games or buy merchandise that they would not otherwise have gone to or purchased this season based on Mullen’s appearance, though I think fans in attendance at these events — ones who go out of their way to hear a football coach speak platitudinously on a weeknight — are probably more diehard than not. Boosters might make larger contributions than they otherwise would have had Mullen not come to their neck of the woods. Fans on social media might be slightly less inclined to snark for a short period of time.
But those are all very small benefits, and ones that will be immediately and totally eclipsed by impressions of how Florida looks on the field in its spring game and during its fall schedule. Mullen can talk up Franks as much as he likes in these settings, but fans will seize on him sailing throws on April 14 and spend the summer months clamoring for Emory Jones to start all the same. Mullen loudly saying in January and February that Florida will play with “relentless effort” ain’t gonna matter if, come October, the Gators can’t hold a lead against LSU.
So forgive me if I didn’t give too much consideration to what Mullen said in suit and tie this week. It’s just that I would like to spend less time thinking about things that do not matter, and more time thinking about what will matter when Florida suits up this fall.
How about you? Do you care what Mullen has had to say on his speaking tour? Have you seen, or will you see him in person at some point? Let me know in the comments.