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Florida’s star turn on HBO’s 24/7 made the Gators look like a great big family

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Dan Mullen could hardly have scripted a better advertisement for his program if he’d tried.

Towson v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The Florida Gators made their HBO debut — okay, so probably they’ve been on HBO in some capacity before — as part of the network’s 24/7 series making a foray into football on Wednesday night, and basically looked the part of an SEC powerhouse throughout the hour-long program.

I watched it in full — just the once — and refrained from tweeting or posting about it, so you could get my thoughts in full here.

(If you’re interested in watching the show, you can catch it on the HBO NOW app — and if you don’t subscribe to HBO, there’s a one-week free trial of HBO NOW that is easy to sign up for and merely requires a credit card number.)

That was a great advertisement for Florida football

The roots of 24/7 are in fight promotion, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the documenting being done ended up making those documented look really, really good. But the one-hour peek at Florida football that the world saw last night worked out as something close to recruiting film for the program.

Think about it: Was there a single thing shown that Florida wouldn’t film and release itself, outside of the profanity, the slew of helmet-less Florida players on scooters, or maybe Dan and Megan Mullen joking about how their risque conversation about dinner plans could have gone thanks to HBO’s permissiveness? And even if they weren’t Florida-approved f-bombs from Mullen and Todd Grantham, those probably conveyed “These guys care” through their intensity; the scooter gang shots and the Mullens’ candid and caring conversation only added to the documentary’s silent argument that Mullen has built a family at Florida that anyone could see the value of joining.

I sat down to watch the hour expecting something positive but not without some potentially thorny moments. I got only the positive vibes, as even the central adversity that 24/7 touched on — Feleipe Franks getting the surgery to repair his dislocated ankle, and then being bathed in the love of his teammates and Megan Mullen afterward — was still an opportunity to showcase that familial dynamic of the program.

Maybe that’s because the show primarily filmed from the moments after a 34-3 win into a 38-0 win. Maybe that’s because Florida has — knock on every wooden thing you have — not had any significant off-the-field problems during the run of this season that weren’t of Brian Griese’s invention. Maybe Mullen orchestrated this week perfectly to show HBO the exact right side of Florida football. (That’s probably true, at least in part, and I can see where some might have found some extent of Megan Mullen’s obviously deep concern for the program a bit false; I tend to think it’s actually quite sincere.) Maybe it’s just impossible to spend a week in Gainesville documenting this program without coming back with something sunny.

In any case, Florida has to be thrilled with the finished product.

Dan and Megan Mullen are a winning first family for Florida

This is unfair, because we’ve never seen a Florida head coach and his wife in this light before, but: Dan and Megan Mullen looked a lot like a Kennedy couple in Camelot last night. Two smart, clearly competent, clearly caring people in a loving relationship — especially with a son with a bowl cut whom dad could lightly chide about homework and a too-cute daughter who clearly loves being in her father’s arms — present a powerful image of people who have their lives together and can be the surrogate parents for 80-plus young men.

Don’t think that Florida won’t show those clips of the Mullens to every mom and dad it can.

But also consider that the Mullens are not like the McElwains (who had adult children), the Muschamps (whose brief window for showing a glimpse like this opened at some point in the 2012 season and shut early on in the 2013 season), the Meyers (whose family life has mostly been known for a daughter reading her father the riot act), the Zooks (one adult and one adolescent daughter at the time of Ron’s Florida stint), or the Spurriers (again, mostly adult children) in that Dan and Megan can pass as youngish and project the vibe of paternal head coach and team mom like this.

And I don’t think Karen McElwain or Carol Muschamp or Shelley Meyer or Denise Zook or Jerri Spurrier — or their spouses — cared less about Florida than Megan Mullen does. But we didn’t see the depth of their care in the same way we saw Megan’s last night, and seeing is the most important step toward believing a truth like “We will take care of you.”

Megan Mullen being there to love on Feleipe Franks and tell him things that helped move him to tears was something that moved me to tears — I’m going to guess I’m not alone — and something that will now be part of Florida’s recruiting pitch to the next Franks, or the next Jabari Zuniga.

I bet that pitch works on a few kids — or, more importantly, the people who take care of them.

I think Jonathan Greenard is this team’s leader?

Who broke down the Gators after most of the practices and sessions in the weight room?

A transfer who has been in the program for under six months.

That suggests to me that Greenard has brought more than just his (substantial) on-field production from Louisville to Gainesville.

The segment about Greenard was fairly short and arguably more about Grantham than Greenard himself, but the eloquent and thankful quote he gave about Grantham believing he could play at the SEC level and him wanting to reward that belief with work was arguably the best thing any player said over the course of the hour. And it is, of course, telling that one of this program’s standouts is a player who is essentially a mercenary playing out his final collegiate year under a flag he didn’t fly until just now — that reflects not just on Greenard but on Florida’s established leaders, too.

But Franks would have been that leader being showcased prior to his injury, and pretty clearly was such a leader from what we’ve seen on the field, and I can’t fault Kyle Trask too much for not fully commandeering this team in the three weeks since he was elevated to that position. And while Florida does have other leaders — Nick Savage asked Freddie Swain to lead something or other, and I’d reckon that CJ Henderson, hurt and thus out of sight here, does plenty to lead a young pack of defensive backs — it probably isn’t a bad thing on balance that Greenard, this team’s clear defensive MVP thus far, is setting the tone through play on Saturdays and leading the way on every other day.

Dan Mullen seemed fun and smart in appealing ways

The consistent knock on Mullen that I had heard prior to his return to Florida was not really a secret: He’s smart and knows it and isn’t afraid to show it.

And he is.

Responding to what seemed like a question about his reputation as a “QB whisperer” by literally stage whispering that the secret is “QB whispering” is a classic smartass move, and more than a few things he’s done at Florida, both captured by these HBO cameras and in interactions with media members, suggest that there are few times when he doesn’t believe that he’s the smartest guy in the room.

But he’s also struck me, since this return, as someone who wants rooms full of smart guys — and maybe women — to push him, and is most likely to chafe people who can’t keep up with his energy or match his spirit. Did his conversations with his wife as shown in this show suggest anything other than that they’re really good intellectual and spiritual matches for each other? Does him lighting into Florida’s defense — saying “that’s not fuckin’ Florida defense” — after a pedestrian first half against Towson, followed by Grantham doing much of the same, suggest that he and his defensive coordinator aren’t on the same page?

When I went to Mississippi State last year, I ended up tailgating with a few folks who worked in athletics over yonder, and thus — as the person at the tailgate in Florida colors — heard tales of Mullen being headstrong to the point of it being abrasive and haughty. Considering the source and the setting, I mostly filed these away as bad feelings from jilted fans.

But I did — and do — think that there’s probably some truth to the idea that Mullen has rubbed some people the wrong way in his professional career, and also to the belief — which I held — that he was passed over for a return to Florida not once but twice after his departure partly because of that.

Yet I think Mullen has also mellowed with age and experience, and that his verve maybe fits Florida a bit better than it did Mississippi State. This is a program that reveres quintessential smartass Steve Spurrier as a folk hero, after all — and Mullen seemed (key word: seemed) tolerant of Spurrier’s doubtlessly frequent input in the brief vignette shown, something that did not seem true of at least one previous coach’s experience with Spurrier (despite public professions otherwise) or of previous coaches’ experience with Jeremy Foley, whose own input came to be a frequent detail about the challenges of coaching at Florida in pundits’ coach-sourced columns on the subject.

Maybe Mullen is only humoring Spurrier when he drops in after playing nine holes to diagram a trick play he saw on Sunday. Maybe Mullen secretly despises multiple coaches he hired, or is harboring deep enmity for someone in Florida’s athletics department. I guess that’s possible.

But what seems more likely is that he’s a very smart coach whose intellect has been tempered by the wisdom of experience and age, a former fireballer whose Nolan Ryan-level stuff is still there but who understands better now than he did five or 10 years ago that Greg Maddux-esque finesse is sometimes more appropriate.

Dan Mullen is not not cocky. But that cockiness has mostly come off as confidence since his ascension to Florida’s big chair — and that’s a compliment.

Feleipe Franks is living through a tragedy

Whatever you thought of Franks going into last night, I cannot fathom watching that hour and coming away not feeling both empathy and sympathy for him.

He was the biggest man on campus — and, because he had worked hard to deserve that status after having it thrust upon him in the wake of other players’ failings, he was beginning to believe he was finally being rewarded for doing the right things. He has never been hurt before, not like this, so he’s scared as hell. He’s a good person at heart, so when an HBO camera is following him crutching into a hospital for his surgery before dawn, he makes sure to stop and shake a nurse’s hand. He’s still young enough and in enough shock to cry on camera with those who love him around, biting his t-shirt in a futile attempt to hide his face. He’s enough of a Florida football player to be living in one of the approximately 40,000 low-slung houses north of University with wood paneling from the 1970s and a living room that can definitely be rearranged to bring in a table for beer pong.

His future was bright and clear as of a month ago. It is murky at best at the moment.

And now comes the really hard part: Doing everything he can to get back to playing shape for either an NFL Draft process that would be sure to include a lot of fretting about his health, to come back to a program that may well be moving on without him because it has no other choice, or to finish his collegiate career somewhere other than the place that has become his home.

What was assumed as known for him is now almost entirely not so.

I do not envy Feliepe Franks, a statuesque athlete with a slew of dedicated friends, a family-like network of supporters, and a Boston Red Sox signing bonus in his pocket — and I’m not even factoring in his pre-injury status as a lightning rod into that assessment. He is about to do the hardest thing he has ever done, and he might not come out on the other side as the athlete or person he was going in.

The hope, of course, is that he comes out stronger for this — that this was the blip, the adversity in the second act. But no one knows whether it is, or where Franks ultimately ends up at the end of the reel — and I don’t blame him for being scared or sad about that.

As Florida’s season progresses, whether toward dominance or mediocrity or failure, it’s going to be easy for Franks to slip from most memories.

I ask that you not forget him. Not for a second.

Other Observations

  • Walk-on Luke Matthews, son of Shane, having the rattiest mullet this side of his dad’s decade? That was something. Trying to claim it was a month’s worth of growth? That’s either an insult or a brag that makes me intensely jealous.
  • The shots of Florida players on scooters looked music video-ready. That so many players were on those scooters with no helmets on their heads is harrowing. So good on Kyle Pitts for his adorable shark fin-style helmet.
  • I’ve thought about the joke I tweeted about Nick Savage owning a megaphone bordering on terrorism, and I want to apologize for it: “Bordering on” was unnecessary.
  • Still, Savage clearly cares very deeply about what he does. I, uh, am less certain that you would have seen the same sort of passion oozing out of his immediate predecessor.
  • Brian Johnson was the only Florida assistant other than Grantham to get significant screen time, and while his tactician’s acumen got a brief look, his razzing of Emory Jones for not eating vegetables — c’mon, Emory — was strong.
  • I think HBO tried to make Jones a bigger deal than he is and hype up the idea of Jones as a dual-threat complement to Trask because coaches were feeding that idea to producers. Jones only playing in mop-up duty against Towson after making an earlier cameo against Tennessee says more about how Florida is using him than segments on an hour-long documentary ever could, though, and I remain a little skeptical that he’s suddenly going to have significant change-up packages against Auburn, LSU, etc.
  • Final Jones note: Yes, your can say your scooter was stolen even if you left the keys in it — but it’s also probably your fault.
  • There were not that many utterly beautiful shots in the hour, but one of Trask alone against a Gainesville sky and another of a player whose number I’m forgetting against the backdrop of The Swamp were very cool. The opening intro wasn’t exactly goosebump-inducing for me, but the shots of Paynes Prairie were lovely.
  • Tyrie Cleveland and Josh Hammond keeping a pregame tradition of microwaved cookies a la mode and calling it the “Rainbow Special” because they add rainbow sprinkles to the ice cream was adorable.