GAINESVILLE — The daily heartfelt conversations that kept them connected for three years have taken a back seat to distance and the demanding schedule of a college football season.
The last time Florida quarterback Tim Tebow heard Dan Mullen's voice on the other end of his cell phone was when his former quarterbacks coach called to check on him after he suffered a concussion in September.
The conversations may be fewer now, but the bond remains strong.
"I'm sure we influenced each other's lives a lot," Mullen said.
Which is why Saturday's game between unbeaten and No. 2 Florida and Mississippi State (3-4) will be so complicated for the coach and his former player.
Tebow loves Mullen. The feeling is mutual.
Yet both are fierce competitors.
So all of the emotion has to be put aside for 60 minutes Saturday night in Starkville.
"It will be strange," Tebow said. "It will. It'll be strange seeing him on the other sideline, too. You know he's going to have a great game plan because he's a very intelligent coach and he's been coaching for a long time and he knows a lot of what we do. And we obviously know a lot of what he does. It'll be two similar schemes going at each other."
Mullen's decision to take the Mississippi State job in December wasn't easy. Although he longed to be a head coach, he knew he'd be giving up the chance to coach his star pupil through his final collegiate season.
"They were very close and had a good working relationship," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "Any time there's transition, I think initially the sting of it is hard."
Tebow, 22, says ultimately he understood.
"I knew that he wanted a head coaching job, not that he didn't want to be here," he said. "But he wanted that next goal, that next task, the next thing he could go out there and get accomplished. If anything, I was happy for him to get it, too, because he had earned it with his coaching here. I was happy for him, but at the same time we were going to miss him here. I think we still have a really good relationship."
Tebow and Mullen talk about once a month, Mullen said, and they often send texts on game days to wish each other luck.
Mullen got very emotional at SEC Media Days in July when asked about not being with Tebow for his final season. There's a picture in the Mississippi State media guide with Mullen and Tebow — each grasping a corner of Tebow's 2007 Heisman Trophy. Both say they would be happy if the other won every game this season — except on Saturday night. After all, Mullen helped Tebow win a Heisman, and in return Tebow helped Mullen become a head coach.
"I think Tim was genuinely happy for me to get that opportunity and I think that was something that he was proud of, and I was thankful to him," Mullen, 37, said. "I think he was a big part of helping me get this opportunity. He put me in a position to get the opportunity to be a head coach. Obviously it was disappointing for me not to be there and coach him through his senior season."
When the teams meet, it's not just a couple of plays here and there that will have to be adjusted for the Gators. And it's more than just changing the signals. Mullen and Meyer were together for 10 years. Mullen's career took off the day Meyer was hired at Bowling Green and asked the young Notre Dame graduate assistant if he'd like to come be his quarterbacks coach.
"We hit it off pretty good pretty early," Meyer said. "He's very intellectual as far as understanding the game."
Saturday will mark the first time Meyer has faced a former assistant on the field. And he's certain it will be a challenge.
"We changed our signals," Meyer said. " … So much is just what they are doing. They are doing everything on defense that bothered us as a staff on offense. Whether it be a two-tilt fire, a certain blitz, this certain blitz. Tim and I were talking about it — you name it that bothered us, they're doing it. He's a smart guy. We'll be ready, though."
When it's all over, Mullen hopes to meet Tebow on the field just like old times. Only one will be wearing orange and blue, the other maroon and white. There will still be two close friends, but only one winner.
"It's going to be great to see Tim because I love Tim," Mullen said. "Hopefully I'll get a chance to say hello briefly before or after the game, and to his family. I think that would be fantastic."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389. Follow her blog at blogs. tampabay.com/gators.