SEC media days: Can Dan Mullen fix Florida Gators’ broken foundation?

Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen addresses reporters Tuesday during SEC media days at Atlanta's College Football Hall of Fame. [ AP PHOTO ]
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen addresses reporters Tuesday during SEC media days at Atlanta's College Football Hall of Fame. [ AP PHOTO ]
Published July 17 2018
Updated July 17 2018

ATLANTA — When coach Dan Mullen evaluated the 4-7 Gators team he inherited, he saw a problem bigger than its quarterback play and more damning than a defense that produced the worst statistical season since World War II.

He saw a program without a foundation.

How else can you explain a five-year span with a pair of SEC East titles and bookended by a pair of four-win seasons?

"That shows me that individual teams at the university right now are playing at a high level," Mullen said during Tuesday's SEC media days, "but the program itself is not performing consistently at the level it needs to be at."

Of course Mullen would like Florida to perform at a high level immediately, while lighting up scoreboards in the process. But the success of his tenure in Gainesville depends on whether he can fix a culture starving for a reboot and rehabilitate players he described as "shell-shocked."

"I don't know if they know what they are grasping…" Mullen said. "Our job is to make sure to build the stability for them and understanding these are the things that are going to make you successful."

The first way he tried to build a foundation was by literally giving his players something to grasp — a rope.

In the first workouts in January, the Gators split into teams for a run around campus, with training stops along the way. On the last stretch, every player had to carry his share of a large rope to show how the team is only as strong as its weakest link. The workout was so intense that players literally dragged teammates across the concrete.

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"We're not going to name names," linebacker David Reese said. "Everybody had to pull toward the finish."

Reese's point doubles as another indictment of the strength and conditioning program that coaches routinely call the backbone of every program.

Things were so bad in the Jim McElwain era that some players used personal trainers to make sure they were developing their bodies properly. It showed on the field; Florida was outscored by almost two points per game in the second half and lost six of its final seven games.

Mullen's staff scrapped the every-man-for-himself workout approach and replaced it with team-oriented routines.

"With the new staff, we do it more as a unit," offensive lineman Martez Ivey said. "We run harder. It's different. There's no walking in and walking right out."

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While UF's strength and conditioning program slipped sometime after Mullen left to take over Mississippi State in 2008, too many other parts of the Gators remained the same.

Mullen said that some of UF's facilities are worse than what he had in Starkville, although the stand-alone football facility set to open in 2021 will help change that. The brand hasn't changed much, either, which Mullen considers a problem.

"The brand was great, so we didn't change it, and we left the brand as it was…" Mullen said. "In today's world, if is always changing, and we need to be sure we're constantly working and improving the brand to make it better."

Mullen has already started to try to fix that, too.

While his predecessor's biggest fashion contributions were swamp green uniforms and not wearing socks, Mullen's Gators had a party Tuesday night (complete with bright lights and booming music) to unveil new Nike Jordan Brand uniforms that looked almost exactly like their old ones.

The final foundational piece Mullen wants to instill is discipline.

McElwain said all the right things about accountability, but his final season began to unravel with an offseason credit card fraud scandal that left nine of his players suspended. Mullen is trying to get the lessons to stick through teamwork.

"That's a huge thing," Mullen said. "If you see somebody not living up to the Gator standard, you see somebody doing something they're not supposed to do, don't just stand there and let something bad happen. Go out and help fix the situation."

Mullen wasn't in Gainesville last year, but he knows enough to know that the program's foundation hasn't been living up to the Gator standard.

The question entering his first season: Can he be the one to fix it?