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How Starkville is handling Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen’s return

A Dan Who? T-shirt sold out. A frozen treat in his memory is red-hot. Mississippi State is ready for the Mullen Bowl.
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen gets ready to walk onto the field during the game on September 8, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. At the half, the Gators were up 10 to 7. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen gets ready to walk onto the field during the game on September 8, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. At the half, the Gators were up 10 to 7. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Sep. 28, 2018

STARKVILLE, Miss. — The racks at Maroon & Co. normally don't include game-specific T-shirts.

But this isn't a normal game for the Mississippi State clothing store. It's Florida coach Dan Mullen's return to the program he led for nine seasons.

"We knew we had to do something big for it," manager Lauren Ferguson said.

The store found the perfect something last week: A white T-shirt with the two-word message Dan Who?

By Thursday morning, they were sold out.

Less than a mile down Highway 12, business is booming at Bop's Frozen Custard.

The shop used to sell an ultra-rich vanilla concoction with M&Ms, caramel, chocolate chips and chocolate syrup called The Mullen. But after its namesake bolted in November, the shop changed it to The Lateral Move — a reference to what Mullen called Geoff Collins' jump to UF in 2014.

The Lateral Move has been so popular this week that owner Kay Holland had to call her food supplier Thursday. She was low on M&Ms and chocolate chips.

For all the good Mullen did for the program — the bowl games, the No. 1 national ranking and the loaded roster he left behind — The Lateral Move sums up the reception Mullen will likely get Saturday night in a sold-out Davis Wade Stadium.

Cold.

**

Walking downtown Friday afternoon, lifelong State fan Andrew Burchfield is eager to talk about his team's former coach.

"I have a lot to say about him," Burchfield said.

None of it was positive.

Mullen was cocky when he was here, Burchfield said. He was classless when he bolted.

Burchfield's feelings aren't unique. Ferguson said many of her customers in this 25,000-person town feel he left "like a thief in the night."

"There's a lot of people that are just bitter," Holland said outside her custard shop.

But there are a lot of others who were more disappointed than angry with how he left. People like Shane Reed.

Reed, a State alumnus, owns Strange Brew Coffeehouse, whose marquee is a talking point in town and across the SEC. Mullen used to stop by for a caramel frappe with whipped cream and a caramel drizzle.

"When it comes to Dan, there's no hate," Reed said. "We are appreciative of what he's done."

And Mullen, unquestionably, did a lot for the Bulldogs.

One of the banners hanging above the concourse at Davis Wade Stadium commemorates the 2014 win over Auburn that sent State to No. 1 in the country. Another honors the 2013 Egg Bowl victory (Mullen's fourth in five years).

Another giant banner outside the stadium shows Bulldogs great Dak Prescott pointing to the sky. That doesn't happen without Mullen, who signed the unheralded recruited prospect and developed him into a star.

RELATED: Dan who? Mullen's name didn't come up at Mississippi State coach's radio show

Many of the bowl trophies at the stadium or the 80,000-square-foot Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex (built under his watch) are his; State went to seven bowl games in the quarter-century before his arrival but played in eight over his nine seasons.

"You have to respect the shape he left this program in," SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears said.

Mullen left it better than he found it, which is why the No. 23 Bulldogs are a touchdown favorite against UF. And Mullen is better for his time here, too.

His nine seasons with the Bulldogs reinforced what he learned in his first go-round at UF: You can't copy the blueprint from your last stop and apply it somewhere else.

"We had to make changes when we got there," Mullen said. "We had to do things that fit the program."

Mullen kept certain foundations — like spreading the field — and tweaked the rest.

Sometimes the Bulldogs huddled. Sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they relied on the run game (like his top-10 rushing attack in 2009). Sometimes they focused on the air (like his top-15 passing attack in 2015).

Mullen's evolution is continuing at UF. He believes in a running quarterback, but Feleipe Franks doesn't have the power of Prescott or Nick Fitzgerald. So Mullen doesn't use him that way. Instead of rushing up the middle like Prescott or Fitzgerald, Franks runs more outside.

Perhaps Mullen's biggest transformation here came with his temperament. He relaxed.

"When you first start off, you're kind of paranoid," Mullen said. "This is my one shot. If everything is not done exactly the right way, everyone's out to get you. Or if a decision doesn't go your way, everyone's out to get you."

One decision that didn't go his way in Year 1 came coincidentally against the Gators, when he thought UF linebacker Dustin Doe fumbled on a pick-six. The officials disagreed. Mullen publicly questioned the league's replay review system and said he hoped the official would be "severely punished if he ever works another SEC game again." Mullen earned a reprimand from the league.

Nine years later, Mullen still remembers a phone call from then-SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

Just step back and look at yourself. Is that the image you want? Is that helping you build a program? Is that making you a better team?

"I think I've learned from those mistakes," Mullen said.

It shows.

Against Kentucky in Week 2, kicker Evan McPherson appeared to make a 36-yard field goal, but officials ruled it wide right. Mullen didn't complain about it after the game, even though the call could have changed the course of UF's historic 27-16 loss.

"He said it was no good," Mullen said. "So there's nothing else I can do about it."

**

There's nothing Mullen can do about the reception he'll get tonight against his former school in front of a sold-out, white-out crowd.

The hostile atmosphere he spent nine years building will be turned against him. The cowbells he fought to keep clanging will toll for him.

"Boo him," Spears said, "but boo him respectfully."

The respect part will come eventually for the second-winningest coach in State history, but not now. The emotions still seem too raw, even for Reed.

The marquee outside his coffee shop said they're "super excited to welcome two amazing coaches back." The two coaches listed on the other side: Jackie Sherrill, the career wins leader who will be honored Saturday, and Gators assistant Greg Knox, who led the Bulldogs to a bowl win as interim coach in December.

Dan Who?

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.