Dan Mullen does not mind playing the role of villain.
No matter what you think about Saturday night’s Florida-Missouri fight — the hit that started it, Mullen’s role in inciting it or the $25,000 fine he received Monday from the SEC — surely we can all agree on that point.
Mullen is fine wearing the black hat. Or black helmet, in the case of the Darth Vader Halloween costume he slipped on after the win.
“As you said,” Mullen told a reporter during postgame interviews, “it’s suitable tonight.”
Most nights the visor he wears as a nod to Steve Spurrier suits Mullen well enough. Like Spurrier, Mullen likes to needle his opponents.
He routinely trolled Ole Miss when he was at Mississippi State. After last year’s 40-17 win over Florida State, he pulled a Spurrier by calling his rivals the “Semis.”
The difference is that Mullen doesn’t have the same charm as Spurrier. To rivals, his words can sound more like punches than punch lines. That’s one reason why multiple national voices have compared him to a pro wrestling heel since the brawl.
I doubt Mullen cares. He knows what he’s doing.
Most of Mullen’s headline-grabbing moments have had clear internal goals that were probably worth the external gripes. He jabbed at Ole Miss to raise the profile of the Egg Bowl rivalry. He called Geoff Collins' 2014 move from his Bulldogs staff to UF a lateral move as a way to pump up his own program.
Mullen drew widespread scorn last month for asking his administration to open Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to full capacity, even during the coronavirus pandemic. But if fans and reporters were blasting his comments, they weren’t talking about his team’s deflating loss at Texas A&M or his historically bad defense.
Saturday night’s motives were less obvious. Mullen said he didn’t see the controversial hit on quarterback Kyle Trask on the final play of the second quarter; he was instead looking downfield for a possible pass interference call. Mullen said he heard Trask was hit late, and he ran from the sideline because he was “trying to get our players off the field.”
Even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why he screamed at either Missouri players, the referee or both. Nor does it explain why he had to be restrained by his staff and security a second time, after everyone was headed to the locker room.
At best, Mullen fanned the flames on what became an ugly fight. At worst, he helped instigate it.
Either way, he earned his external criticism and reprimand from the league office. And the roar he got from the home crowd.
Mullen leaned into his role by pumping up the crowd on his way into the locker room. If that wasn’t enough, he backtracked, waved his arms in the air six more times and pumped his first.
Mullen, correctly, said that he tried to pump up fans during the first half, and he did it afterward, too. The home-field advantage of a fired-up crowd might have been worth the bad optics of taking a curtain call after a brawl. Although Mullen said he didn’t condone the fight, the energy it generated helped UF pull away in the third quarter.
As interesting as the social media chatter and message board posts are, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Mullen is a villain or just another too-old trick-or-treater with a lightsaber. The only thing that matters is whether he wins.
If he beats No. 5 Georgia this week to become the frontrunner in the SEC East, most UF fans won’t care whether he acts like a Sith Lord or Baby Yoda. He’ll wave his arms in the air, and they’ll cheer all the way to Atlanta.
Mullen surely knows this, too. And if that’s what it takes for him to get another win and one step closer to an SEC championship?
Then call him Darth Gator.
No. 8 Florida (3-1) vs. No. 5 Georgia (4-1)
3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jacksonville