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Dan Mullen’s Florida celebrated his victorious MSU return with cowbells

The Starkville crowd didn’t get what they wanted, as Dan Mullen wins his return trip to Starkville and his team celebrates with a cowbell in the locker room.

Florida v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Florida’s trip to Starkville marked a homecoming of sorts for Gators head coach Dan Mullen, MSU’s head coach from 2008-17. He led the program to unprecedented success, including a 69-46 overall record, a brief No. 1 ranking, and eight straight bowls. He’s since been replaced by Joe Moorhead.

In Mullen’s return, his Gators beat the Bulldogs, 13-6. And in their locker room celebration, you can hear a cowbell — made infamous by Mississippi State fans as their noisemaker of choice — ringing incessantly.

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There was a reason Bulldog fans didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms.

We’ve seen coaches and programs split on amicable terms before, like when Scott Frost left UCF for his alma mater. But for a job within the same conference is a whole different story, even though Mullen had previous roots in Gainesville.

For example:

The backstory: after the 2014 season, Mullen lost MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to Florida. He called it “a lateral move.” Mississippi State folks are now using that quote against Mullen, since he made the same transition.

There was also this sign at a Starkville coffee shop, with a reference to Mullen’s use of “the school up north” when describing archrival Ole Miss while he was at Mississippi State. If Mullen doesn’t have much to say about MSU now, that means MSU is Florida’s rival now, right? Just following the logic.

So yeah, Mullen shouldn’t have expected a friendly fan reception, despite being arguably* the best coach in school history.

“I think there will be a lot of passion on Saturday night,” Mullen said. “But I think the majority of people and everybody that I knew in that fanbase, when I think of the fans and I think of the former players and the people of the town of Starkville, I think for the most part they were appreciative in what we were able to accomplish in the nine years that we were there. I don’t know if that will show on Saturday night.”

His former players might’ve disagreed with the reaction, however.

QB Nick Fitzgerald sticks up for Mullen here, referring to a button using their likenesses:

Recruiting and developing quarterbacks — like Fitzgerald and former Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott — has been one of Mullen’s specialties.

After Fitzgerald threw for three touchdowns and ran for 258 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss in 2016, Mullen was asked who else was recruiting Fitzgerald. His response was pretty memorable:

“He brings so many different things to the table,” Mullen said of his former QB. “You have a big guy that can throw the ball over the field, but can run by you and run over you just as easily. It’s a huge challenge when you have a guy that has all of that in one package.”

“He kind of gave me a hug and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be fine.’” Fitzgerald said of when Mullen told the team he was leaving, via SI. “‘Be strong and be the leader.’ That’s everything that’s been said since.’”

Any time a coach returns to face his former team, it’s unique.

Especially when it’s been less than a year. Mullen had said how it’d be cool to go into Starkville and get a win:

After four seasons as Florida’s offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, contributing to the 2006 and 2008 national championship runs, Mullen returned to Gainesville with Mississippi State in 2010 and led the Bulldogs to a 10-7 upset win.

“I hope I get to keep that streak alive when we go back. I’m sure I’m going to get a very kind welcome. They’ll all be standing and ringing their bells in salute,” he said, drawing laughter. “… It is a challenge. The one thing that’s always tough is the relationships, you have such a strong tie and a bond with all of those players. Sometimes I almost feel bad. We pick-6’d Timmy twice in Starkville (in 2009, a 29-19 Florida win), maybe cost him the Heisman. But I kind of knew the weaknesses. And so can use that against him, but I hopefully know some of the weaknesses of all the guys in Mississippi right now to use some of that against them.”

Then his Gators went and did it.

* MSU fans will remind you which coach actually has the best winning percentage in MSU history.

That’d be Florida RB coach Greg Knox, who took over for MSU’s TaxSlayer Bowl win after Mullen’s exit.