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 He’s since been replaced by Joe Moorhead.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.
CJ Henderson On Davis Wade Stadium: “I wasn’t impressed with all the hype, cowbells. I think The Swamp is louder.”— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) September 30, 2018
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.
Dan Mullen used to order the same off-menu creation each time he visited the Starkville frozen custard drive-thru called Bop’s: vanilla concrete, topped with chocolate syrup, caramel, chocolate chips and M&Ms.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) September 26, 2018
Bop’s named it The Mullen.
It’s now called The Lateral Move. pic.twitter.com/2hulLDSLWL
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.”
Mullen on the Starkville community: "Being a Yankee and all, they were very accepting of me right from the beginning." #Gators— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 24, 2018
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:
Just so I’m clear... I do NOT support or condone these buttons whatsoever pic.twitter.com/CW0BVn6A4f— Nick Fitzgerald (@nickfitz07) September 26, 2018
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.”
Thank you coach Mullen for building this program into what it is today. But a program is bigger than 1 person! We pride ourselves on our ability to always give relentless effort and I am very excited to be able to lead this team to a new level next season! #HaiIState— Nick Fitzgerald (@nickfitz07) November 26, 2017
“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.