With all the player suspensions, mounting injuries and losses, and a head coach whose mood seemed to darken by the week, the Florida football program wore a definite frown last fall.
Six months and a coaching change later, an energetic smile seems to have returned.
“The whole vibe is different,” junior wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “We see smiles now. We joke around with the coaches. We just have fun throughout the locker room. Team meetings, working out, we just have fun now. It’s always better when you’re having fun. It’s a positive atmosphere. It’s something we can thrive in.”
Coaches who take over a losing football team usually come in saying they need to change the culture. It’s something Mullen has made a priority since the day he arrived on campus in November.
But in this case, Mullen isn’t so much changing a culture as he is reviving one. He’s trying to bring back the one he helped Urban Meyer establish at UF during a six-year span that saw the Gators win two national championships and two SEC titles.
Mullen always talks about the Gator Standard, about competing for championships and being a champion on and off the field in everything you do.
The players already seem to be getting it, embracing it.
“A lot has changed, to be honest,” senior defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “Coach Mullen is more on us. He’s a down-to-earth guy, he’s going to keep it real with us. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s going to tell us to the point of how we are and what we need to do and how we need to be as a team to win.
“I feel like it’s a whole different energy. Everybody is more fired up, especially with all the new coaches we’ve got.”
Mullen seems to have energized everybody — players, fans, administrators, even sororities and fraternities — with his winning background and positive attitude and approach.
It was evident during Mullen’s spring speaking tour and during the spring and the spring game itself, where the fans produced maybe the biggest and loudest Gator Walk since Meyer first established it before the 2005 season.
And it was for a spring game.
Mullen’s positive energy has been contagious.
“It trickles down from Coach Mullen a lot because we’re all about positivity,” Clark said. “Everybody wants to be great. They brought the man here for us to win football games. I feel like he’s doing that to the best of his ability so far.”
There have been a lot of changes since Mullen took over the program. Changes in attitude, changes in approach, changes in philosophy.
Most will agree that the most significant change has come in the weight room, where new strength and conditioning coordinator Nick Savage has breathed fire and life into a program that had become lazy and lethargic under the last coaching regime.
“Way different,” Swain said. “Everybody is getting it. Everybody is coming out with a sweat. Everybody’s tired. Everybody’s just getting it. The vibe is different. We have fun now. We actually are getting in real work. It’s just all-around better in there now.”
Savage has made it tough on the players, pushing them to the limit. But they’ve bought in, Clark said.
“He’s teaching us the values of being a team, being hyped up, working together, working hard, getting what you want,” Clark said. “Everything we do is pretty hard. We’ve got to stick together as a team and motivate each other. I feel like that’s working out to our benefit.”
Swain said only a few were benefiting from the weight program the previous two years under Mike Kent.
“Yeah, it was too relaxed. We weren’t really getting pushed how we were supposed to,” Swain said. “Now, every day it’s the same thing: Coach Savage before the workout is going to be in the locker room, yelling loud. He’s going to holler and let you know it’s work time. That’s what it is. We like to be pushed. The part that will push a player to make him be great is a great support system. With these coaches, it’s impeccable. They do the best job.”
Junior middle linebacker David Reese said the players are embracing Savage and his physically and mentally demanding approach.
“He has a great plan for us and he doesn’t want us to be mediocre,” Reese said. “So, as long as we push it and give him our all, we’ll be OK.”
It’s apparent that the players have confidence in their new coaches and where they plan to lead them.
Mullen and his staff have already created a new culture (or revived the old one, if you prefer).
And there apparently is no culture shock among the players.
“I feel like we’ve given great effort,” Reese said. “We’ve been open to whatever we’re going to have to do to win games.
“There’s a lot more energy, definitely. We feel as a team we have to have energy and try to sustain it as long as possible through the season. I feel like that’s what great teams have. They don’t ever fall off.”