GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen will forever be tied to Starkville, Mississippi.
It’s where he landed his first head coaching job. It’s where his two children were born. It’s the place he called home for nearly a decade.
It’s “StarkVegas” to Mullen, and he takes a lot of pride in everything he did to help get the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs to where they are today. Packed stadiums. Legal cowbells. “Don’t Stop Believin’” played before the fourth quarter of games.
Mullen had a hand in all of it.
Now, he’s going to experience it from a different angle: the opposing sideline.
Mullen will return to Starkville this weekend with Florida (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference), a rare occurrence where a head coach faces his former team on the road in his first season. Houston Nutt is believed to be the last to do it, taking Mississippi to Arkansas in 2008 and winning 23-21. Tom O’Brien did it the previous year, taking North Carolina State to Boston College and losing 37-17.
Mullen expects “a lot of passion” from the Mississippi State faithful.
“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,” Mullen said Monday. “I don’t know if that will show on Saturday night.”
Mullen went 69-46 in Starkville, leading the program to nine bowl appearances and the top spot in the Top 25 poll for five weeks in 2014.
He joked about the transition from Gainesville to Starkville prompting his wife, Megan, to do “a lot of online shopping.” He praised the locals for welcoming them, saying “being a Yankee and all, they were very accepting of me right from the beginning. It helps when we won.”
He still has a home there, too, although it’s in the process of being sold.
“It’s closing one of these days,” he quipped.
But Mullen also made it clear he didn’t leave behind a lot of personal ties.
“If I had time off, I’m going to go on vacation with my family,” he said. “There are probably very few days in nine years I was in Starkville, Mississippi, that I didn’t go to the office. If I was in town, I went to work. I don’t want to make it (sound) bad. … When you had time to go out and be social, it was fantastic. But usually I was at work a lot.”
The majority of Mississippi State’s roster consists of guys Mullen recruited, including star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and preseason All-American defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.
It could be an advantage for the Gators, who will play in Starkville for the first time since 2009.
“That’s definitely a part of it,” Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead said. “Hopefully we know as much about our personnel as they know about our personnel. Like anything, you’ve got to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.
“Obviously, them being around these guys for four years, three years, two years or one year, they’ll have a very specific knowledge of what our players can do and can’t do.”
It also might favor the Bulldogs (3-1, 0-1), who should have an idea how to attack Mullen’s offense and Todd Grantham’s defense.
“We’ve tried to change a lot of terminology, of signals, of all kinds of different stuff because the players know a lot of the different things that we do,” Mullen said. “But unfortunately they’re going to have comfort against the scheme because that defense has gone against our offense, their offense has gone against our defense.
“So there’s going to be some comfort with them against the scheme in which we run.”
Mullen should be fairly comfortable during the quick trip back, even though Florida is staying at a different hotel than Mississippi State did during Mullen’s tenure.
Little, if anything, has changed in the nine months since Mullen left. And he even has one built-in advantage.
“I’ve heard they flipped the locker rooms, so I’ll be in the same locker I was in for nine years,” he said. “That will be a comfortable feeling for me. … But it’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it.”