Let me tell you a story.
A man came to a prominent football power after nearly 10 years in which that football power endured suffering and misery.
That man was expected to restore glory, to follow in the path first carved out by famous and iconic predecessors.
That man went 9-3 in his first season under very difficult circumstances with a noticeably limited roster, especially at quarterback.
He did well, and created legitimately high expectations for his future.
The man’s name was Jim Harbaugh. The prominent football power was Michigan.
The Wolverines, entering Harbaugh’s first season in 2015, had done very little over the previous eight seasons. They had made a BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowl only once in those eight seasons and performed well below the standards expected of them. The man Harbaugh replaced, Brady Hoke, made a lot of poor administrative decisions which undermined confidence and morale inside the program and unsettled the fan base. Hoke never developed quarterbacks to an elite level.
Harbaugh had been part of the Michigan program before. He was a player for a Michigan Rose Bowl team under the father of the modern Wolverines, Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh had impeccable credentials and significant achievements to bring to Ann Arbor.
Jim Harbaugh was Dan Mullen three years before Dan Mullen came to Florida to revive the Gators.
The parallels are obvious, but let’s put them down in print to make them absolutely clear:
The Gators, entering Mullen’s first season in 2018, had done very little over the previous eight seasons. They had made a BCS (now New Year’s Six) bowl only once in those previous eight seasons (2010-2017) and performed well below the standards expected of them. The man Mullen replaced, Jim McElwain, made a lot of poor decisions and public statements which undermined confidence and morale inside the program and unsettled the fan base. McElwain actually achieved more than Hoke did at Michigan, winning multiple SEC East Division championships, but he eroded trust among many important people in the program. McElwain never developed quarterbacks to an elite level.
Mullen had been part of the Florida program before. He was an assistant coach for two Florida national championship teams under one of the two icons of Gator coaching, Urban Meyer. Mullen had impeccable credentials and significant achievements (Mississippi State to a No. 1 ranking and an Orange Bowl appearance) to bring to Gainesville.
Mullen — like Harbaugh in Year 1 at Michigan in 2015 — went 9-3 at Florida in 2018. Everything mentioned at the beginning of this piece in relationship to Harbaugh, of course, also applies to Mullen now.
Mullen really and truly has taken Harbaugh’s place. It forms a perfect parallel — and backdrop — for the upcoming Peach Bowl between the two schools, which have so much in common beyond the details I have already laid out.
Michigan has a foremost program icon from the past 60 years: Bo Schembechler. He is the man who said before the 1989 NCAA Tournament that “A Michigan man will coach Michigan,” a reference to then-coach Bill Frieder wanting to coach elsewhere. Bo dismissed Frieder and had Steve Fisher coach the team in March. Six wins later, the Wolverines won their first — and still only — national title in men’s basketball. Bo represented his school — and advocated for it — with such relentless dedication that his association with the school transcends his luminous coaching career. Yet, Bo’s standard of excellence established a culture at Michigan which Harbaugh is expected to carry forward.
Florida has a foremost program icon from the past 60 years: Steve Spurrier. First a Heisman Trophy winner as a player, then a favorite son who came home to coach the program and awaken a sleeping giant in 1990, Spurrier remains today the ultimate Gator. “God’s smilin’ on the Gators” is a Spurrier staple. He coached at South Carolina, but he was always an ambassador for Florida and is now serving in that capacity in a way which transcends labels or titles.
Much as Schembechler created the modern template for excellence at Michigan, Spurrier did the same at Florida. Michigan drifted through the 15 seasons which preceded Bo’s arrival at Michigan in 1969, and in much the same way, Florida hadn’t done much of anything in the decades preceding Spurrier’s ascension to the head coaching chair in Gainesville at the beginning of the 1990s.
Both men — Bo and the Head Ball Coach — initiated a Golden Age at their respective schools. Those Golden Ages were carried forth by even better successors.
Bo never won a national title at Michigan. Lloyd Carr did. Carr improved upon the Bo standard in Ann Arbor in a career which lasted over a decade.
Spurrier won won national title at Florida. Urban Meyer won two. Meyer didn’t stick around in Gainesville for a long time, but in the time he was there, he won more of the biggest prizes college football can offer.
The parallels between these schools are strong — have I mentioned that yet?
They keep coming.
Carr stepped down after — interestingly enough — beating Meyer and Tim Tebow in the 2008 Citrus Bowl. Michigan then went into its eight-year slump, briefly interrupted by the 2012 Sugar Bowl, before Harbaugh was asked to save the day preceding the 2015 season.
Meyer, burned out, stepped away from Florida after the 2010 season. Florida began an eight-season slump in that 2010 campaign, briefly interrupted by the 2013 Sugar Bowl, before Mullen was asked to save the day preceding this 2018 season.
Mullen and Harbaugh can look at each other — and talk to each other during Peach Bowl media appearances, or on the field before kickoff — and exchange stories about handling the pressure at their respective programs. Harbaugh is in position to impart to Mullen some words of advice about how to deal with internal noise and the burden of expectations. Mullen might be in a position to tell Harbaugh how to develop quarterbacks, because it just hasn’t come together for the Wolverines at that position in Harbaugh’s four seasons on the job.
The particularities of the 2018 Michigan team and the 2018 Gators, however, represent another story for another day. That story will be told in the coming weeks in the buildup to kickoff in Atlanta.
For now, simply realize how much of a parallel track these schools have followed — not just this decade, not just in the past 12 years, but in the past several decades, all because of leaders who began their legends at Michigan and Florida in the 1960s (Bo in 1969, Spurrier in 1966).
Dan Mullen is Jim Harbaugh three years ago. The Peach Bowl is the end of one season, but Mullen and Gator fans hope it represents the beginning of a rise to power. That is where Florida hopes the next three years acquire a trajectory which is different from the one Harbaugh and Michigan have followed.
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