When Dan Mullen thinks of gameday crowds, one from the 2008 national championship season quickly pops into his mind.
October 11. Florida-LSU. A night game at The Swamp with more than 90,000 people packing the stands.
The energy surrounding campus was palpable from the tailgating scene to the final whistle. It was enough to get any player's heart pumping.
"We're on the bus, getting ready to get off the bus and the Gator Walk is out of control. The bus was rocking," Mullen recalled Wednesday while speaking to the Gator Club of Miami at Marlins Park. "[Tim] Tebow gets up on the bus, drops an 'F' bomb in front of the team. He will deny it until he dies. But I'm telling you what, I think we won by 40-something that night. The game was over before it ever started."
The final score was actually 51-21, but the sentiment remains the same. At the program's peak, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was an opponent's nightmare.
But the past seven years and two coaching staffs have almost made those glory days feel like a distant memory.
As he prepares for his first year back in Gainesville, Mullen plans to waste no time returning The Swamp to its former glory.
"That is probably the thing that surprises me, that somehow we — and I say we, we’re all in this together — we let our standard slip a little bit in everybody and what it is to be a Gator and our standards and expectations," Mullen said. "But I’m really excited to see the energy and the passion and the enthusiasm everyone has to get that Gator Standard back and to get it back in a hurry.”
Mullen made it his personal mission this spring to reach out to the fan base. In addition to his statewide speaking tour, he made an impact in Gainesville by visiting fraternities and sororities on campus and going on a morning run with members of UF's ROTC.
He saw a glimpse of it during the spring game. Players told Mullen the crowd for the team's pregame Gator Walk was the largest they saw at any point in their career. The announced attendance of 53,015 for the scrimmage was the team's highest since 2009.
Mullen is hoping it's just a precursor of what's to come in the future.
"The great thing is when people say ‘Hey, it’s really exciting to get that back.’ Well, that’s what we’re trying to do," Mullen said. "We want it back at that level where the Gator brand is something special. The Gator brand represents greatness. It represents championships."
It also means winning at home, something that was almost expected during the Gators' peak years.
The Gators went 68-5 in 12 years under Steve Spurrier and 36-5 in six years under Urban Meyer.
Mullen, who served as Meyer's offensive coordinator from 2005-2008, has only ever endured two losses inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium: a 20-17 loss to Auburn in 2007 and the 31-30 loss to Ole Miss in 2008 after which Tebow gave his now famous "Promise."
But under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, the Gators lost 12 home games in seven seasons. The offense sputtered on its best days and was abysmal on its worst. Each coach went through a losing season, something that the Gators had not experienced since 1979.
Energy from the fan base subdued by the end of each coach's tenure. Attendance at home games dropped as a result.
Average home attendance in 2017 was 86,715 and was under 90,000 every year of the Muchamp and McElwain eras except for 2015 — McElwain's first at Florida. Stadium capacity is listed at 91,916.
For comparison, home attendance never dipped below 90,000 during Meyer's tenure.
"It would be tough for me to fathom what it was like having not been around," Mullen said.
Mullen's return has made fans optimistic that at some point — sooner rather than later, they hope — the Gators will return to the upper echelon of the college football world.
But Mullen was quick to point out that it's a two-way street. The Gators need to get back to their winning ways, but he wants to make sure the fans do their part in creating an atmosphere that fosters that type of success.
"If we get The Swamp back to where we need it, where it is the most electric place in all of college football, it is a wild, intimidating stadium," Mullen said. "You know what that's going to do for our players? They're going to play at a whole nother level. ... Raise their level of play, and then we'll start winning."