Dan Mullen and Gus Malzahn have a long history.
It goes all the way back to 2005, when they first shook hands in Gainesville — or maybe it was Springdale. Either way, they met back when Mullen first arrived at Florida along with Urban Meyer from Utah, and when Malzahn was turning heads as coach at Springdale High in Arkansas, winning the state title, innovating offense, and moving the prized recruits the ‘Springdale Five’ on to the next level.
Mullen was recruiting at least one of those players for Florida — Mitch Mustain — which sent him up to visit Malzahn in Arkansas that year. That may have come before or after Malzahn made a visit to Florida.
Regardless, they remember meeting. They remember talking football. They remember making an impression on one another.
Now, so many years later, two long-lasting characters in the SEC story are set to write another chapter together when No. 7 Auburn (5-0, 2-0) travels to face No. 10 Florida (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday in The Swamp.
The game is set to kick off at 2:30 p.m. and air on CBS.
“I have always had a lot of respect for him as a coach and a person,” Mullen said this week as his team prepared for a circus Saturday in Gainesville. It’s homecoming on campus, and ESPN’s popular show College GameDay is set to broadcast from there and feature the top-10 showdown.
“I like Gus a lot,” he said in his press conference.
Malzahn returned the pleasantries up on the Plains.
“I’ve got a lot respect for Dan — the way he goes about it,” Malzahn said. “I think he’s one of the good guys and does things right.”
Mullen calls plays at Florida just like Malzahn does at Auburn. This year his team’s rolling up 34 points per game and 429.6 total yards per game while Auburn’s scoring 38 points per game and tallying 454.4 yards a game.
Auburn’s strength is its rushing offense: Auburn is second in the SEC is rushing yards per game, and Florida’s down at 11th. Conversely, in passing, Florida’s fifth in the league in yards per game and Auburn’s down at 13th.
But the head coaches have a few things in common: They’re both widely regarded as two of the bright minds in scheming offense in college football, and they’ve both been making waves around the SEC for a long time.
Mullen went to Florida as Meyer’s offensive coordinator after coaching Alex Smith and that undefeated Utah team there, and he hasn’t left the league since. He was the coordinator at Florida from 2005-08, then head coach at Mississippi State from 2009-17 before he jumped back to Florida as head coach before last season.
This game will mark the ninth time they’ve crossed sidelines, and the sixth as head coaches.
They first paced opposite sidelines just a year after first shaking hands, in 2006, when Malzahn was a coordinator at Arkansas, which played Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, Mullen and Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
Malzahn headed off for Tulsa shortly after — and jumped back into the league as Auburn’s offensive coordinator before the 2009 season, just as Mullen arrived at Mississippi State.
Their teams met eight times during Mullen’s time in Starkville. Their stories continued to intertwine. Cam Newton chose Auburn over Mississippi State and the message boards erupted — and the call-in line for Paul Finebaum’s show ignited.
But the men themselves say they respect each other and like each other, with it all going back to what was, maybe, a simpler time — when two coaches just talked some football together on a high school field house in Arkansas.
“I remember going out there and getting to sit down with him and talk ball while I was out there,” Mullen said.
“Dan’s a class guy. That’s what I really remember,” Malzahn said. “I really enjoyed getting to know him.
“His teams are always well prepared, and he’s a very good football coach,” he said.
Malzahn’s teams are 6-3 all-time against Mullen’s teams. Malzahn’s Auburn teams won three games out of five against Mullen’s Mississippi State teams in their meetings as head coaches from 2013-17.