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Bailey, Wuerffel Say FL/GA is Special

Now that the city has a new contract with the universities, maybe they’ll put their efforts into making something of the Georgia/Florida weekend. There’s been a tepid move in that direction with a party and a concert but I’m talking about something on a much grander scale. Not Super Bowl grand, but a festival weekend that brings people downtown and entices them to stay rather than tell them to just go home. (Same with Gate River Run weekend.)

It’s a mystery why the City of Jacksonville, from a government standpoint, has always seemed to take the game for granted. Closing streets, bringing in vendors, food trucks and all kinds of entertainment would entertain and contain the fans in town for more than just a football game.

Because it is more than just a football game. It’s a cultural happening.

Private enterprise will make it happen whether the city gets involved or not. School icons Champ Bailey and Danny Wuerffel are already a part of that.

They’re hosting “The Player’s Reception” on Friday night, a tailgate party in the Channel 7 parking lot across the street from the stadium. It’s the third one Bailey has hosted and the first where he and Wuerffel have joined forces.

The idea is to connect former players, fans, and corporate leaders to network, have some fun, raise money for charity and give guys a chance to make a positive transition out of football.

“I was paying attention to business after playing and thinking how can I use the game to give back,” Bailey said this week. “Who can I help by doing this? Getting everybody in the same room: players, fans, and corporate execs. I’ve gotten value and opportunities, in every meeting I’ve ever had. Face to face, that’s important.”

“I have a ton of respect for Champ as a player and a person,” Wuerffel said from Atlanta where he’s the Executive Director of Desire Street Ministries and coming off shoulder surgery. “It’s a way to reconnect with former players and engage with fans and help some guys.”

Bailey, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy winner, acknowledge the transition out of football, no matter when it stops, is a tough one. Bailey says giving guys a chance to connect with other players and business leaders equates to “local hero marketing.”

“It dominates your life,” Champ said of playing football at a high level. “If you’re not consumed with the game you don’t have a chance to be a great player. But it gets in the way of learning something new outside of football. You need to know the impact you’ve had and how that provides other opportunities.”

“When everything is going for you, it’s easy to get caught up in the ride of it,” Wuerffel added. “It’s a tough transition. Whether it’s high school, college or the NFL. So much of your life is tied up in this one activity. How do you navigate forward?”

Wuerffel is no stranger to using the popularity of the Florida/Georgia game to raise money and awareness for Desire Street Ministries. The 9th annual “desire cup” golf tournament will be contested this Friday at the TPC at Sawgrass with a dinner Thursday night.

“The momentum around the Florida/Georgia game give us a chance to achieve our goals,” Wuerffel said. The tournament is sold out but their fundraising continues with a “19th hole donation” available on the ministry’s website.

Neither Danny nor Champ knew much about the legendary tailgating going on at the game. As players they knew the hotel, the bus and the inside of the stadium. Because he was playing, Bailey said last year was the first time he had been to a tailgate.

“I had never been to Georgia/Florida,” he explained. “I had never tailgated because I was playing. I got to see so many people I hadn’t seen. That rivalry is so big, a lot of different people are going to be there.”

“It’s got that combination of significance in the SEC, the fans are extra hyped, and it’s in Jacksonville,” Wuerffel said. “I was less in tune with the peripheral stuff. I felt more uniqueness as a fan after I was finished playing in the game.”

His first trip to the game brought a quick awareness to the uniqueness and sheer scope of what happens before kickoff.

“I came in on a boat,” he recalled, getting off at Metropolitan Park. “I still had to get over to the stadium. Back then, I couldn’t walk anywhere without Gator fans converging on me. I put some pom-poms in my hat so It looked like I had long hair. I think I put on sunglasses. I put a big hood over the hat. It was wild.”

Having very different experiences as players in the game didn’t diminish their respect for the contest. Wuerffel was 4-0 against Georgia. Bailey went 1-2 against the Gators with an interception. “They were just better than us,” Bailey explained. “Spurrier had it figured out.”

Growing up in Folkston, Bailey was well aware of the rivalry from an early age. He went to the game once when his older brother Ron was on the Bulldogs roster.

“That rivalry meant something on the border,” Champ said. “There are a lot of Gator fans in my home town. My idols went to Florida. But I was always a Bulldog. It meant something to me since I can remember football.”

In a weird quirk of his career, Bailey has been on teams with all three Heisman winners from Florida. He was a teammate with Wuerffel in Washington when Steve Spurrier was the Head Coach there. And he was a teammate with Tim Tebow in Denver.

Both Wuerffel and Bailey think playing in Gainesville and Athens are the best home venues there are. But both said this game should stay in Jacksonville.

“It’s a unique thing,” Wuerffel explained. “It’s more convenient for Florida fans I know. You play plenty of home and away games in your career. Not many opportunities to play a neutral site game.”

Bailey agreed.

“To be able to play in it and now go to it. I hope it never leaves Jacksonville,” he said. “That location on the river, it’s something special. I’m interested in that game thriving. I’m interested that town thriving. I basically grew up there.”

Mullen Has Florida Headed in Right Direction

Regardless of the outcome of last night’s game in Baton Rouge, Dan Mullen’s tenure at Florida so far has been nothing but positive.

Riding a 10-game winning streak going to LSU after beating Auburn last week at The Swamp, Florida was undefeated through their first six games in 2019 for the fourth time since 2006 and only the 10th time in school history.

And Mullen is at the center of the Gators resurgence.

“It’s cool and great to get this program back to where it should be,” quarterback Kyle Trask said this week. “All of the outside noise comes with the success we’re having.”

That outside noise is in the form of being ranked and as Mullen noted, playing the biggest games of the week.

“We were the biggest game in the country last week and we’re the biggest game in the country this week again,” Mullen said. “That’s what makes you want to play at Florida so you can play in the biggest games each week.”

When Florida went looking for a coach to replace Jim McElwain, Mullen was the easy choice. He had won at Mississippi State and Scott Stricklin, the Athletic Director at Florida, had been his boss in Starkville.

But he wasn’t the popular choice.

During his first tenure as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, Mullen wasn’t the most likeable guy in Gainesville. Brash, and off-putting, he had a way of letting everybody know he was smarter than they were in any conversation.

I even asked him about that when he was introduced as the Gators head coach in November of 2017. I noted the difference between Starkville and Gainesville and asked if he was ready for the expectations that came from Gator Nation. He knew what I was asking and while lauding Mississippi State and Bulldogs fans, he said he had learned a lot about being a head coach in the SEC after being away from Gainesville for nine years.

And he has.

Glib and confident, Mullen embraces all that goes along with being the Florida Gators Head Coach. He interacts with fans and has been unfailingly pleasant during his media time. He even starts most press conferences with “How’s everybody doin’?”

None of that would matter if he hadn’t won sixteen of his first 19 games. And the Gators have done that in all kinds of different ways. They’ve played good defense, they’ve gotten things done on special teams and their offense has had its bright spots.

“The biggest factor is we win the game,” Mullen said when asked about what kind of identity he’d like the Gators to have. “Three to two, 49-48, I don’t care, we’re winning.”

But Mullen says whatever is working, he’ll go with it. It doesn’t matter that he’s supposed to be a “quarterback whisperer” and an offensive guru.

“We want to play great defense,” he added. “We look at the program as a whole. I’m not into the numbers, just so we can claim we’re some magical offense. We look at our roster, our players, each game dictates what you’re going to do.”

At Florida, the offensive and defensive staff rooms are right next to each other. That’s on purpose. When the offensive game plan is coming together, they’ll stick their head in the defensive room to see how they’d defend what Mullen and company have cooked up. And vice-versa.

Losing Felipe Franks to an injury pushed Kyle Trask into the starting role, something Mullen was confident would work out. That’s because Trask had showed Mullen every day in practice what he’s capable of on the field.

“I hate the word ‘gamer,” Mullen said this week talking about Trask taking his game from practice to the stadium. “’Hey it’s going to be different when I get in the game.’ I want to see it every day in practice. When the lights come on it is different. To me, how you respond in those situations is important. The guy I saw is somebody who’s a good decision maker, an accurate passer.“

If Florida is going to compete with Alabama and Georgia in the National Championship picture, it might take a couple years of recruiting under Mullen. He’s always recruiting, because that’s what it takes. He’s talking to recruits, meeting them on their official visits. He was shaking hands and hugging recruits after the Auburn game at Florida Field, selling the program.

When asked about LSU’s claim as the school where great defensive backs come from, Mullen showed his knowledge of Gator history, defended his team, and slipped in some recruiting dialog all in one answer.

“We’ve got good defensive backs on our roster right now,” Mullen said. “But going back, that’s always been where we’ve had good players here at Florida. It’s not just the last five to ten years. Great players that have gone onto great careers in the NFL. They’re continuing that tradition here. There are a lot of great players in America who want to come here and continue that tradition here at Florida.”

It’s only the middle of his second season in Gainesville, but Mullen looks like he knows what it’s going to take to appease the Gator Nation. There will be bumps along the way, but if Florida can get back to past glory, Mullen looks like the guy who can get them there.