Such is life in major college football when good friends don different team colors.
“We were close,” Tebow said. “I don’t think it was necessarily that tough (losing him). It was because we missed him, we wanted him here. But at the same time, I knew that he wanted a head coaching job. He wanted that next goal, that next task, that next thing that he could go out there and accomplish, and that was being a head coach.”
With Mullen as his offensive coordinator, Tebow led the Gators to two national titles and won the Heisman Trophy.
While coaches and players spend a lot of time in each other’s company, they’re rarely friends. Players come and go and it’s a coach’s job to get the most out of them while they’re on campus.
Mullen and Tebow, though, are buds through and through. Their families are close. During the offseason, they picked up the phone to catch up. And though both are consumed with the trials of football season right now, they do find time to tap out a text now and again.
“I’ve always kind of had those kind of guys that really want to spend extra time in the office trying to become better players. That’s kind of where it went,” Mullen said. “For Tim and I, Tim is one of those players who wants to be the best he can be, so he would spend as much time around as he could, trying to learn. And when you spend that much time together, obviously you get a great relationship.”
The odds of Mississippi State knocking off the No. 2 Gators (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) are long. But the Bulldogs (3-4, 1-2) think that close relationship may help them.
“No one knows Tebow’s weaknesses better than coach Mullen does,” defensive back Maurice Langston said. “If anyone is going to be able to break him apart it’s going to be coach Mullen.”
Mullen didn’t really get to know Tebow until the top prospect finally committed to the Gators. Another coach was assigned to recruit him and Mullen entered the process late.
“We were there Sunday morning,” Mullen said. “LSU was pulling in the driveway as we were leaving and then Alabama was going to be there all day on Monday. He was making his decision on Tuesday. I know it was pretty tense because he was the quarterback of the future and as you look right now he was a guy that had to come in and be the guy right away.”
Mullen only had two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster at the time and the stakes were so high, he went to his office, locked the door and watched Tebow make the call on television.
It was one of the last times Mullen’s office would be locked. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound quarterback practically lived in there the next three years.
“I think a lot of Tim has rubbed off on me and I’m sure some of me has rubbed off on Tim,” Mullen said. “I don’t know if Day 1 we were completely similar. I think our competitiveness is very similar. Tim had the opportunity to be a great quarterback and he probably felt I would do a great job developing him, so we had that great working relationship.”
That relationship has been so symbiotic it pushed the friends to new heights in their careers.
Some consider Tebow the best college football player ever and it’s hard to argue with the All-American’s success. First sophomore to win the Heisman and a two-time finalist. Only player to pass for and rush for 20 touchdowns in a season. In his three seasons with Mullen, he threw for 6,390 yards and 67 touchdowns and rushed for 2,037 yards with 43 scores.
Mullen is credited, along with coach Urban Meyer, with popularizing the spread option offense. Mullen cashed in that cachet for the job at Mississippi State, becoming that rare assistant whose first head coaching job comes in the SEC.
Now Mullen is going to try to beat the stuffing out of his friend.
“It’s going to be great to see Tim because I love Tim and I’ll hopefully get a chance to say hello to him briefly before or after the game, he and his family,” Mullen said. “I think that would be fantastic. But as far as on the field I don’t know that anybody really jumps up and down and says, ‘I can’t wait to see Tim Tebow on the other sideline.’”
AP sports writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.