Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen was given several more chances on Monday to clarify any confusion regarding his comments about wanting to pack 90,000 college football fans inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during the coronavirus pandemic.
He declined each of them, brushing aside criticism and insisting he’s focused on defeating the defending national champion, LSU. The state of Florida has recorded more than 736,000 cases of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic and just over 15,400 deaths from the virus.
Mullen was asked on Monday whether he had had any discussions with his boss, athletic director Scott Stricklin, about his comments following Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, when he said he wanted to see his team’s home stadium packed with fans. “No, I’ve been worried about trying to beat LSU,” Mullen said.
He was also asked if he had talked to school president Kent Fuchs.
“Yeah, I’ve been preparing for LSU,” Mullen replied. “But, I mean, I’ll be honest. I think if you look at what we’ve been able to do, the safety precautions we have that our players have followed, our coaches follow, our staff follows, you know, I think we’re a model of safety of what we’ve been doing during this time period.
“So I’m really proud of how we’ve handled everything and how safe we’ve been with everything we’re doing and all the precautions we’ve had in place during this time.”
He was then asked if he understand the consequences of having tens of thousands of people, with or without masks, in cramped quarters for four hours.
“I think Texas A&M, actually, they created a great atmosphere at the game, created an exciting atmosphere, you know?” the coach said. “I thought they did a great job of doing that. … I haven’t talked to people because I’ve been really focused on trying to beat LSU.
“But, you know, whatever our government officials all say and what everybody does for the game, what we do need to do is however many people they allow into the stadium, we need to try to work as hard as we can – all the Gator fans and all of us – to create the best game-day atmosphere we can.”
Mullen raised eyebrows Saturday by calling for fans to pack the Swamp for Saturday’s game against the Tigers. State reopening guidelines under Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, have allowed for full stadiums since late last month.
No college or professional team in the Sunshine State has moved beyond a small percentage of fans in attendance. The Gators had 2,000 of a nearly 17,000 allotment unsold for their home opener against South Carolina two weeks ago.
But Mullen wants more.
“I know our governor passed that rule, so certainly, hopefully, the UF administration decides to let us pack The Swamp against LSU – 100% – because that crowd was certainly a factor in the game,” Mullen said after the Aggies upset his Gators on Saturday.
Mullen was given an opportunity to back down a few minutes later. Instead, he stood by his comments.
“Absolutely want to see 90,000 in The Swamp,” he said. “I don’t think the section behind our bench, I didn’t see an empty seat. It was packed. The student section, there must have been 50,000 behind our bench going crazy. Hopefully that creates a home-field advantage for us next week because now we passed a law in our state that we can do that. We want our students out there cheering us on to give us that home-field advantage.’’
Stricklin quickly ended any thoughts about Florida opening up its campus and increasing capacity.
Fuchs took it a step further on Sunday, saying on Twitter that Florida “remains fully and firmly committed to following CDC guidelines for every part of our campus from classrooms to athletic venues as well as the guidance of our own experts and local and state health officials.”
University of Florida students are currently holding all classes online. Campus guidelines mandate physical distancing and wearing a mask or cloth face covering, restrictions that limit how many occupants can be in buildings. But Mullen apparently believes crowded bleachers would be OK.
“These preventative measures remain the most effective ways to slow the spread of Covid-19,” Fuchs said. “It is important that all members of the UF community and our campus visitors follow this guidance.”