If you checked Twitter, message boards or any local watering hole leading up to national signing day, and following through with the big event itself, you find yourself on a roller coaster of emotions as fans of any school fret, speculate and occasionally struggle sleeping as they wait to hear where the most coveted high school players will go to college. As the signatures roll in and hats are donned, whoops of excitement and desk-pounds of frustration randomly fill offices across the country.
So, what is that 24-hour whirlwind like for a coach doing the recruiting? A head coach of an SEC school battling in-state, out-of-state and sometimes unknown foes for the opportunity to sign the nation’s elite prospects?
Starting Tuesday afternoon and running through early evening on Wednesday, I trailed Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen as he had last-minute phone calls with the state’s most prized players, talked strategy with his coaching staff, traveled to Oklahoma and back (not for recruiting) and found some time to plan a bowling party.
I kept a running diary the whole time, sprinkling in my thoughts and experiences with Mullen’s, as well as his wife’s and those of Johnthan Banks, who was being honored in Oklahoma City with a banquet by the Thorpe Association on the night before signing day.
2:30 p.m.: Time for takeoff from Starkville with Dan and Megan Mullen, Joe Galbraith and me. I am terrified of flying the way sheep are scared of wolves. It’s a natural, uncontrollable fear driving me to stay on the ground and preserve my life at all costs. I attempt to tone that down in front of an SEC football coach, but Mullen saw through it and kindly talked me down, distracting me through takeoff.
2:40: A couple pages in from where he left off in ‘Killing Lincoln’ by Bill O’Reilly, Dan is interrupted by Megan. Their son Canon turns four next Friday and they have to figure out the birthday party. Dan had previously suggested a bowling party, and now they had to decide on what type of food.
“Let’s do pizza and nachos,” Dan says.
“They’ve got a package where you can get chicken wings, too,” Megan replies.
“I’m not sure how safe wings are with a bunch of kids running around a bowling party,”
“That’s true,” Megan says. Then she talked about my favorite part of the party, showing me pictures of six-foot tall bowling-themed balloon creations. (Awesome. I don’t care if I’m an “adult,” I would kill to have those at my birthday party.)
2:50: Mullen and I are talking again, because without cell service in the air, he has to do things like that. Turns out, Mullen agrees with my logic on flying. People say you’re more likely to be in a car wreck than plane crash. My response is, “sure, but you’re a lot more likely to live through a fender bender than a 30,000 foot plummet to hard ground.”
3:45: Sweet, sweet earth. Back on the ground, Mullen gives a quick oral history of Jim Thorpe as we taxi across the runway. (Look it up if you don’t know it. Seriously cool, and Mullen knows the whole story. Olympics, adversity, all kind of stuff. Guy knows his history.)
4:05: Still driving through the city and WHOA MEGAN MULLEN APPARENTLY INTERVIEWED HANSON ONCE FOR THE GOLF CHANNEL IN OKLAHOMA?! HOW HAVE WE NOT HEARD ABOUT THIS BEFORE?
4:15: Joe is still talking about Mmm Bop, and to be honest, I can’t think of much else until we get to the bottom of this.
In Mullen’s time at the podium, he opines on Banks. “He’s going to go down as one of the greatest players in history for us.”
4:35: Time is short, but we’re touring the Hall of Fame and this place is pretty cool. They have a display for every Thorpe Award winner, and that now includes Banks. Both he and Mullen are doing one-on-one interviews with local reporters while the rest of us three walk around checking the place out. Tons of history here.
It’s receivers coach Tim Brewster, calling to talk recruiting while the rest of us ask Megan for more details about Hanson.
5:10: We’re in the pre-dinner gathering with a band and light hors d’oeuvres when Mullen nearly loses a bite of meatball on the shirt of his tuxedo.
“Careful, Danny!” Megan warns.
6:10: Barry Switzer is here!
6:12: Barry Switzer and Mullen are talking.
6:20: The band is no longer playing because Barry Switzer wanted to talk to the singer. (Barry Switzer does what he wants, because he’s Barry Switzer and I’m sure not gonna be the one to tell him no.)
6:25: Cool moment. I turn around to see a guy in a Mississippi State tie talking to Mullen. Turns out it’s a guy named Harold Blalock who used to play basketball for the Bulldogs and assures me the record books will still show that he led the team in field goal percentage in 1954. (Does he have any eligibility left?)
6:55: Moved to the banquet room for dinner, the Lt. Governor of Oklahoma and his son come over to meet Banks and get their picture with him. Later, during the presentation, he said he brought his son tonight because he wanted him to meet someone – Banks – who did, and continues to do, things the right way, particularly off the field. (It’s very cool to see how many people are pumped to talk to Banks, a guy we’ve taken for granted seeing all the time at MSU, and also nice to hear people speak so highly of him.)
7:30: I didn’t even notice it start, but I looked across the table and Mullen was leaned over, pointer finger plugging his left ear as his phone was held up to his right one.
“Sorry about that,” Mullen tells the Chairman of the Thorpe Association sitting at our table. “Signing day is tomorrow.”
“We really appreciate the effort you put to be here,” he said. “It’s huge.”
“I wouldn’t miss being here for John for anything,” Mullen replies.
(He hides it as well as anyone could, but I know how much signing day has to be on his mind. How could it not be? Props to Mullen for flying to OKC on a night like this.)
7:50: Turns out one of the Thorpe guys is an Oklahoma State fan, who MSU opens with in 2013. Naturally, he’s asking Mullen about the match-up.
“Well, we lost our best cover corner,” Mullen says with a quick look at Banks.
“Darius Slay?” Galbraith quips.
8:10: News breaks on Twitter that wide receiver Fred Ross, a former Oklahoma State commit, has shared his intentions to sign with MSU tomorrow. The Chairman’s son, an OSU fan, brings it up. Mullen smiles.
8:45: (First Fred Smoot reference by one of the speakers! This one’s for me, y’all. Sorry.)
8:55: Mullen takes the stage to introduce Banks. He starts with a couple jokes, including one about the crowd at the event having more people than Banks’ entire hometown (actually true). A little ways in, as Mullen shares about what Banks has meant to the program, to him personally, to the wife and son Banks has added to his family since arriving in Starkville, Mullen’s voice goes soft and quiet as he gets choked up.
“I’m very blessed to have hopefully made a small impact on his life,” Mullen says with tears trickling down his face.
9:15: Oh holy wow, the Thorpe Association just gave Banks a $12,000 Rolex. I need sunglasses to look at this thing.
“Do you know anyone who could pick us up at the Tupelo airport,” the pilot asks Mullen. “Because we can’t fly into Starkville.”
As the plane travels down the runway, a recruit calls Mullen. After letting him know how excited he is to hopefully add him to the program, Mullen says, “I’ve gotta let you go, the wheels just came off the ground.”
11:30: Land in Tupelo after an uneventful flight in which everyone else slept and I played solitaire on my phone because I was too nervous to sleep.
11:50: Megan is tired but Dan is wired. To mess with her, Dan switches the radio to a 40s music station, apparently her least favorite kind. After Megan tells him, “I’ll walk home,” Mullen obligingly returns it to music without trumpets and trombones.
12:15 a.m.: Mullen’s phone goes off. It’s one of his recruits. He just wanted to check and see how everything is supposed to work when he signs with the Bulldogs in the morning.
“Don’t worry,” Mullen tells him. “Your mom has your papers. Y’all sign and fax them. Just enjoy your announcement in the morning, it’s a great day for you and for us. I just got back from Oklahoma with John Banks and the Thorpe Award. That’ll be me and you going to those national awards in a few years, are you excited?
12:20: It appears Mullen is in a great mood. He’s singing along to ‘80s songs (as am I) and quizzing us on who the singer or band is for each one. Mullen knows his ‘80s music. (No, like really. We’ve never even heard some of these songs and he knows who sings every single one. It’s a gift.)
12:30: It turns out Mullen’s favorite AC/DC song is ‘You shook me all night long.’ Joe goes with Thunderstruck. Megan and I can’t quite decide.
1:00: Everyone is safe at home and ready for bed. (I did not follow Mullen for this part. I slept in my own bed.)
5:00 a.m.: Mullen is back on campus (me too, regrettably) for a workout with the football team. Mat drills begin at 5:30, and frankly, they look miserable. Mullen reminds them: “This is when you win the SEC!”
7:00: The first Letter of Intent is in – Cord Sandberg, the dual-sport and dual-threat quarterback from Manatee Florida. Good timing, too, as Mullen has just gotten off the turf and is headed to the office.
7:30: One of the recruits calls, double-checking how to sign and what all he’s supposed to do.
7:40: Not sure who, but Mullen asks one of his assistants how things look with one of their potential signees who will announce later in the morning.
“I’m not sure, it could go either way,” the coach responds.
“Well, give him one more call,” Mullen says. “Let him know how much we’d love to have him.”
7:55: “We got two faxes from this receiver,” someone in the fax room says.
“That’s fine, I’ll take two Shelby Christys,” Mullen says. “He’s a baller!”
8:15: Plenty of faxes with signatures have come in, but this one must be big as it has Mullen going down the hall doing Rocky-style air punches as he jogs.
9:00: Many of the signing day ceremonies are getting underway and Dan and Megan (who has also been there all morning) sit together watching and waiting on more LOIs to arrive.
2:30: Mullen’s press conference at the Seal football complex, broadcast live from a room full of reporters as he answers questions about his class, individual signees, the process of the last few weeks and whatever else us media folk can come up with to ask him. Mullen happily and lengthily answered them all. (I can barely form complete sentences at this point. When is nap time? Will there be juice?)
3:00: The first fan event begins downstairs. At this point I’m tired just standing up, but Mullen graciously goes down the entire list of signees with the fans and donors in attendance, breaking down each guy, who they are as players, people and how they’ll fit in at MSU.
From there, Mullen and I went our separate ways. He flew to Jackson for dinner (finally, I never saw if he actually ate lunch) and another fan event at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, his second Hall of Fame event in under 24 hours.
By the end of the night, he was probably ready for sleep, but the 2013 class wasn’t done. I woke up late Thursday morning only to find that in my slumber Mullen had signed yet another player to his newest class.
The grind never stops.