Meridian, Miss., 7:30 a.m., Tuesday
“You think he’s a receiver or tight end?” Rick Ray asked over his plate of grapes.
“I don’t know,” Dan Mullen replied. “He’ll be one of those guys that figures it out when he gets on campus and sees what he’s comfortable with. I know this, though, he’ll be good at either one.”
“Kid can ball,” Ray said before turning to greet a fan who just walked up.
Mullen and Ray, along with Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer were at the first Mississippi stop of the Road Dawgs Tour, massive bus parked outside, a quickly-filling banquet hall on the inside.
Spending hours, days and hundreds of miles together in a leather furniture-stuffed tour bus, the three coaches and various MSU staffers had plenty of time to get to know each other.
But, as it turns out, they already do. In Starkville, MSU’s coaches and programs don’t appear to be singular forces operating without regard for each other.
At least not based on the events of the week-long tour.
“I think our athletic director Scott Stricklin has done a great job of hiring coaches who all believe in the same thing,” Mullen told a steak-stuffed crowd of Maroon and White wearers in Ellisville.
Mullen and Ray talking about one player is just a small example. They work together in recruiting all the time. Whether it’s a prospect who is interested in both basketball and football, or a football player who just likes Rick Ray and wants to meet him.
“Raise your hand if you were at that Tennessee football game last fall,” Schaefer asked of the crowd. “That was an absolutely electric atmosphere,” he continued with a knowing nod. “We had two kids at that game. We got both of ‘em. If you can’t get a kid from that kind of atmosphere, you just can’t recruit.”
Following his time at the podium, Schaefer introduced Ray. He talked about all he went through in his first season, how you could see what a good coach he is, how proud MSU fans should be of Ray.
After thanking Schaefer for the kind words, it turned out, as Ray shared, Schaefer and Mullen weren’t the only ones with recruits in town for the Tennessee game. Ray had guys of his own on campus over the weekend.
“You couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere,” he said.
Ellisville, Miss., 11:30 a.m., Tuesday
Back on the bus, Mullen sat near the driver on his makeshift desk, watching film of spring practices, taking notes on what he saw. On the couch opposite Mullen, Schaefer was on the phone with assistants, organizers and even a florist, never a chance for complete rest. In the back alongside several other, Ray had his phone, iPad and a multitude of chargers and cords set up, making calls, watching highlights and looking up stats of recruits.
It does always seem to come back to recruiting somehow.
Mullen acknowledged that fact when congratulating Ray for his win at The Hump over Ole Miss. As big a game as it was for the basketball program, Mullen told the crowd in Brookhaven after a plate of mashed potatoes and BBQ, Ray still cared about the big picture for not only his team, but the athletic department as a whole when he went around to student groups the week before in an effort to drum up support.
Just as football helps Ray and Schaefer, basketball helps Mullen.
“We had a lot of recruits in town for that game,” Mullen said. “He understands how important those games are for us. And obviously I know how important it is to him.”
John Cohen and his baseball team play Ole Miss this weekend, and while he can’t be on the bus, the coach-to-coach helping hands extend from the diamond, as well.
In fact, Mullen said when asked about Sandberg, he’s gone to one of the best-known Bulldogs around for advice.
“I was talking to Buck Showalter about him the other day,” Mullen said.
Wanting to talk a little baseball, and despite being a lifelong Red Sox fan, Mullen went to the Orioles manager and former Bulldog for some MLB advice and guidance.
Biloxi, Miss., 7:30 p.m., Tuesday
At the Yacht Club on the third stop of the day, Ray reviewed his first season at the helm for MSU.
Going over the pros and cons, one thing stood out to him: assist-to-turnover ratio.
“It’s just like football,” Ray said. “Coach Mullen will tell you, you can’t give the ball to the other team.”
On the long road from Brookhaven to Greenville, three days into the Road Dawgs Tour, Mullen was caught in his seemingly-lifelong hobby: multi-tasking. Whether on the phone for a radio interview, catching the news on the nearby big screen, chatting with others on the bus or even watching a Premier League soccer match, the head coach had a constant stream of spring practice highlights going on his laptop.
This time, the distraction was the latest Spiderman movie.
“This is a treat for me,” Mullen said. “I never get to watch this stuff at home. My wife doesn’t like superhero movies.”
A visit from media relations man Joe Galbraith indicated it was time for another radio interview on the phone and sadly meant Mullen had to turn away from Spiderman.
“Thanks for having me on guys,” Mullen said a few minutes later before setting the phone down and turning his attention back to the TV. “Oh. I guess she found out he’s Spiderman now, huh?”
Greenville, Miss., 6:30 p.m., Wednesday
Once in Greenville, Ray, who spent the ride checking the happy birthday tweets he was getting, calling assistants and talking to his two-year-old son on the iPad, told reporters he was excited for superhero movies, too.
“I really need to see Iron Man 3,” he said. “And I’m hoping the new Superman can actually be good.”
“Let me tell y’all something about Dan Mullen,” Ray told the crowd. “He’s an uplifting guy. If you ever need a word of encouragement, talk to Coach Mullen.
“We were talking one day and he said, ‘Coach Ray, I see you tweet a lot.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I really enjoy it.’
“Then I puffed my chest out a little bit,” Ray said. “I told him, ‘I’ve got 11,000 followers.’”
“Oh, that’s pretty good, man,” Mullen responded.
“How many do you have?” Ray asked.
“About 45,000,” Mullen replied.
“That puffed out chest caved in immediately,” Ray said as he and the crowd laughed.
The point of the Road Dawgs Tour, Stricklin has said, is to thank the fans across the state, show appreciation for what they do, make an attempt at re-paying them for their support and eat a few good meals along the way.
But, outside of its primary objective, the unintentional result of the tour is the building of camaraderie among coaches and staff, the bonds of friendship built and strengthened during countless hours on the road together and the show of unity among a staff made up of coaches and administrators of a single mind and goal.
“It’s such a special time to be a Mississippi State Bulldog,” Mullen said.