“No juice points,” Dan Mullen yelled at a walking defensive lineman. “Zero juice points!”
Walking around the field with a smile on his face, Mullen watches his team as they warm up, most all of them bobbing their heads and not a small portion dancing along in between drills to the music streaming over them. Jimi Hendrix, Journey, DJ Khaled, Metallica, Lil Wayne and everything in between played by the “DJ” at practice – DJ JonnyC (Assistant AD for Football Operations Jon Clark and an iPod hooked up to speakers).
Mullen’s voice gets as hoarse as ever from yelling in practice, but between the throat-wrecking moments, Mississippi State’s head coach jokes with his players, individuals and team, pokes fun at some, encourages others, and smiles and laughs freely in interviews with collected media when it’s all over.
Sports were meant to be fun. Created by people who wanted no more than a leisurely activity to enjoy themselves, games are just that – games.
At its core, sport is lighthearted and meant for pleasure.
But in a world of million-dollar coaches, billion-dollar conferences, 24/7 TV, radio and web networks, where student-athletes play for the tens of thousands watching in person, the millions more watching elsewhere, the coaches with contracts to answer to and the teammates who sweat it out next to them every day, not to mention the standards they set and pride they have in themselves, there’s pressure.
Just a little bit.
A game played in backyards and playgrounds transforms to something bigger than any one person or even one school or team.
Mullen’s team learned that as clearly as any last year, with the peak of a 7-0 start, the mounting pressure with each win to keep it going, and the low of ending the season on 1-5 a record.
Perhaps the burden got to them.
Maybe the apparent change happened organically, or maybe MSU recognized the flaw of seriousness and made a decision to fix it.
It’s not a new idea for the Bulldogs, but that “juice” Mullen keeps talking about in practice has become the theme and rallying cry, a return to the reason every coach, player and member of the staff is on a turf field in the middle of deep south, late summer Mississippi heat.
“We’re just trying to have fun,” freshman receiver Brandon Holloway said. “At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t struggling, but I wasn’t having the best time on the field. Towards the end of spring, I really found where the fun was at.”
“This is what we love,” Mullen continued. “Being out here … I wanna see that energy and that juice. I wanna see guys that are excited to be on the field and be out here playing.”
Mullen’s introducing of practice music isn’t an entirely new experiment, but it seems to be getting the intended results, not to mention the personal bonus of hearing his favorite band on occasion (U2) while coaching the sport he loves so much.
Coaches looking for ways to inspire their players is standard all around, and as generality they love any quote, motto or rhyme to get a point across in a clear, quick manner.
In the locker room, on the practice field and, truthfully, anywhere he roams, Mullen hasn’t hesitated to share a message with players. Now, as the season approaches and camp is underway, he’s begun sharing those quotes and bible verses coaches so love on twitter – and yes, that’s him tweeting every morning.
Everything around MSU’s team is loose, fun, fast and energized.
Not without intense practice and concentration of course, but those ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Enjoy that feeling of improving just a little bit from one day to the next, one rep to the next and just that process and the work that goes into it,” Mullen said. “A lot of people love the reward. What you gotta do is learn to love the work that goes into the reward.”
Just as important as work and rewards is the love.
Love what you do, Mullen says, and you’ll do it better.
“I can see a lot of changes around the team,” senior running back LaDarius Perkins said.
“For some reason, this summer was different,” junior receiver Jameon Lewis added.
As a reporter, whenever I’m at a football practice my goal is to watch and observe, hopefully learn a few things, but a large portion of my time goes to staying out of the way of the 300-plus pound tackling machines running around full of adrenaline.
Standing on the sideline Saturday morning, I did the same as coaches got players ready for 11-on-11. Then new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins barked my name.
I jumped. What did I do wrong?
“Get over here,” he yelled in his permanently hoarse voice. “Come on.”
I slowly walked over to the mass of defensive linemen and linebackers drawing into a huddle on the field.
“Get in the middle. FAST. Where’s the juice?!”
Terrified, I followed his directions.
They started swaying, getting faster and faster with each movement, massive arms hanging over each other’s broad shoulders.
“PSY-CHO-DE-FENSE,” they yelled. “PSY-CHO-DE-FENSE,” the chant continued as huddle swayed around me.
Then they erupted, hands in the air, yelling one more time before dispersing to the field and their positions. (Editor’s note: Bob was absolutely TERRIFIED at this moment.)
Where’s the juice, Collins asked? It was right there.
One example comes in the form of junior linebacker Matt Wells.
“In the past with Matt,” Collins said, “he’s been a ridiculously fast, explosive kid, but didn’t have a ton of confidence. I don’t know if y’all saw him out there today – he was running his mouth for the full hour and a half. Haven’t seen it in three years. Absolutely loved it.”
Starting at the top with Mullen, his full staff has taken on a new personality. While in the past there was the occasional disjointed message, three new coaches combined with Collins’ new role as sole defensive coordinator offer a significantly different feel.
Three words used by his players and fellow coaches to describe new corners coach Deshea Townsend: juice, swag and energy.
And new receivers coach Billy Gonzales?
“All the coaches we had, they were about business, but there’s just something about Coach Gonzales,” junior receiver Robert Johnson said.
“I think it’s good to change things up,” Gonzales explained to reporters after one practice. “Every one of y’all when you were that age probably had a tendency to roll the windows down, turn the music up a little loud. We’re preparing our guys, but at the same time, what motivates a young guy? How do you do that? Change it up a little bit.”
Sure, on its own, just having music at practice now doesn’t mean much.
But the change is indicative of a refreshed mindset, symbolic of the love and enjoyment Mullen wants for his team.
“I just think it’s fun,” he said. “I think at practice it can sometimes get kind of monotonous. It makes it fun for them, wakes them up and it actually makes them concentrate, too, because there’s a lot of noise out there.”
If nothing else, Mullen said, it exposes players to some of his favorites, the classics he so appreciates and enjoys.
“We’ve gotta culture the guys up a little bit,” Mullen said with a smile.