Rolling, bumping and winding through the Mississippi delta Tuesday night, the flat plain farmland around us – if we could have seen it – would’ve been a stark difference from the 10 TVs, leather couches, swiveling chairs, desks, surround sound and electronically-operated bathroom on our tour bus, the mobile command center for Mississippi State’s Road Dawgs Tour 2014.
“You weren’t lying, Bob. I could get used to this life.”
Soda in hand, feet propped up and the NBA Playoffs on the main screen, Bo Hemphill from the Bulldog Club was coming around to my way of thinking. If I won the lottery, I’m getting my close friends, a bus like this and driving all over the country.
We were on the way back to Starkville from dinner in Greenwood, our fourth stop in two days on the cross-state tour.
In the more-spacious rear of the bus cabin, we lost patience between the first playoff game ending and the second one beginning, changing the channel to a war movie, testing the limits of the surround sound.
Up front, the two coaches on the trip – Dan Mullen and Rick Ray – patiently waited for the next one, talking sports the whole time.
Guys like them, sometimes seems like sports are all they do.
I caught a snippet of the conversation as I walked into the bathroom separating front from back.
“…unlimited calls and texts,” I heard Ray say.
“That’s the way to do it,” Mullen replied.
I left them to their recruiting conversations and San Antonio Spurs game, heading back to catch more explosions and let the experts handle the sports.
I guess that’s the natural separation of those who live for it and those who do it for a living.
Not to say, of course, that the rest of us don’t love sports, too. Why else – besides the fancy bus and fried foods – would we be here?
Road Dawgs Day One, lunch in Hattiesburg, dinner in Biloxi
At one of the stops, I can’t quite remember which, Rick Ray came to the podium and made a show of changing the height of the microphone on the podium.
“Usually,” he said, “I have to raise these mics after someone from alumni speaks.”
In the case of Jeff Davis, new executive director of the MSU Alumni Association and former basketball forward for Stephen F. Austin who spoke before him, Ray had to lower the mic so he could reach it.
Those two, myself, Rhett Hobart from marketing and Kyle Merhege from the Bulldog Club made up the first group on the bus when it pulled out of Starkville Monday morning.
Ray and Davis had heard of each other, though they hadn’t yet met, and got the day started reminiscing on playing days, talking about coaches they both knew and presumably enjoying the rare expanse of room to stretch their long legs on the bus.
Talk turned back toward MSU before long, Rick asking Rhett and I (who had been discussing the NFL Draft) where Bulldog offensive lineman Gabe Jackson was projected to be picked.
“My family and I were at Umi one night and saw him there with his girlfriend,” Ray started to tell us.
At this point I expected a story about how much rice, meat, vegetable and soup a man his size demolished.
“He seems like he’s a really good guy,” Ray finished.
“Oh,” I was little surprised by the turn. “Yeah, he is. Super nice dude. I’m really happy for him, he deserves it.”
9: 30 a.m., on the bus, somewhere, Mississippi highway
Rhett had been manning the TV, a not insignificant undertaking given the six remotes and even more TVs he had to figure out. We had three of the seven in the back of the cabin working, all of them on the Golf Channel.
At about 9:40, the news popped up on the selection show. MSU’s men’s golf team was off to the Illinois Regional, the nine-seed in that section of the NCAA Golf Tournament.
Rhett and I rushed to tweet the news (second year in a row to make the tourney, a big deal) while the rest of the small crowd in the bus perused the other selections (“I think this is the only regional without at least two SEC teams,” someone mentioned).
Except for Ray.
A good half hour before hand, Ray had succumbed to his body, putting on headphones and a neck roll.
He was dead asleep during the announcement (“Little ones kept me up all night,” he had said when he first got on the bus), but I’m sure he was happy for the Bulldogs.
11:20 a.m., airport, near or in Hattiesburg, I believe
“Dan the man, what’s happenin’?
“Rick, what’s goin’ on, how’s the bus?”
“Vacation in Georgia?” I asked as Mullen sat down across from me at the back desk.
“Well,” he started with a laugh. “I don’t know how much vacation I ever get, but we were there for the weekend.”
“No vacation, huh? Just different places to work, I guess.”
A few minutes later and following a phone call with his wife Megan, Mullen told Rhett and I that Megan and son Cannon were on the golf course. Cannon has been taking lessons and is already better than most of us on the bus.
“Wanna see the little man hit off the tee?”
“Wow,” Rhett looked up after seeing the video. “That’s a solid swing.”
“How long has he been playing?” I asked.
“Oh, I dunno, probably since he was two, really.”
“Is he gonna be a golfer or a quarterback?”
“Definitely a golfer,” he told us.
Megan, we’ve heard previously, actually worked for the Golf Channel while the couple lived in Florida.
The rest of the short ride to lunch in Hattiesburg was spent on MSU baseball, talking RPI, the SEC (“Where are we in the conference after the weekend,” Mullen asked) and the postseason.
Upon arrival, we found that unsung heroes Janet Downey and Michael Richardson from the Alumni Association had already made it down, set up tables and computers and had everything ready for us to just walk in and start eating, a regular occurrence at the stops.
Noon, Monday, Hattiesburg
This was my first time to hear Jeff Davis speak, who’s got a voice as big as his frame. While most of the trip centered around athletics, it was nice to hear from the academic side. Jeff ran through some of the accomplishments, mentioning record enrollment, an incoming freshman class with the highest-ever average ACT score (24), a new classroom building modeled after Old Main, the Mill Project and its recent groundbreaking, a Rhodes Scholar in Mississippi native Field Brown (“Field even helps us with recruiting,” Mullen told the crowd). The list went on.
In fact, Davis told us, MSU President Mark Keenum recently flew to Greece to meet with the United Nations and sign a deal making Mississippi State one of the leaders in a fight to end poverty and world hunger with the Food and Agricultural Commission.
Mullen spoke to the crowd with a similar message, praising his two seniors who finished their last season with Master’s degrees – Baker Swedenburg and Nickoe Whitley.
“I don’t know if Nickoe wants me to tell people that, though,” Mullen joked. “The bandana, the neck tats…it might ruin his street cred if people find out he has a Master’s.”
In 2014, Mullen will have an impressive six players on the roster who are in grad school. It could actually be 11, but five of them are just adding undergraduate degrees because their families depend on the money they get from the Pell Grant.
2:30 p.m., Road Dawgs bus, somewhere between Hattiesburg and Biloxi
I learned something about MSU’s football coach I didn’t previously know: Dan Mullen is a big soccer fan. Specifically, he cheers hard for Liverpool, who happened to be on TV playing for first place as we drove further south to the Mississippi coast.
That itself is somewhat interesting, but watching soccer with him, combined with hearing him speak on the trip, helped me to unwrap the protective shell a public figure like he keeps around his heart, buried far away from his sleeve.
Dan Mullen is a passionate guy.
Very, very passionate, even if he chooses to keep it beneath. And he wants everyone around him to be passionate, too.
The fans of English soccer, in his mind, are the perfect example. Flags waving, faces painted, yells unending and seats in stadiums never used for anything more than a cupholder.
“You hear those chants? Listen,” he told me as we watched the game. “How cool would it be if we had that?”
International soccer fans are, for the most part, crazy. Most times, but not always, in a good way. Coach Mullen would like you, if possible, to take the passion from that crazy and apply it to Mississippi State football.
“If you got 60,000 people singing the fight song like they do their chants, it would be nuts,” we discussed.
In Vicksburg the next day, he talked about the expansion of Davis Wade Stadium.
“The pressure is on you now,” he told the group of MSU fans. “We got to four-straight bowl games and the expectations were raised. You sold out 30-straight games so we expanded the stadium. Now the expectations are raised for you.”
At every stop, the biggest slice on Mullen’s speech topics pie chart was filling the stadium for home games, creating a home advantage, making an atmosphere other teams are scared to play in.
This isn’t a new thing for him, of course. He wants to make Davis Wade Stadium unique, daunting and loud, full of tradition and revelry.
He’s expressed interest in finding a single song to use as entrance music for every game when his team takes the field. He wants people to hear that song – whatever it may be – and think of MSU football, knowing the battle is about to begin.
He wants the student section to have a name, as well as a reputation.
Talking about defensive coordinator Geoff Collins’ group, he said, “Psycho Defense. You’ll be hearing a lot about that. We’re gonna try and market that better this year.”
He wants what he watched in the Liverpool fans Monday afternoon: flags waving, faces painted, voice boxes pushed to their limits and a united group 60,000 strong.
“Make sure we’re wearing our school colors and waving the flag,” he told one group.
He wants passion.
6 p.m., Hard Rock Café Hotel, Biloxi
Biloxi was a blast. Before the event even started, before we had even checked in, we only needed a few steps into the hotel to know it would be a fun night.
“Did you see the Ben and Jerry’s in the lobby?” Rick Ray asked me at the check-in line. “I know where my first stop is.”
We had a couple hours to kill before the event, so the coaches worked while the rest of us sat by the pool.
One of the first guys I met found out I live in Starkville.
“You need to look up my niece,” he told me. Beautiful girl. Just graduated. Very, very nice.”
“You have my attention.”
The combination of the coast, the water behind us (both pool and bay) and the nighttime gathering made for an energetic crowd.
At one point during the speeches, Mullen’s mic went out.
“Let me use my coaching voice!” he barked at the crowd to a round of applause.
When the mic started working again, the head coach took it back in his hand and started singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’ to the audience, though just a bar or two before he returned to his talk.
Someone asked him about Dak Prescott being a Heisman candidate: “I hope he wins it. That means we had a heck of a year.”
On our way out, after most had dispersed, one of the stragglers still there came up to Rhett and I.
“How I do I tweet this picture of me and Coach Mullen?”
Rhett, social media expert he is, explained the process.
“Y’all better retweet this!” she told us as she left.
Noon, Tuesday, Vicksburg Convention Center
I told him this later on Tuesday night, but Rick Ray is one of the best speakers I’ve heard in the many instances of public address I’ve been present for in MSU athletics.
He speaks extemporaneously, coolly and with perfect delivery on jokes.
“Actually,” he told me, “my wife gets mad at me all the time because I don’t have notes or an outline whenever I speak. But I just think it’s easier this way. I’d get messed up and stumble somewhere if I was constantly checking a piece of paper.”
Despite two rough seasons, he’s not at all shy in his enthusiasm for year number three.
“I think we’re in the optimum position to make a jump in the SEC,” he told the Vicksburg group.
As an example, he mentioned that last year his team had three players who were 6’7” or taller. In 2014-15, he’ll seven such men.
“We’ll actually look like an SEC team.”
Center Gavin Ware has lost weight, while 6’11” Fallou Ndoye has put on some needed pounds as he anticipates his MSU debut.
JUCO transfer Travis Daniels is one Ray is very excited about, a big strong athlete who has the size of an inside player and the shot of a perimeter player.
“I think the world of him,” Ray said. “We’ve got some size coming into our program where we can be a hard, physical basketball team.”
Ray told crowds about JUCO transfer Johnny Zappardo, who he calls Johnny Basketball.
He described incoming freshman guard Demetrius Houston with praise.
“He’ll be the most athletic guy on the floor when he’s in.”
Then, of course, there are all those already on the team and returning. Guys like Craig Sword, Fred Thomas (his son’s favorite player) and IJ Ready. The list of players goes on.
“After one year with six scholarship guys and the second year with seven, I finally figured out it might be good to have all 13 spots filled,” Ray joked.
“You should be excited and I know I’m excited about what we’re going to put on the court this year.”
2 p.m., Road Dawgs bus on the way to Greenwood
Right before we left Vicksburg, I made a necessary pit stop at the convention center restroom. As I walked out, I saw two older men recognize each other as they each stepped up to use the bathroom.
“You doin’ OK?”
“Yeah,” the other responded. “Gotta win three this weekend.”
A big MSU baseball series is on their minds, too, it seems.
On the long ride from Vicksburg to Greenwood, Dan Mullen was in charge of the remote and we watched a couple movies and an episode of Seinfeld on the satellite TV the bus offered. One flick, The Internship, has a scene of interns at Google re-creating a sport from Harry Potter.
“You gotta be some type of guy to play Quidditch,” Mullen joked.
“What are you trying to say?” I asked with a smile.
“How do you even play that?”
“Well,” I explained, “you know, in real Quidditch, everyone can fly and the Snitch isn’t just some dude running around in a gold onesie.”
I’ll fill him in on the finer points of the game at another time. I’m just glad he knows he can come to me with his questions.
Mullen, he’s told me before, isn’t a big science fiction guy. He’s into history, documentaries, political books and the like. Likely why he later had to ask me which fairy tale Maleficent is from when a commercial for the movie came on. (Sleeping Beauty, not Snow White as he had guessed.)
6 p.m., Greenwood, final stop of my two day stint
The millionaires and the directors are the ones who took the stage to speak at every stop, but it’s the guy no one at these stops recognized who has the best stories to share.
“I was driving Prince from Nova Scotia to Alberta…” one tale began.
I’ll grant him anonymity of name, but how he even ended up as our driver is a unique story. He graduated from Wichita University (now known as Wichita State) in 1967, where he was a runner on the track team. His specialty was running the mile.
“I could do it in 4:15 back then,” he said. “But it didn’t matter. I was still fourth place on my own team. We had all kinds of All-Americans. We were good.”
He continued running the rest of his life (“I was doing ultra marathons until I had to have back surgery a few years ago”) and eventually became VP of a company I ought not to name, but you most certainly have heard of.
He was able to retire at a good age, but a combination of depleted funds from a divorce and a lack of things to do after surgery led to him taking a job with the tour bus company.
He stood with me in the back (next to the tables full of salsa, cheese and other dips) as we watched the program in Greenwood begin.
Athletic Director Scott Stricklin was in Florida for SEC meetings, thus unable to attend, but he filmed a video to play so he could share a word and say hello.
“I’m sorry I can’t be there,” he said on the projected video. “But we’ve got a great staff here, Coach Mullen and … some other folks.”
I joke when I mumble under my breath, “I see where I stand.” Nothing meant by Stricklin, of course. It’s just that Mullen is the only one who will be on every single trip, so naming anyone else would render the video useless at other stops.
Of course, it is the football coach who gets the quarterback’s share of attention. After all, his is the next sport to begin, the one with the biggest stadium and the team with higher-than-ever expectations.
A lot happened in two days with everyone on the bus traveling around Mississippi. Mullen and Ray shared recruiting stories, family memories, updates on the status of their programs and more. Mullen made recruiting calls on the bus while Ray studied stories, documents and proposals in advance of SEC coaches meetings.
The two returned to Starkville Tuesday with heavy eyelids and sore arms from all the handshakes. But they enjoy it, and so do the people they talk to.
In the offseason, the fount of optimism is overflowing. Particularly so at MSU, where nearly every program seems to be on an upward trajectory.
Mullen, the big finale of each event, represented that hope each time he stepped up to a microphone.
“Don’t stop believing,” he told the gathered Bulldogs in Greenwood, “and all of us together are gonna find a way to win that SEC Championship.”