It must be a strange thing as a freshman in college to be sitting in class and have the defensive coordinator of your favorite football team show up and start giving you a pep talk for finals.
He was invited, of course, by their teacher Whit Waide, the once-long-haired man affectionately called the People’s Professor at MSU. Every year he surprises his classes with a visit from somebody before finals. Sometimes it’s Bully. Thursday morning it was Collins.
Then, in his 12:30 section of American Government later that day, it was Dan Mullen, the head coach himself. While Collins brought the expected juice and swag in his early morning visit, Mullen’s time on the stage of the Hand Auditorium was more commencement speech than pep rally.
Each talk, however, was a weaving of academics and football on a campus built for one and enjoying the success of the other.
“I believe in the symbolic power of having a great football team,” Waide told his students before introducing the guest speaker. “I believe in the success of a football program bringing success to the rest of the university.”
While Waide, on his side of the school, has seen the momentum come from the athletic side of campus, Mullen said his program has been built on the back of the rest of the university.
Looking around the room, Mullen asked Waide how old the students were.
“We’ve got a mix of everyone,” he replied, “but mostly freshmen and sophomores.”
Mullen, used to speaking with older State fans and alumni, realized something early in his talk.
“You know how great Mississippi State is,” he said, “because that’s how it’s been since you’ve been here. That’s all you know.
“It didn’t just happen,” Mullen told them, beginning to make his point.
The head coach told them about the President, Dr. Mark Keenum, who started the immense growth in success (and size) the school has seen over most of the last decade. When Mullen was hired almost six years ago, he said, the wheels of change were already in motion.
There were those who had trouble adjusting to that change they feared so much, but at the top, where it really mattered to Mullen, he knew he had someone (a boss, technically) he could line up behind.
“We had a great President who believed in building the University as a whole,” Mullen said. “Everybody started to come together about how great we could be. That’s what it takes.”
From there, Mullen turned the focus back on the students.
“They don’t judge this American Government class against the government class at that school up north,” he said. “But in football, they do that, and it’s a great source of pride for our university.
“I’d like to see how your grades would improve if they posted the test scores next to your name on the ESPN ticker.”
Mullen went on to challenge the students in what takes to be great, what it takes to be successful. The difference between wanting and wishing, he said. (“I wish I could lose weight,” he said, “but then they had those cookies with cream in the middle at lunch. If I wanted to lose weight, I wouldn’t have eaten that. But I did, so I guess I’m just wishing.”)
“Here at Mississippi State, we’ve proven a lot of people wrong. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do,” he said as he neared the finish. “Your challenge is to do the absolute best you can and never let anyone tell you what you can’t do.
“I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface of everything we can be at Mississippi State.”
At that point, the scene turned from one speaker with many listeners to a selfie and handshake session with MSU’s head coach and the many students who were surprised to find him in their classroom.
Mullen was natural on that stage, and as Waide later mused, he’d be a great teacher if he ever decided to get into academics.
“Ultimately,” Mullen said in a moment of introspection, “I view myself as an educator. I just teach football.”