Dan Mullen wakes up Tuesday knowing that whatever semblance of a vacation college football coaches get is over. In fact, his wife Megan could tell her husband had already mentally made the switch when they stepped off the plane on Monday back into Mississippi at the end of an enjoyable final weekend of freedom.
“You’re game-faced,” she said, noticing his business-like demeanor switch back on as he made phone calls. “Family vacation is over and it’s all ball the rest of the way.”
SEC Media Days every July is the unofficial kickoff to college football season, at least for those in the Southeastern Conference. Tomorrow, all of Mullen’s staff is expected to be back in town and back in the office first thing in the morning to get to work on the 2015 season. But today, Mullen has his turn at Media Days in Birmingham.
“I’m wearing the shoes,” Dan calls out to Megan, referencing the new Adidas custom Yeezy 350 Boost shoes he just received yesterday and hasn’t even removed from the box.
“I’ll try to make it all work,” she replies.
Megan always dresses Dan. He can pick out his own gym shorts and t-shirt for practice, of course, but when Mississippi State’s head football coach is going to be in front of cameras, it’s his wife the former TV anchor who picks out what he’s going to wear. Today, she’s going fairly simple, laying out a black suit with pinstripes thick enough to be seen on television, a plain white button-up shirt and a lavender tie that ends up looking a little more purple than expected on camera.
Their pre-K-aged daughter picks out a pair of outlandish socks for her dad to wear, but Megan quietly exchanges them later, opting for a stretchy gray pair with maroon Bulldogs stitched onto them.
“I’ve got sock game,” Dan will later brag to reporters.
It’s his shoes, however, that end up as the highlight to those reporters. For every one question about his Heisman-hopeful quarterback, he gets 10 more about his “swagged out” shoes. Of the 1,200 media in attendance, far more are interested in the kicks he’s getting so much attention for, rather than the 10-win season he earned accolades for half-a-calendar ago.
Shortly after arrival in Birmingham, Mullen’s phone rings as he’s waiting to go on SportsCenter. It’s his wife.
“Hey beautiful,” he says, before pausing to hear her request. “Yeah, here ya go, here he is.”
“Hello?” MSU quarterback Dak Prescott asks. “Hey! Yeah, I’m ready, just getting my makeup on for TV.”
Megan likes to make sure her players (she considers them hers just as much as her husband’s) are always ready for events like these. But whatever attention was spent on the quarterback as he took the call is quickly drawn back to Mullen’s feet, the No. 1 shot every camera roaming the complex was aiming for that day.
“Dude,” ace ESPN producer Jonathan Whyley says with his eyes on Mullen’s kicks, “we’ve got to get these shoes on there somehow.”
Whyley then makes sure they have a camera set up and already zoomed in on Mullen’s feet when the shot begins. SportsCenter host Jay Crawford goes on about the Kanye West customs before the shot, during the shot and even more after the shot. Looking from Mullen to Prescott, Crawford offers, “you guys easily win best-dressed combo at media days.”
The reaction is the same everywhere. You’d think Mullen showed up wearing the winged sandals of Hermes the way every single person seems compelled to stop and say something about his footwear. The somewhat surprising level of attention and chatter causes one confused middle-aged local TV reporter to turn and ask what the deal is.
“Are they orthopedic shoes? Does Mullen have bad feet?”
His feet are fine. Better than ever after today. And while the reporter may be younger than Mullen is, it’s understandable why the former was confused and the latter expected the hype around one of the hardest-to-get pairs of shoes in America.
“I spend my whole life around 18-22 year olds,” he tells reporters in the internet and radio room when they asked about his Adidas kicks. “That keeps you young. In my mind, I’m only a few years older than they are.”
On the way out, he’s stopped three different times so people can take pictures of his shoes on their phone. He feels young in this moment, and he seems, it, too. But not long after he’ll make a confession revealing he’s significantly more than “a few years older” than his 20-somethings in the locker room. Pressed on the issue, Mullen reveals he’s not overly familiar with Kanye West’s music. Asked how many of the famous artist’s songs his coach can name, Prescott laughs and says, “probably one.”
In fact, just this past weekend Mullen celebrated his 25th high school reunion. It was the first reunion he’s ever been able to attend, as they typically have taken place in the fall when he’s in the middle of football season. He and 10 of his old high school buddies who get together at least once a year went to a Yankees-Red Sox game together while they were in the Boston area. Dan and Megan even went to a U2 concert Friday, his favorite band. Dan still remembers the first concert he ever went to, a nearby stop on Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch Tour’ in the mid 1980s.
During the short vacation time they had this summer, the Mullens met Jimmy Buffett (they go to one of his concerts annually) and even went to Greece to celebrate their wedding anniversary the same way they celebrated their honeymoon so many years ago. Dan and Megan make a concerted effort once a year to take a trip with just the two of them, knowing how little time they get to themselves during the pre-season, in-season and post-season of the football calendar.
All of this a far cry from the custom Yeezys Mullen is walking around in today, but hey, his feet are more comfortable than most and his players like it. That’s what’s important. He even admitted he’ll often check with the team first when trying out things he knows may not quite be designed for men of his age, trusting them to be honest about what he can and can’t pull off (though he does have confidence in his ability to do so, asking one reporter how many other coaches in the conference could rock those shoes like he does).
It might seem an odd way to show it, but Mullen asking his players for that advice is one of the many subtle indications he gives about what the young men mean to him. Given the pressures and competitiveness of his job, he’s not often going to be emotional or have heart-to-hearts about just how much he loves those guys. But it’s evident in his actions and in his words below the surface.
He spent all Tuesday afternoon in Birmingham extolling the virtues and singing the praises of his three young men along with him – Prescott, cornerback Taveze Calhoun and defensive end Ryan Brown. Calhoun and Prescott are already in graduate school, he’s always quick to point out, and Mullen bragged to the Sirius/XM crew that Brown, a double-major, is one of the smartest people they’ll ever meet.
Mullen, asked to describe Prescott, offered immediately, “he’s a winner in life and he’s someone you want to be around.” Later on to another reporter he said, “I hope Dak plays 15 years in the NFL, but I don’t have to worry about that. He’s going to be successful no matter what he does.”
Prescott returned the compliments in his own way, saying, “I play for the most swagged out coach in the SEC.”
Those shoes are somewhere in the midst of conversation all day. It’s before answering a question about his relationships with players that Mullen looks up from his phone and says, “Sorry, I was looking to see if Kanye retweeted me.” He hadn’t. At least not yet. But as Mullen is asked questions about excellence, what makes a good coach and questions of the like variety, the swag is turned down and the honesty is turned up.
“Teachers make the lasting impression on your life,” Mullen says, explaining that he wants his coaches to be like good teachers. “I can’t tell you who won the Heisman when I was in second grade, but I can tell you who my teacher was.”
Her name, at the time, was Mrs. Varney. Mullen remembers his high school science teacher just as well.
“It was one of the hardest classes I ever took,” Mullen shares, “but I loved it because he drove me to be great.”
It’s clear Mullen considers himself a teacher, too, and to him it’s one of the most important things in life. Turns out, it runs in the family. Mullen’s maternal grandfather was a coalminer who worked two jobs, not exactly a grade school instructor, but it was all so his little girl could take ballet classes. That little girl grew up to be Mullen’s mother, a classical ballet teacher whose son remembers the endless hours spent at the theatre as she trained young dancers just like she had once been.
“She says she’s not sure if she’s proud of it,” Mullen tells the camera with a laugh, “but the one thing she passed on to me was an unhealthy work ethic.”
Even as a kid it was obvious. As many times as Mullen has moved in his football coaching career, he still makes sure to keep the bicycle he bought with the money from his very first job: a paper route.
“Megan knows that’s the one item that has to come on every move,” Mullen says, still proud of the work put in to earn it.
All the memories, all the teaching, all the swag, and all the while Mullen is in the process of building a program he believes can compete to win the SEC and hopefully a National Title. His shoes are about to come off for the rest of the day, though he’ll certainly wear them again and he even conceded to having more specialty shoes he’s yet to reveal, including a ‘Coach of the Year’ pair Adidas made for him.
But his focus now is on beating Southern Miss on September 5, then LSU the next week and then, hopefully, 13 more games along the way for the 15-0 season Mullen envisions, predictions be darned.
“I’m happy to be back up here. It’s hard to stay up here as a coach in the SEC sometimes,” Mullen said as he took the stage in the main room at SEC Media Days early Tuesday afternoon. “This is my seventh year coming here, and I think every year they’ve picked us to finish around last place. It’s kind of a tradition.”
Not long after, Mullen is passed by a Tennessee player making the rounds.
“I like those shoes!” the defensive lineman calls out.
“Thanks, man,” Mullen replies. “I hope we see you in Atlanta!”