Throughout each of their preseasons, regular seasons and postseasons, Mississippi State’s coaches live in their own bubble within Bulldog athletics. Preparation, execution and review are their priorities, time spent working on their own team with few free moments to worry about anyone else’s.
That’s part of what makes Road Dawgs – MSU’s annual road trip tour of coaches in their short offseasons – such a unique thing. Seeing football coach Dan Mullen, men’s basketball coach Ben Howland and women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer in the same room, on the same stage and wearing the same polo is sort of an odd thing. Worlds colliding, perhaps, within their small solar system.
Each of these men is imagined as a separate entity, though Howland and Schaefer share their basketball facilities. When they’re together once per year, however, it’s a surprising reminder that, despite all of their individual successes and the attention they receive in their own worlds, they’re just coworkers. Schaefer, Mullen and Howland are just three [very rich and successful] dudes who work together in MSU’s athletic department. Steve from the business office and Leah from marketing may as well have been on the stage, too.
Watching the three coaches in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Tuesday, though, was interesting. Each of them is carving their path in the same way. As Mullen said in his speech as he discussed his running of the Boston Marathon, they don’t know where in the race they are, but they all know they’re in it.
There’s Schaefer, who in back-to-back years has set and then broken his own record for wins in a season.
“It’s been four short years since the first time I stood up here,” he observed, “and probably none of y’all knew or cared who I was.”
There’s Howland, who just signed the best-ranked class in MSU history after only one year on the job.
“We’re creating a new culture in basketball at Mississippi State,” he announced to Tuesday’s crowd.
Then of course there’s Mullen, the veteran of the group who took over a seemingly-hapless program eight years ago and in the seasons since has set and re-set record after record, helping lead the team to No. 1 in the country.
“I thank you for always believing,” he offered. “We’re all in this together and we can do so many great things together.”
That togetherness seems a natural thing for the fans, but it applies to the men who were at the podium speaking, too. They proved it as they each, in turn, ended up talking nearly as much about each other’s programs as they did their own.
Howland regaled those in the crowd with stories about the incredible atmosphere in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when a packed out Humphrey Coliseum saw Schaefer’s Bulldogs take down Michigan State and advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Schaefer shared anecdotal evidence as to why he’s been able to recruit so well, not just praising the atmosphere at football games when recruits are on visits, but thanking Mullen for coming over to Schaefer in pre-game one day to introduce himself to the visitors with him and offer his opinions on why they should choose MSU. Shortly after that interaction, Mullen’s Bulldogs went on to beat Auburn, vaulting themselves to No. 1 in the nation.
Mullen related experiences not just of bringing recruits to Howland’s games, but bringing his own children during the week to watch what his coworker was building, seeing visions of himself in his first year as head coach of the Bulldogs.
The praises weren’t confined to football and basketball, either.
“Our fans for the baseball team blow me away,” Howland confessed.
“It felt like 30,000 people out there,” Mullen said in reference to the 15,000-plus crowd at Super Bulldog Weekend.
Fittingly, the three were preceded by Jeff Davis, executive director of the Alumni Association, who shared that last fall’s enrollment was a record high, including the largest freshman class in the history of Mississippi State University. And they’re expecting another record this fall.
Records do seem to be the recurring theme, as each coach on the tour boasts at least one, if not several or dozens, of their own in MSU’s history books. Seemingly every program has reached higher heights than ever before, coaches watching other coaches over recent years in bowl games, NCAA Tournaments, primetime matchups, World Series appearances, upsets, beatdowns and rivalry victories.
To hear Howland, Mullen and Schaefer on Tuesday, those successes have come not just from their work, but from the dedication of those in the room sitting at their tables and listening to their favorite coaches speak.
“All of our programs are strong,” Howland confidently assured them, “and it’s because of the support you give.”
The key now, Mullen said: don’t stop running.
“Dreams are never handed out,” he told the crowd. “We need the support. We can’t slow down where we are now.”