Dan Mullen was always bound to end up in Starkville. It was practically fated as small coincidences throughout his life lined up and continually pointed him to the town in Mississippi the Bulldogs call home.
Mississippi State’s head coach has often shared the story of how he ended up at MSU almost eight years ago. Then the offensive coordinator at Florida, Mullen was offered the job, but he was told that he had to take it sight unseen. There was no time for a visit. He loved the opportunity, of course, but he had never been to Starkville before, and when he called his wife Megan, he told her he was uncomfortable moving their family somewhere they’d never even seen.
No, Megan told him, he hadn’t been to Starkville before, but she had. In her work for The Golf Channel, she’d covered an event at nearby Old Waverly Golf Course and she got a tour of Starkville while in town, stopping for dinner at long-time Starkville restaurant staple Harveys. The side trip to Starkville was just a small happening in her everyday life, but she loved the town.
“Take it,” Megan told her husband. “It’ll be great. We’ll eat at Harveys.”
But if Mullen had been paying attention – if he had known to pay attention – he would’ve realized he’d had a connection to Starkville since the day he was born, long before he was at Florida, long before he met Megan and long before he even knew what football was.
See, Mullen, like another well-known name in Starkville, grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire. In fact, that other name is the name of Starkville: General John Stark, the Revolutionary War hero for whom Starkville was named. Just miles from Mullen’s childhood home is Stark Park, home of the original Stark family burial plot, upon which now stands a large statue of General Stark himself.
When Mullen was hired as the head coach at Mississippi State in 2009, it wasn’t just an achievement in his professional life, but an unseen nod to his roots in the Northeast, the area he returns to this week when MSU plays UMass, the school’s first game in the northeast since 1986.
In 2009, Mullen took over a program that was in need of a boost, in need of help, in need of more men and in need of someone to lead the way to victory. Mullen has since brought MSU back to national prominence, producing All-Americans and NFL stars, taking the Bulldogs to six-straight bowl games and, with the help of quarterback Dak Prescott, directing MSU to No. 1 in the country.
General Stark, who late in life penned the famous phrase “Live Free or Die” which now serves as New Hampshire’s state motto, rose to prominence in similar fashion. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it was during the Siege of Boston at Bunker Hill that Stark proved his worth as a leader when he led a militia of New Hampshire men to the aide of a Colonel by the name of William Prescott.
Under Stark’s guidance and following his directions and tactics, Stark and Prescott foiled attack-after-attack by the British, saving many American lives as they out-maneuvered the enemy and caused the Brits to suffer heavy casualties. Thanks to Stark, the Americans escaped safely after what looked like sure loss for them all.
There’s something about those Prescotts and Starks, apparently.
But those ties are what make MSU’s game in Boston even more meaningful. They are why Adidas created uniforms in the traditional New England fashion for the game. Saturday isn’t just a return to Mullen’s roots as a child, they’re a return to Starkville’s roots, to the place its name comes from. As head coach, Mullen is MSU’s general. Stark is Mississippi’s. Both have their origins in the northeast, and both have made an impact in the deep south.
Just like Manchester, which was originally named Derryfield before the war, many towns and cities in Mississippi were re-named for heroes of the Revolutionary War. How perfect that Boardtown, whose first town mayor was himself a New Hampshire native, should be re-christened in the name of General Stark.
Stark’s legacy is complete, his mark made across the country. Mullen’s, however, has only just begun. The rest is still unwritten.