It’s an off day for Mississippi State’s football team in the middle of preseason training camp, and sitting on Dan Mullen’s desk are the piles of papers, notes and reports one would expect to find strewn around the office of an SEC head coach. Taking the most prominent position, stacked neatly and placed just to the left of the open area in the center of his desk, a thick pack of pages has the most detailed stats of any, and it’s those that Mullen is concerned with at present. Drive distance, stroke averages, club speed – the report is a statistical summary of Mullen’s favorite golfer, his son Canon.
When Mullen and his wife Megan, who is waiting outside the office – “The first time we’ve been able to go to lunch together in five years,” she jokes – arrived in Starkville nine years ago, there were no golf lessons for their son, no ballet recitals for their daughter, no evenings spent watching the Disney Channel. There were no kids at all. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything. There wasn’t yet a staff of assistant coaches and supporting staffers. The facility they’re standing in hadn’t yet had the first line of a blueprint drawn.
Surrounding Mullen in his office are mementos from a career that has seen the birth of his son and daughter, the coming and going of friends and coworkers, the construction of new facilities and nearly a decade’s worth of players he’s had the chance to coach. The expansive, well-lit room is a history of the program he’s spent all this time building.
Mullen doesn’t have trophies in the office. Those – including the Egg Bowl trophy – are lined up in the entryway of MSU’s football facility for the public to see. What Mullen chooses to keep close by are reminders of the meaningful moments in his life and the things accomplished by people under his care. He has a picture of himself and Fletcher Cox in New York on the night the defensive lineman was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. He has a football commemorating the moment Vick Ballard got the call that he’d been selected by the Indianapolis Colts. More framed pictures, signed footballs and similar memorabilia cover the shelves and walls of the office.
The beginning of it all is marked by a picture standing on a shelf at the closest point to Mullen’s desk. On December 10, 2008, a much younger Dan and Megan stand at center-court in Humphrey Coliseum at halftime of an MSU basketball game, the first time he was ever introduced to the Bulldog fans he would grow to know much better in the years to come. Waving and smiling, both the excitement and fear of the unknown future they were about to start working toward was evident on his face.
About four months after that picture was taken, Mullen had his first practice at MSU, his first ever as a head coach of his very own team. In the time between, he had hired a staff, he had brought in a full and well-regarded signing class, and most importantly, he had developed a vision for what he wanted his program to be. Mullen was ready to put into action a plan that would eventually take his team to No. 1 in the country, that would see a return to New Year’s Day bowls for the Bulldogs and that would bring previously unreached levels of success and renown to a program that had been on the losing side of football history for most of its existence.
All the dreaming, plotting and planning was about to take form in real, actual football as spring practice began in March of 2009.
“I remember just grabbing my visor, grabbing my whistle and you’re kinda like, ‘Whew, here we go, first practice as the head coach.’ It’s a little scary,” Mullen recalls. “It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. It’s everything, because you’ve never done it before and you don’t know what to expect.”
Not knowing what to expect is quite different from having no expectations at all, however. Mullen knew, of course, that the program was not in great shape when he took over. That’s why he had been hired, after all. There would be no need for a new coach if things had been going swimmingly. So, certainly, he didn’t expect to see a championship-caliber team day one. But on that day, the fires of the dreams in his head were doused with a cold, wet bucket full o’ reality.
“Whoo, boy,” he says with a laugh now. “I remember our first practice, I went out and we’re throwing routes on air. It’s just quarterbacks and receivers – no defense, nothing – and I think we completed about 20 percent of the passes.”
This happening in front of a coach whose last practice had been as the offensive coordinator at Florida where Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and John Brantley were throwing passes to Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy and Riley Cooper. Transitioning from “NFL players throwing to NFL players,” in Mullen’s words, to what he first witnessed on that practice field next to the woods along Highway 82 in Starkville was quite the shock for the new head coach of the Bulldogs.
“I looked and I’m like, boy, our first practice and we can’t complete passes without even a defense on the field,” Mullen says. “I’m thinking, we might have our work cut out for us here. But, you know what I saw, was there was a group of guys that had a tremendous work ethic. I loved that about our guys, the blue-collar attitude that they brought every single day.”
Mullen knew, too, that more help was on the way. In February, he had signed Chad Bumphis and Tyler Russell who would go on to become, respectively, the school’s all-time leading receiver and passer, and he already had the school’s eventual all-time leading rusher in the locker room with senior Anthony Dixon literally carrying the team in that first season in 2009.
The experience was new for everyone, Mullen included as a first-time head coach, but those were the beginnings of a long, successful and still-growing stretch of football in Starkville.
“I love the attitude of those guys and the approach they took,” Mullen says, “and you saw, they made huge strides even from year one to year two where we end up a top-15 team in the country playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game. They took those strides to get us there in that period of time.”
In the time since, MSU has gone to seven-straight bowl games, a $25 million team facility bas been designed, built and moved into, Davis Wade Stadium has been expanded and Mullen has climbed from zero wins on day one to now just four short of second all-time at State. The records set by Bumphis and Russell went on to be broken by the next set of receivers and passers to come through as Fred Ross and Dak Prescott eventually took the top spots in the record books as they worked their way to becoming stars in college football. Even now, one record or another is surely on its way to falling again on Mullen’s watch, another one of the 100-plus that have been shattered since he arrived.
Through all those successes, it is no secret that schools across the country have shown interest in Mullen, wanting him to leave Starkville in hopes that he can work the same magic for their program as he did for MSU’s. If the rise of Bulldog football isn’t enough to show his worth, certainly his ever-growing salary reflects Mullen’s value to the school. But it isn’t money that’s kept him in Starkville. He could make millions at any of the many places who have tried to lure him away. What keeps him in Mississippi is the foundation on which he’s built his entire program: family.
“It starts with that,” Mullen says. “Starkville is a great place to raise a family. My wife loves living here. My kids love being here. I love the community. But I also love the program. I love the kids that we’re able to recruit here. We have a great administration.
“As funny as this seems, I’ve worked for three different athletic directors, but all three of them sat in my job interview. The three people on my job interview [Greg Byrne, Scott Stricklin and John Cohen] have been the three athletic directors during my time here. Dr. Keenum, our President, hasn’t changed the entire time here. There’s been a great stability in our leadership and administration.
“I get to recruit the players I want. We have great kids here in Mississippi that come in to a program and they want to work, they want to develop. I’ve been able to build this program, not from the ground up because there was great tradition and history when we got here, but if you look at what we’ve been able to build, what we’ve been able to establish as a program since we got here, I like that. Everybody thinks the grass is greener somewhere else. In every part of life, the grass has to be greener somewhere else. Having coached around the country in a lot of different places, you realize that may not be the case.
“We have a great situation,” he finishes. “We have a great place here. We have a great administration, unbelievable facilities, we get to recruit high-character, hard-working young men, and you get to raise your kids in a great place to raise a family.”
Mullen’s family, MSU’s program and the school itself all look different now, nearly nine years after Mullen first arrived. Even the city of Starkville itself has shown remarkable development. They’ve all grown. They’ve changed. They’ve improved. Numbers are up in all facets and attendance is at an all-time high in any measurable capacity.
The picture of Dan and Megan in his office shows the first time Mullen spoke to MSU fans, December 10, 2008. It was just the two of them that day. After waving, smiling and greeting the crowd, Mullen was given a microphone. It seems that a great many of the highlights in his career have come at moments when someone gives him a microphone, including a night less than 12 months later when Mullen won his first Egg Bowl and proudly declared, “There’s only one school in this state that’s on the rise.”
If Mullen could feel it in the moment that night on the basketball court, a viewer would have trouble noticing a difference in his delivery. But it’s clear the crowd was ready to hang onto his every word, syllable and breath. It’s clear the crowd was convinced their hero had arrived, that their football team would return to glory and that this was the man who would make it happen. And now, he was going to tell them exactly how.
He didn’t speak for long, but near the end, Mullen offered one vow, one oath for the eager crowd to cling to.
“I’m not going to promise a whole lot,” he began, “but I can promise this: that this team will play with tremendous effort, tremendous passion, and we will give you a football team that you are proud of and the state is proud of, both on the field and off the field.”
Almost nine years later, seated in a clean, white chair next to the bay window looking from his office down onto a new practice field, Mullen is given a moment to reflect on that promise and wonder if he’s fulfilled it. He looks back over his shoulder at the picture of that night in 2008 as he pauses to think.
“I think we’ve been able to do that,” he says. “If you look at the fans, the growth of game attendance, of people buying into our program, you look at the passion with which people wear Mississippi State clothing, not just on Fridays, all around the world. You look at the growth of the university. The standard of academics has gone up. Enrollment has gone through the roof. You look at the growth of the town of Starkville. And I know, for six weeks, we gave the state of Mississippi the No. 1 team in the country. That’s something I want to do continue to do.
“I think we’ve been able to do that over the last nine years,” he concludes before finally going to lunch with Megan, “to give our fans, our student body, the Mississippi State family and the entire state of Mississippi, a team that they can be proud of.”