When Darrell Royal left Starkville in 1955 after two years as MSU's head football coach, he was a lot like Mullen: A young guy trying to make a name for himself.
Royal went 12-8 at State, then he spent a year as a Washington assistant, and then was hired as head coach at Texas in 1957. He went on to have a pretty good career in Austin: three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference titles, 16 bowl games, and a stadium named after him.
No coach since has had that kind of success after leaving MSU. In fact, no coach since Royal has even landed a head post at another Division I-A school after being MSU's head coach. And no MSU coach since Royal has had a winning tenure in Starkville.
That's a span that covers eight coaches, from Royal's successor, Wade Walker, to Mullen's predecessor, Sylvester Croom.
Jackie Sherrill had a nice run, leading MSU to the SEC championship game in 1998. But he had a pedestrian 75-75-2 record (43-59-1 in SEC games), and his 13-year tenure ended with a whimper and NCAA probation.
So, naturally, Mississippi State has earned the reputation of being a place that's tough to win, a place where coaching careers go to fizzle out.
Enter Mullen. Early returns suggest he's got a long, successful career ahead of him, which is why his name keeps popping up when jobs come open at high-profile programs like Miami and Florida, and it's why fans fear he might soon leave.
His departure would then stick MSU with the label of a stepping-stone job, but that's a risk former State athletics director Greg Byrne was willing to take.
"I've made the comment before, I want in every sport that we have, I want other people to look at say, 'Boy, I wish we had a coach like Mississippi State has,'" current AD Scott Stricklin said. "That hasn't always been the case. That's part of the price of success. It's something that I hope we have to experience a lot, because I hope we have a lot of successful coaches."
The hope, though, is that MSU can retain Mullen for a long time. Mullen has said repeatedly that he plans to be in Starkville for as long as his bosses will have him. And Stricklin believes that the current college football landscape, which is as level as ever, makes sustained success a very achievable goal at MSU.
A man with a good perspective on that is Rockey Felker, the Bulldogs' director of player personnel and high school relations. He played for State and was its head coach from 1986-90.
"I don't know if there's quite as much difference in the programs in the SEC as there once was," Felker said. "I think college football has shown the ups and downs of top programs around. I don't care where you are, if you're at Texas or wherever you are, if you don't recruit well and make good choices, you're not going win, and you're not going to be a winning program.
"It ought to give us, a program like Mississippi State, certainly hope."
Breaking a losing trend
If Mullen does continue to rebuff other schools, can he actually turn MSU into a consistent winner?
Since Royal left, MSU has strung together two or more consecutive winning seasons just three times: 1980-81 (Emory Bellard), 1991-92 (Sherrill) and 1997-2000 (Sherrill).
This year's 8-4 record marks the second time in the past 10 seasons that State's been above .500.
"We've won before, and we've gone to big bowl games before, and we've been to the SEC championship game. But we haven't done it as consistently as we would've liked," said Stricklin, who's an MSU graduate.
Turning State into that consistent winner is the challenge Mullen knowingly took on two years ago, and it's what will probably keep him around a while. He said as much a week ago.
"There's a lot of great things that I think we can get done here at Mississippi State that I want to accomplish here at Mississippi State, and I plan on being the head coach here for a long time."
The challenge within the challenge is changing the outside perception of MSU football. Simply sticking around a while would change it somewhat, because most pundits expect him to leave. Beyond that, he's fighting the perception that whatever success MSU is having right now is temporary, a flash in the pan.
This is where two of Mullen's character traits come into play: 1) His relentless optimism; 2) his marketing savvy.
A lot of coaches possess the former, but not as many the latter. Mullen has embraced Facebook, Twitter and every other means of promotion, and he deserves a load of credit for the 10 consecutive sellouts of Davis Wade Stadium.
MSU fans didn't wait for the results to gobble up Mullen's message; they were drawn to it immediately.
The Bulldog brand
It's about branding, and Mullen's a master of it.
"It's hard to make your brand more dynamic," Stricklin said. "It's a process, and I think we're in the middle of that process. I think we're having some success in changing the perception.
"That's something that you don't just do one time and sell it as a continual thing. I think that's a big part of it. I think changing that perception, a lot of that is the way you sell the program, the way your coaches sell the program, and that's to your fans, fans from other schools, and certainly recruits."
Stricklin points to recent examples of programs shedding near obscurity to become perennially strong programs, like Boise State and Virginia Tech. Not only have those teams become winners, they've done so while also being entertaining.
That's something else Mullen understands well. His spread option offense, while in its current manifestation not in full blossom due to personnel limitations, has given a jolt of energy to the Bulldogs. It's certainly been more effective than the pro style schemes of Croom.
"So we need to make sure we're putting ourself in a position to be as successful as we can on the field, but also, it's not winning alone, it's winning and making it fun," Stricklin said. "There are teams that win that are kind of boring. We've got to be a team that wins and is exciting while we do it."
That's precisely what Byrne was looking for after Croom was fired.
"Dan is one of the best marketing coaches out there," Byrne said. "He understands the engagement of fans and the importance of that; that leads to good crowds, which impresses recruits. Energy and enthusiasm is contagious."
Felker, who won only five SEC games in his five years as MSU head coach, is well-acquainted with some forgettable seasons in Starkville. Yet Mullen has him believing in a brighter future, a future markedly different from the past.
"We struggled for the past decade, that's certainly been a disappointment," Felker said. "So it's really come at a good time, and I think this decade has got a lot of promise."
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.