STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen and Urban Meyer have had their share of jogs in the park.
Saturday’s game won’t be one.
Mullen will meet his mentor and former jogging partner when Mississippi State visits No. 22 Florida, and the game will resemble only one part of the runs the two shared while at Notre Dame a decade ago: the finishing sprint.
“That last about quarter-mile of the jog would get pretty competitive,” Mullen said. “We’d kind of pick up the pace to see who could win.”
Mullen and Meyer first came together at Notre Dame in 1999 – Mullen was a graduate assistant with the offense, while Meyer coached the receivers – and they stayed together for 10 seasons as Meyer took head coaching jobs at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
In their first meeting as head coaches last year, Florida won 29-19 in Starkville. But this time is different. This time, Mullen returns to the place where he spent four years as offensive coordinator, earned two national championship rings and guided Tim Tebow to the Heisman Trophy.
“First of all, I’ve been very successful there, so I hope my success continues this weekend,” Mullen said. “When you go back to places you coached at for four years, everything about this weekend is going to be different. You’re in a different locker room, you’re arriving at the stadium with a different entrance, you’re standing on a different sideline, you’re wearing a white jersey.
“I think that part of it is, it’ll be a completely different experience for me from all of the other experiences I’ve had at that stadium.”
It won’t be a completely foreign experience for Mullen. He said his wife, Megan, would often drop him off at the visitors entrance of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium so he could go for a jog with his dog, Heisman. He’s done interviews in the visitors locker room.
For Mullen, it won’t be hard to keep the most important thing in focus: Winning the game.
“To be honest with you, if Urban and I went to play a game of pickup basketball in the backyard, it would probably be just as competitive as we’re going to be on Saturday,” he said. “That’s just the nature of competitive people.”
That competitive spirit hasn’t gotten in the way of their relationship, even now that they’re opponents. They still talk on the phone occasionally – most recently a couple of weeks ago, according to Mullen – but those conversations revolve mostly around family. A certain amount of relational separation naturally occurs in such a situation. But Meyer still considers Mullen “a very good friend of mine, and I think he’s a hell of a coach.”
Said Mullen, “I don’t know if I’ll have a beer (with Meyer), but we’ll certainly talk football after the game.”
A new belief
MSU (4-2, 1-2 SEC) enters this game on a three-game winning streak, while Florida (4-2, 2-2) has lost two in a row. Running the spread option offense he helped Meyer develop, Mullen has turned State into a dangerous offensive team.
“I think as a team they’re better,” Meyer said, “but I thought they were a pretty decent team last year.”
A win Saturday could vault the Bulldogs to new heights. Last year’s game, in which Johnthan Banks returned two Tebow interceptions for touchdowns, inspired a new confidence in the Bulldogs.
“We thought that we had the game in our grasp,” cornerback Corey Broomfield said, “and from that point on we really believed and trusted in each other, and I think we grew as a team after that game.”
Mullen remembers well what he saw in his players in the locker room that night, noting “the look in their eyes,” a look of realization.
“I think that really kind of changed the demeanor of the team, of just seeing that we’re not here just to compete, we’re here to win,” Mullen said. “They did really kind of change some of their attitude around for the rest of the season.”
That attitude should help the Bulldogs on Saturday. Offensive lineman Quentin Saulsberry said he considers all SEC teams “equals,” and that’s an attitude borne of Mullen’s immense confidence and competitiveness, two qualities that have been present in all of his athletic endeavors.
As for who usually won those mad dashes between Mullen and Meyer, both men claim fuzzy memories.
“It usually ended up pretty close to a tie every time,” Mullen said. “It was a long time ago.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal