STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen gets it.
In less than two years as Mississippi State’s football coach, he has brought an extra buzz to the already intense rivalry with Ole Miss. Or as he calls it, “The School Up North.”
Mullen has taken every opportunity to tweak the Rebels, and he’s made it abundantly clear to his team just how huge the annual Egg Bowl is to the Bulldogs. The practice and preparation this week are taken up a few notches.
“This game is very important to a lot of people, and we want to make sure that our players remember it and treat this whole week very differently than every other week during the season,” Mullen said Monday.
Junior safety Charles Mitchell is getting ready for his third Egg Bowl, his second under Mullen, and knows what to expect this week.
“Everybody walks around different, the coaches coach different,” Mitchell said. “It’s just a lot more up-tempo, a lot more intense it seems like.”
And that, MSU Athletics Director Scott Stricklin believes, is how it should be.
A State alumnus, Stricklin has been around the Egg Bowl a long time. Even when he was working at other schools, he would call a friend and have them hold the telephone up to the radio so he could hear Jack Cristil call the action.
Stricklin likes that Mullen does not downplay the importance of the rivalry. He doesn’t treat it like just another game. As has been well-documented, Mullen has a clock in the locker room that counts down to the Egg Bowl.
“It’s definitely a big change from what we used to do (with) coach (Sylvester) Croom,” senior center J.C. Brignone said. “We always took it serious; it’s a big-time rivalry. But coach Mullen has definitely taken the next step. Which makes it a lot more fun, too.”
What Mullen does is sell the game, just like he’s sold his program to recruits and fans since his hiring in December 2008.
“Dan’s just a great marketer,” Stricklin said. “He understands that part of what we’re trying to create, this experience, has to be entertaining. And people have to enjoy it, what they’re a part of.”
When other coaches downplay a big game, the motivation is usually to keep their players focused on the task at hand. Mullen thinks you can have it both ways.
“To deny it would be foolish,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “It’s the elephant in the room. You’ve got to understand that this is it. This is a giant game. I know our alumni and fans, because of their expectation of this game, wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Mullen’s been part of several rivalries in his coaching career, from Florida-Florida State to Utah-BYU, a.k.a., “The Holy War.”
Even in college, at Ursinus (Collegeville, Pa.), there was a rivalry with Dickinson.
“They didn’t play for anything,” Mullen said.
Obviously, MSU and Ole Miss are playing for something: That Golden Egg trophy. And this year, State is trying to secure a good bowl bid, while Ole Miss is playing for pride.
For Mullen, he’s trying to become the first State coach to win his first two Egg Bowls since Allyn McKeen did it way back in 1939-40.
War of words
After beating the Rebels last year, Mullen told the fans over the P.A. system that “there’s certainly one program in this state that’s definitely on the rise,” and that game and Mullen’s words have both been eating at the Ole Miss players and coaches ever since.
The Rebels have in their locker room a bulletin board labeled, “Do you remember?” On it, articles are posted to provide motivation. You can probably guess what’s on it this week.
“It’s pretty much everything they said after the game and before the game, a reminder of the score and everything,” Ole Miss tailback Brandon Bolden said. “It’s been burned into the back of everybody’s minds. It’s a constant reminder of things that happened last year.”
Obviously, Mullen’s tactics have gotten under the skin of many a Rebel, whether players or fans. Former Ole Miss quarterback Romaro Miller, while acknowledging his deep-held dislike of MSU, said it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Dan has given this rivalry a jolt of energy,” Miller said.
What Mullen has done is approach the rivalry basically the same way the fans do. He does not hide his animosity for Ole Miss, and he seems to enjoy the head games that ensue.
“I’ve never seen a big rivalry thing where everybody was buddy-buddy,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to work out that way. Besides Mississippi State, I’m probably a fan of one other team, and that’s the Red Sox. They’re not really chummy-chummy with all the Yankee people.”
To Mullen, that’s simply the way it should be, and win or lose, you can bet his attitude toward “The School Up North” won’t change one bit.
“I think it’s good, I think it’s important that we call it what it is,” said Stricklin, “and make sure everybody’s focused on it.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or email@example.com.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal