By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – With the slicked-back hair, the tucked-in polo shirt, and the Yankee clip in his voice, Dan Mullen could play the part of a used car salesman. And he can sure sell like one.
But where the analogy breaks off is here: Mullen truly believes in what he’s selling. And if you believe what the Mississippi State football coach believes, then he’s not trying to get you to buy a lemon.
This week, Mullen is hopping around the state and region on his annual Road Dawgs Tour, and Wednesday brought him to Tupelo for breakfast with several dozen Bulldog supporters. Besides thanking them for their support during his first year as head coach, he urged them all to have faith that he could indeed lead them to the SEC’s promised land: Atlanta.
With the morning sunlight streaming through the windows of First United Methodist Church’s gathering room, Mullen promulgated the vision he’s been pitching since being hired in December of 2008.
He led MSU to a 5-7 record and an Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss his rookie year, and the progress being made is easy to see. But he’s still trying to convince people to not just get on the bandwagon, but help drive it.
Or, to use Mullen’s analogy, “push the sled.”
Mullen said there is a “commitment board” in the MSU weight room that strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis updates daily, showing how committed players are to the program.
The lowest level is resistant, and then it progresses to reluctant, existent, compliant, committed and then finally the highest level, compelling. Mullen defined compelling as, “I’m going to fight and push to where I want us to be.”
Mullen said the program as a whole is at the compliant level, where the players do what they’re asked, but not necessarily much more. And he applied the “commitment board” to the fans, too, the same fans who have in consecutive years broken the state’s spring football game attendance mark and shattered Davis Wade Stadium’s single-season attendance record.
Mullen asks a lot of his players. He is asking just as much of the fan base.
He paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Faith is taking that first step on the staircase when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Mullen then added, “Pick any spot in town, I guarantee you cannot see Atlanta from here.”
So what does the next step involve in Mullen’s view? Fans bringing more fans into the fold, whether neighbors or relatives, whoever. Mullen says he wants to see the day when there is a seven-year waiting list for season tickets.
“That is the next step,” he said.
Is it all really possible, though? I asked MSU fan Kevan Kirkpatrick, marketing director for BancorpSouth Arena, why he believed Mullen’s lofty goals don’t fail the test of reasonable expectation.
“Look at the progress we’ve made over the past two years alone,” Kirkpatrick said. “Look how far Jackie Sherrill took us – that proved that we can get there. I think with Mullen’s energy and his talent and his ability, I see no reason why we can’t get back there.”
Mullen has been a natural salesman since first stepping foot in Starkville. I asked him how he became so adept at that role, and he said he didn’t know, but he said selling MSU isn’t that hard.
“I’m proud of our program, and I think there’s a lot to sell,” he said, “and when you get to Mississippi State, you get on campus, you see the great community you have there, there’s a lot to sell. So the most important thing for me is to really get out and spread the message.”
He’s getting the message out, all right. And people are buying it.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571