STARKVILLE – It didn’t take long for Dan Mullen to surprise Greg Byrne.
The airplane had just touched down on a cold, wet Bryan Field in Starkville on Dec. 10, 2008. Onto the tarmac stepped Dan Mullen, the newly hired Mississippi State football coach. He arrived like a triumphant king and acted as if he’d been a Bulldog his whole life.
He engaged his new subjects with high fives. And then, he found a cowbell and rang in a new beginning for MSU football.
Right then, Byrne knew: Mullen could sell his vision.
“I didn’t know that he grasped the marketing side as well as he did. He grasps it better than any coach I’ve ever been around,” said Byrne, MSU’s second-year athletics director.
Bulldog fans have eagerly bought what Mullen’s selling, as evidenced by the crowds at Davis Wade Stadium this past season. In seven home games, MSU drew a school-record 376,544 fans, shattering the old record by more than 70,000 fans.
“Now, did we anticipate the crowds and the level they were at? Probably not to that level,” Byrne said. “But we certainly knew that the fan base would get behind our program when we gave them something to be excited about.”
The excitement has yet to abate, thanks partly to the 41-27 Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss to close the season. The Bulldogs finished the year 5-7, just one game better than 2008 but miles ahead in terms of competitiveness and hope.
Mullen has admitted he’s not a patient rebuilder, and so his impact has therefore been immediate. Beyond an influx of money – from increased ticket sales to new Bulldog Club memberships – Mullen has brought a whole new dynamic to MSU football.
Once a moribund offensive team that rejoiced at a Liberty Bowl bid in 2007, MSU ended the 2009 campaign as the SEC’s top rushing team and has bought into Mullen’s belief that anything less than winning SEC championships is unacceptable.
“One, from a momentum standpoint, he’s brought a lot of that to us,” Byrne said. “And he’s brought an attitude of, ‘We don’t need to take a back seat to anybody.’ ”
The back seat, so to speak, is where MSU usually finds itself in the SEC. Teams like Alabama, Florida and LSU are normally at the wheel, mowing down opponents and adding to already bulging trophy cases.
MSU’s trophy case is rather bare. In fact, two of its trophies – the Cotton Bowl runner-up trophy from 1999 and the Peach Bowl winner’s trophy from the following season – rest side by side atop a filing cabinet in the sports information offices of the Bryan Athletic Administration Building.
State owns one SEC Western Division title (1998) and has won the overall title just once. And one year ago – after a 4-8 season, a 45-0 beatdown at the hands of Ole Miss, and the resignation of coach Sylvester Croom – high achievement at Mississippi State seemed as far-fetched as ever. In the eight seasons prior to Mullen’s arrival, MSU had a combined SEC record of 13-51.
History, however, has mattered not to Dan Mullen. Moments after arriving in Starkville, he said, “I think we have an opportunity to have an unbelievable program.”
The man Mullen replaced, Croom, was respected by the players, so the arrival of a fiery greenhorn brought with it the potential for discord. And while a handful of players left the program over the ensuing months, the ones that stuck around are glad they did.
“When a coach comes in, we have to gain trust of him,” junior linebacker K.J. Wright said. “It took us a while when we got started doing the workouts, we just gained trust going through spring. It’s a building process, and I believe we handled it real good.”
The Bulldogs finished 3-5 in the SEC this fall, but they nearly upset then-No. 7 LSU, gave then-No. 1 Florida all it wanted, and then dominated Cotton Bowl-bound Ole Miss in the second half.
“We know if we’d lost that game, it would’ve been real bad for us,” Wright said. “We knew that we had to get that win so we could get a lot of recruits here. We have something to work towards for next year.”
Staying on the move
Mullen’s first year was such a resounding success in terms of attracting fans, it accelerated discussions of possible renovation and expansion of 94-year-old Davis Wade Stadium. While there are few details worked out, Byrne and Mullen addressed the topic during their season-ending meeting.
“Dan and I are constantly talking about what the next steps are for the program, all aspects of it,” Byrne said. “I think that’s part of your responsibility, with all of your coaches, to have those conversations on a regular basis and not ever sit there idly waiting for things to happen.”
Mullen is definitely not idle. He’s been moving at full speed ever since that day at the airport, and one year into his reign, it’s clear that MSU football is going places.
Byrne hopes Mullen stays around for the ride. The 37-year-old coach’s name was mentioned in connection with the Kansas opening, but Mullen denied having any contact with the school or any interest in the job.
Mullen signed a four-year deal – the maximum allowed for state employees – with MSU at $1.2 million a year. Byrne said he hopes to extend the contract back to four years, “hopefully very soon.”
When asked about a possible raise for Mullen, Byrne side, “We’ll deal with that when it’s appropriate.”
Judging by the early returns, it may be very appropriate.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal