By Brad Locke
Mark Keenum was taken aback by Dan Mullen’s request.
A football recruit and his family were on their way to Mississippi State on a mid-February weekend, and Mullen wanted the help of the new school president.
He wanted Keenum to help recruit the kid.
So Keenum obliged. At 9:30 a.m. on Valentine’s Day – just hours, by the way, after Mullen’s wife, Megan, had given birth to the couple’s first child, Canon – Mullen pulled up with the recruit and the recruit’s family in tow.
Keenum hosted them for a few hours, and his guests caught a glimpse of what is defining the new regime at Mississippi State – a full-speed, arm-in-arm charge into what could well be a prosperous athletic future.
Keenum, Mullen and athletics director Greg Byrne have all assumed their current roles within the past year, and it just so happens that their roles are arguably the most crucial to a Division I university’s athletic foundation.
This time last year, Byrne, Keenum and Mullen were in different jobs. Byrne was the associate AD in charge of the Bulldog Club, Keenum was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Mullen was between BCS national titles as Florida’s offensive coordinator.
Now, they’ve come together and stand at a crucial juncture in time for MSU athletics. So much change in such a short time means the trio must work in harmony if the university hopes to find sustained success in all its sports.
A meshing of visions is something they’re constantly working on.
“I think we’re all tied to each other, which is a good thing. We all need each other,” Byrne said. “If the president’s office is strong, and the football office is strong, we’ll be able to be stronger here administratively. If we’re strong administratively, that gives Coach Mullen and Dr. Keenum better opportunities to succeed in their jobs.
“And so we’re all part of it together.”
MSU has been at or near the top in its three major sports – football, men’s basketball and baseball – in the past. There was the 1996 Final Four team, the 1998 SEC Western Division champion football team, all those College World Series appearances.
Byrne’s predecessor, Larry Templeton, oversaw all that success. So he has a keen understanding of how harmonious the working relationship between president, AD and coaches must be.
“All three of them have to be on the same page, particularly the AD and president,” Templeton said. “The longer they stay, the better the program will be, because sometimes I’m not sure everybody understands how difficult it is to compete in this conference.”
Baseball has been the most consistent program over the years, and basketball has been a winner more often than not. Football has seen the most struggle, including four losing seasons during Sylvester Croom’s five-year tenure, which ended after a 4-8 finish last season.
Getting all three of those sports, plus the others, to be in the mix most every year? Tough task, but Keenum thinks it’s doable.
“That’s what we’re working towards. That’s what we’re committed to,” he said. “I’m optimistic, I really am. I think we can do it.”
OK, but how? MSU’s athletic budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which ends June 30, is $31.8 million, smallest in the SEC, according to a January story by bloomberg.com. Florida, which has won two national titles in football in the last three years, has the largest budget at $83.1 million.
Ole Miss is just ahead of MSU at $38.2 million.
About $10 million of State’s budget comes from private donations, according to Scott Stricklin, MSU’s associate AD for external affairs.
So MSU must be wise with the resources it has.
“Greg is very adept at creating those resources,” said Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart, for whom Byrne led fundraising efforts before coming to State. “He’s got a very creative mind for how to do that.”
Creativity goes a long way in the SEC, which as baseball coach John Cohen noted is an unforgiving league.
“The league cares about skill level, strength, it cares about toughness, and that’s all the league responds to,” Cohen said. “It’s about putting a product out there that will defeat the other product.”
Cohen knows this well, having turned downtrodden Kentucky into SEC champion within three years. He just finished up his first season at MSU, his alma mater, and given the school’s rich baseball history, his program carries a higher profile than most baseball programs.
Then there’s the basketball team, which has been coached by Rick Stansbury for 11 years. He’s led the Bulldogs to three West titles, a regular-season SEC championship and two SEC Tournament titles, including this year.
His team has set a standard the other coaches are hoping to reach.
“Coach Stansbury’s done a great job of proving that can happen at Mississippi State,” Byrne said.
Youth is served
Dan Mullen is 37 years old. So is Greg Byrne. Mark Keenum is 47.
Those can be misleading numbers.
“We are young, relatively speaking,” Keenum said. “But I feel like I’ve packed a lot of experience in my years.”
They all have:
n Keenum’s nine-page rampésumampé details his work in the U.S. government, where he served on several boards and councils and was Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; his 17 years of work for Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS); and his work early in his career at MSU.
n Byrne led fund-raising efforts at Oregon State, Kentucky and MSU before landing his current job. He’s already made splashes with the Cohen and Mullen hires.
n Mullen has been highly successful wherever he’s been, as he and Urban Meyer put together high-octane offenses at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. Mullen served as Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida for four seasons, helping the Gators win two national championships.
One thing all three men share is an abundance of energy, which Byrne said is important in helping MSU keep up, because “if we’re going to be outworked or outhustled or have somebody be more creative than us, then that’s going to be a challenge. We need to always make sure we’re continuing to be forward thinking and be hopefully ahead of the curve in the way we build our business.
“I don’t think there’s any way (our youth) can’t help us in our jobs, and in turn help the university.”
‘We’re a big deal’
One very simple key for success: confidence.
“Our athletic program, we’re a big deal,” Byrne said. “There’s no reason not to have confidence in our ability to compete. We’re very much trying to instill that belief most importantly in our student-athletes.
“Humbleness is a great attribute, but it better not ever come at the cost of confident people.”
Read a little further into that comment, and Byrne also means that it better not come at the cost of winning, or at least playing like a winner.
With all this new blood in the MSU athletic department, it’s a chance for to put past failures behind and take a bold step into the face of prevailing expectations.
“I see right now as good an opportunity as we’ve ever had to have a strong program year in and year out,” Byrne said, “to where we can compete for championships, and to where we go into every one of our sports (saying), ‘We’re going to get to postseason competition this year.’”
Stansbury, who spent eight years as an assistant before taking over for Richard Williams, has as good a perspective as anyone on where MSU stands now relative to where it’s been, and he likes the way the department is pulling together.
“That’s what it takes, everybody pulling in the same direction for the same common goal,” Stansbury said. “I think our university, in my 19 years, seems to be in as good of a balance in all of this as we’ve ever had here.”