STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen is sitting in his expansive office on an early April afternoon, surrounded by pictures of football players like Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, various plaques, stenciled footballs, and other accoutrements of his successful coaching career. He’s not in coach mode right now, though.
No, he’s in Cousin Eddie mode.
“I don’t know if I oughta go sailin’ down no hill with nothin’ between the ground and my brains but a piece of government plastic,” Mullen says with a passable Southern accent. “The plate runs right under my part. If it gets dented, my hair ain’t gonna look right.”
As Mullen gestures and gets fully into character, he is absorbed for a moment in his re-enactment of a scene from the 1989 movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” His guest is in stitches.
Mullen perfected the routine growing up, when he and his family would celebrate Christmas in part by staging their own production of the Griswolds’ holiday misadventures. As he effortlessly channels Cousin Eddie, the 36-year-old Mullen is flashing his social dexterity. There’s no doubt he could keep up with college-aged kids who can have entire conversations without voicing one original thought.
It’s critical that Mississippi State’s first-year coach be able to communicate the X’s and O’s of his spread offense to his players, but just as important – perhaps more so – is his ability to communicate with them on a personal level. He has a history of jumping across the generational divide, and he’s doing it in Starkville.
Mullen can easily be found on Facebook, the wildly popular social networking Web site. His list of 76 friends is limited to current players, high school prospects, and assorted friends and family.
Mullen signed up for Facebook in March and has found several uses for it, including communicating with his players, monitoring them, and drawing recruits to the program.
He also has an iPod full of current music: P. Diddy, Tupac, Eminem. He’s got a good bit of country and ’80s music, too.
“I don’t have any Little Jeezy on there,” he said.
Actually, it’s Young Jeezy, but the point is, Mullen thinks it’s vital to keep up with technology and pop culture.
“My career is based on decisions of 17-year-olds and the actions of 18- to 22-year-olds,” he said. “That’s the people that you’re dealing with right there, you’d better immerse yourself in that world. I try to listen to the music they listen to, talk to them about what’s going on in today’s world, find out the TV shows they like, try to watch the TV shows, just keep up with all the things that are going on out there in the world that these 17-, 22-, 23-year-olds, (what) kind of encompasses their life.”
Every year, Gary Nelson and several other of Mullen’s old teammates from Trinity High School in Manchester, N.H., travel to one of their former quarterback’s games. It’ll be LSU this year.
Nelson has seen first-hand how well Mullen connects with players.
“Me and my buddies visit all these places every single year,” Nelson said, “and these kids love him.”
Mullen was very close to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who he has called “the best young man I’ve ever met.” Upon Mullen leaving Utah after the 2004 season, quarterback Brian Johnson was reduced to tears. Another Utah QB, eventual No. 1 NFL Draft pick Alex Smith, was in the Mullens’ wedding.
Although a couple of Bulldogs – junior cornerback Anthony Johnson and athlete Montario Patterson – have left the team this spring, the players as a whole seem to be fully embracing their new coach.
“No one would ever disrespect just because how he’s a nice coach; at the same time, he ain’t going to play with you,” said juco transfer Pernell McPhee, a defensive lineman. “I love Coach Mullen, though.”
Most coaches have an open-door policy, and Mullen’s no different – except that it’s the door of his house that remains open.
When he was hired in December, he said his wife, Megan, had “just adopted 85 young men.” The Mullens bought a large house for the express purpose of fitting all his players in it at once. It’s more than 9,000 square feet, or about four times bigger than what Mullen said he, Megan, newborn son Canon and the family dog, Heisman, would actually need.
He’s had the team over several times, all at once and a few at a time. Most recently, a handful dropped in Easter Sunday to watch the Masters and eat supper.
It’s an unfamiliar experience for the players. Former coach Sylvester Croom would have them over, but as senior cornerback Marcus Washington said, “It was more like a reward thing. But now, Coach Mullen says any time you want to come by there, you can. It’s just great to know the head coach’s house is open to you like that.”
Megan Mullen was stunned to learn how rare such gatherings were.
“So many of them came up and were like, ‘Wow, we’ve never done something like this before.'”
Now, when Megan returns home from the grocery store, she’ll often see players fishing in the pond at the entrance to her neighborhood.
Opening their hearts
She said these young men have opened their hearts to them quicker than any of the other players Mullen coached.
“I think they know they’re as much a part of our life,” she said, “as we are of theirs.”
This is a result of the family ethic Mullen is working hard to establish. It’s an ethic he grew up with in New Hampshire and still holds dear.
Barbara Mullen, who hails from North Wales, England, and runs the Londonberry Dance Academy, always demanded honesty from her three children, Dan, Patrick and Katie. When problems arose, the family would sit around the kitchen table and hash it out.
“It has always been, lay the cards on the table, this is what is. Accept responsibility for your actions,” Barbara Mullen said. “Now we’ve discussed that, if there is punishment, there is punishment; if not, how do we proceed and go on from this moment.”
Such honesty is demanded of the Bulldogs.
“If you mess up, just come to him and let him know what you did, and just be honest to him,” senior linebacker Jamar Chaney said. “Because he don’t like people to lie to him, that’s one of the first things he said when he came in.”
Getting a college-aged kid to bare his soul can be like trying to uproot a giant oak with your bare hands, but Mullen has opened those doors by showing genuine interest in each and every player.
His first weekend on the job, Mullen spent 16-hour days meeting individually with players. He continues to spend one-on-one time with them.
“You might be a walk-on, or you’re one of the best on the team,” Chaney said. “He’s always going to be there for you and talk to you. You feel like he’s your coach, but it’s like he’s one of your teammates, too.”
If a player has an issue he’d rather not discuss with Mullen or the other coaches, they can turn to Megan.
“When we decided to come here, I talked to her in depth and asked her if she was ready to do this,” Mullen said. “To run the program like I want to run it is not a one-person job, it’s a two-person job.”
It’s not like Megan didn’t have her own ambitions. She was a television anchor for The Golf Network but quit in January of 2008 to devote more time to supporting Dan and his players at Florida. Back then, it was just a few offensive guys.
Now, of course, it’s a whole team. Full-time work, and Megan’s loving it. She’s at every practice, with Canon and the excitable Heisman, a Wheaton Terrier, in tow. She makes sure to walk back toward the locker room with a different player each day, getting to know them, just like her husband does.
The Bulldogs have yet to play a game under Mullen. Heck, they met him barely four months ago.
They “get” him, though, because he gets them. He understands them, and he’s building bonds that can’t be measured on a stat sheet.
He turns 37 next Monday, but his age is irrelevant.
“It’s real good to have a young coach like that,” said Washington. “He’s young and energetic, just like us, and he wants to win.”
Brad Locke/Daily Journal