STARKVILLE — New Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been planning for this moment for most of his adult life, tucking away notes, ideas and insight into a folder that has grown so much over time it now fills a large filing cabinet drawer.
“I’ve kind of sectioned it off into different things, whether it be recruiting, scheduling, motivational, football,” Mullen said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in his Starkville office. “I’ll take out one of the folders that I keep in the big deal and skim through it, just to keep my mind refreshed.”
It will take everything the 37-year-old former Florida offensive coordinator has learned the last 15 years to turn one of the Southeastern Conference’s most beleaguered programs into a winner. The Bulldogs have won more than four games just once since 2000 and have had 14 winning seasons since 1970 (and some of those successful seasons were marred by NCAA sanctions).
Conventional wisdom and fans of other SEC teams say you can’t win in Starkville, and there’s plenty of proof of that. Just two of 11 coaches have had winning career records since the Bulldogs joined the SEC in 1933. And Murray Warmath (6-5-3) and Darrell Royal (12-8) were in the job just two seasons. A third, Jackie Sherrill (75-75-2), took the team to unprecedented heights on the way to a .500 record but left behind NCAA sanctions.
The detractors say the budget’s too small and the fan base isn’t big enough to do anything about it. But athletic director Greg Byrne is convinced otherwise, and his plan to bring in a young, bright mind to run the spread offense in a town better known for punishing defenses and rambling running backs seems to be paying off already.
Season ticket sales set a record. Fans turned out everywhere Mullen went to talk. More than 31,000 fans turned out to the spring game.
Nothing the nation’s fourth-youngest major college head coach has seen leads him to believe the goal in front of him is impossible to reach.
“They can obviously win here because they’ve played for the SEC championship,” Mullen said. “They’ve won the SEC West before. I think there’s still four SEC schools that have never played in the championship game and we’re not one them, so it’s obvious you can win here. What you have to do is win in the right way.”
And Mullen’s had an up-close view of how to do it the right way. As a key assistant for Urban Meyer, first as quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green and Utah, then offensive coordinator at Florida, Mullen has become one of the foremost masters of the spread offense.
The duo used it at Bowling Green and charted immediate success. Two years later, they moved to Utah where the team started to garner national attention and quarterback Alex Smith become a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
They were just getting started, though, and won 44 games and two national championships together after moving to Gainesville in 2005. Mullen also turned Tim Tebow into a household name.
Last year alone the Gators set a record with 42 rushing touchdowns and picked up 3,236 rushing yards while averaging 45.2 points per game. Seven players earned all-SEC honors and Tebow made a bid to become the second player to win the Heisman Trophy twice, though he finished as a runner-up.
Tebow, for one, thinks Mullen won’t have any problem transferring that success from his old job. He considers himself “blessed” to have worked with the coach for three seasons.
“I think he’ll be successful because he wants to be and he’s going to strive to be,” Tebow said. “He’s going to have enthusiasm, and that’s going to create more enthusiasm and that’s going to create hunger. Those people are just going to create an environment that’s going to make people want to succeed. They’re going to will themselves to win some games. That’s going to be exciting to watch.”
That enthusiasm has already rubbed off. The players agree to a man that they’ve just been through the hardest offseason of their lives, and did it willingly. And there is a growing buzz around the program despite predictions the Bulldogs will finish last in the SEC.
“He’s very energetic,” quarterback Tyson Lee said. “High strung all the time — ALL the time — whether he’s on the field or off the field. Wherever you see him that’s how he is. Very inspiring. You can tell he knows exactly what he’s talking about. It’s a comfort to a quarterback to know you have a coach who’s been there. That brings a lot of confidence.”
There wasn’t a lot of confidence surrounding the spread offense when Meyer and Mullen moved their show to Gainesville. For one thing they were a couple of guys from up North. And they were peddling a trickery-based offense to the rough-and-tumble SEC. Critics did more than doubt. They scoffed.
In four short years, though, the spread offense is being mimicked across the nation.
Like his offense, Mullen doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Southerners expect certain things from their coaches. They should have gray in their hair. They should talk a little bit like a preacher when they are speaking with the school’s faithful and they should probably run the ball out of the I-formation.
Mullen is from New Hampshire, of all places, went to Ursinus, a school almost no one has heard of, and has the bearing of a young professor, with a slightly studious slump when he gets up to talk to the crowds.
Different, for sure, but maybe in Starkville that’s just what they need.
“I think people are expanding their thoughts and realizing there’s other ways to do things,” Mullen said.
AP sports writer John Zenor in Hoover, Ala., contributed to this report.
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press