DESTIN, Fla. -- Like many around the SEC, Dan Mullen saw the cowbells used at Mississippi State games as a gimmick.
Even when he took the job as the Bulldogs’ head coach in 2009 he still considered them a “neat thing” and an “amusing deal.”
But as the issue of using cowbells returns to the SEC meetings, Mullen’s outlook on their use has transformed and he now understands the symbolism and the tradition of what the rattling of such a simple device means to a fan base and a university.
Unfortunately for Mullen, tragedy shaped Mullen’s new opinion.
Mullen and the rest of the Bulldogs family were rocked by the death of defensive end Nick Bell last fall. While at Bell’s funeral, Mullen stood and watched as Bell’s mother stood over her son’s coffin as it was being lowered into the ground. As Bell’s mother said goodbye, the thing that caught Mullen off guard was the sound of her ringing a cowbell he thought had more place being clanked inside a stadium.
Mullen watched -- and felt -- the pride she had in both her son and the tradition he stood for. It was then that he realized cowbells were no longer a silly scheme to rattle opponents.
“It’s not an amusing thing anymore,” Mullen said at the SEC spring meetings Wednesday. “It is a deep-rooted symbol and tradition of the people of the state of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.”
It was that crushing realization of how important this tradition was to everyone associated with the university that made Mullen understand that this was a practice he had to fight for.
In 2010, the SEC ruled that cowbells could be used before games, at halftime, during timeouts and after scores. Ringing of cowbells during the game action, which had become a staple of Bulldogs fans, would amount to a penalty.
The first offense would cost the school a $5,000 penalty, the second offense $25,000 and the third offense would cost $50,000.
In October, SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Mississippi State had been told it violated the conference’s noisemaker policy. That prompted Mullen to tell students and fans to respect the new rule.
Now that the season is over and topic could be up for debate again, Mullen said he thinks the fans did a good job of respecting and adapting to the rule last season.
As far as the noisemakers being considered a competitive advantage for the Bulldogs, Mullen doesn’t agree.
“We’re certainly not the loudest stadium in the conference and we’re probably near the bottom in crowd noise,” he said. “I can’t see how it even gives us an advantage.”
The scene at Bell’s funeral opened Mullen’s eyes to the true meaning of the tradition, but as the year went on, he began to really see the impact the cowbells had on fans, even when they weren’t ringing.
Mullen wants to keep the league’s current rule and wants to educate fans on the SEC’s meaning of the rule and the league on the rich tradition of the bell.
“I have young people come in with cowbells that their grandfather gave them on their death bed,” he said. “They look at it like you’re trying to take a tradition away from our family or a deep-rooted symbolism of our family and trying to rip it away from us.”