Dan Mullen knew that if he was going to succeed at Mississippi State, he had to be more than just aggressive.
In the SEC, if you aren’t waking up to winning and chasing it down with something fried at night, you’re toast. But to build a real winner at Mississippi State, patience was key.
When Mullen left Florida following the 2008 national championship season, he did so with a simple plan to make the Bulldogs truly competitive in the harsh SEC Western Division. It wasn’t quite a Five-Point Plan, but it consisted of scouring the state of Mississippi for talent, creating an enormously exciting game-day atmosphere, building top-notch facilities and selling out home games.
Three and a half years later, Mullen has stayed on course and is sitting with an undefeated team that is 11th in the BCS standings and is gearing up for a colossal bout with No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.
“We haven’t been in that position before and that’s something we wanted to build on,” Mullen said. “We wanted the opportunity to compete for SEC West championships and here we are in our fourth year.”
This program certainly wasn’t as successful or as exciting before Mullen arrived. Sylvester Croom’s four years brought just 17 wins and one bowl berth, while the 1990s under Jackie Sherrill involved flirting with success but never really finding much consistency.
There was the SEC championship game appearance in 1998, but during Sherrill’s 13 seasons as head coach, Mississippi State endured seven losing seasons and won more than seven games just four times.
Mullen certainly benefited from some of the players Croom left behind, but his current 28-17 record has had a lot to do with how he has changed the culture in Starkville.
Mullen’s fiery/confident attitude excited fans, and he immediately challenged them to fill Davis-Wade Stadium. He promised wins -- with or without them -- but said the team would win a lot faster if they showed up. They did, and still do, as the Bulldogs have sold out 21 straight home games.
Mississippi State set all of its attendance records in Mullen’s first year (5-7) and his team gave back with a nine-win 2010 season that saw victories over Florida and Georgia and that 52-14 shellacking of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
“You got the sense that he could put a program in place where competition was at the center of everything that took place,” said athletic director Scott Stricklin, who helped former AD Greg Byrne hire Mullen in 2008.
Mullen knew developing in-state talent was the key to Mississippi State’s success. Before he took the job he scrupulously researched the state’s talent pool and figured that in order to be a contender, he had to keep the best at home.
“Over the last four years, they’ve done that, they’ve believed in that, they’ve wanted to come for their state university and represent the people of Mississippi on the field,” Mullen said.
More importantly, this team expects to win and win titles. That transformation has made Mississippi State a contender in the West and nationally relevant. Stricklin, who went through the Sherrill years as both a student and a member of the athletic department, saw the potential for this when he first met Mullen.
Mississippi State’s search committee wanted someone with charisma, a winning attitude and patience to build the program. Stricklin found all of that and more in Mullen.
“There’s an optimism that’s real unique, and Dan’s done a great job of casting a vision of a program that can compete for championships and win consistently.”
In order to do that, Stricklin knows Mullen needs more time and more administrative help.
He watched as Virginia Tech and Kansas State succeeded under similar models, and he believes Mississippi State is headed in that direction. Stricklin helped push the process along with a new $25 million football complex (Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex) that players and coaches will move into after the bowl season.
It’s an exciting time at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are headed to their third straight bowl for the third time in school history and have the talent to knock off college football’s king.
A win Saturday would create even more excitement and garner even more respect for Mississippi State, but that’s not the end goal. Stricklin expects much more for the program and much more from Mullen. Stricklin sees bigger days ahead in Starkville.
“You can see it all coming together, and it’s building this momentum that has a chance to put us in a place that we’ve never been before,” Stricklin said.