There was Dan Mullen, his maroon Mississippi State jacket drenched in Egg Bowl victory sweat and an unlit cigar in his right hand. He stood in the underbelly of Ole Miss' Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, arrogance radiating after last year's 55-20 beatdown of bitter rival Ole Miss in Oxford.
Near the end of an almost 20-minute postgame news conference, his pride exploded when a reporter asked whom the Bulldogs had to beat to get rising star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who had just embarrassed Ole Miss' defense for 367 total yards and five touchdowns, with 258 of those yards and two scores coming on the ground.
"U-T Chatta-nooga," Mullen said emphatically before placing the cigar in his mouth and nodding.
That was classic Mullen, rubbing extra dirt in the Rebels' wounds by letting them know he wrecked his rival with a quarterback who wouldn't have sniffed the FBS ranks if not for him.
Fitzgerald, who barely registered a blip on recruiting services' radars in the 2014 class, has become another Mullen gem. After arriving in Starkville as a relative nobody, Fitzgerald is receiving all sorts of preseason attention after a breakout sophomore season in which he threw for 2,423 yards and ran for 1,375 yards -- the third-most rushing yards ever by an SEC quarterback. He broke nine school records and the SEC single-season records for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (eight) and average yards per rush by a QB (7.1).
Fitzgerald also produced more 300-yard passing/100-yard rushing games (three) than any other player in school history, something even Dak Prescott can't say.
"I don't have to rely on everybody else's recruiting evaluation," Mullen told ESPN. "I can rely on mine and probably get away with it."
To clarify, Fitzgerald insists that UT Chattanooga was actually Middle Tennessee. Still, it made for a great sound bite, and it continues the exceptional job that Mullen has done of both finding and developing quarterbacks in his 20-plus years of coaching. From transforming little-known Josh Harris into an NFL draft pick at Bowling Green to crafting Tim Tebow into a Heisman Trophy winner to watching Prescott go from college legend to immediate NFL star, Mullen is one of the sport's great but maybe unheralded quarterback minds.
"Coach Mullen probably does not get enough credit for the quarterback development that has transpired and is unavoidable," Harris said. "You cannot not mention it or notice it. That tree of quarterbacks is dope."
Mullen has had five quarterbacks drafted, with Tebow and Alex Smith (Utah) going in the first round and Smith being the No. 1 pick in 2005. Mullen has coached two Heisman finalists -- Tebow and Smith -- with Tebow becoming the first sophomore to win the award in 2007 after being the first FBS player to throw for 20 touchdowns and rush for 20 touchdowns in a season.
Before the no-name Prescott reached mythical status in Starkville, Mullen won 29 games in his four years at Mississippi State with a combination of Tyson Lee, Chris Relf and Tyler Russell. Russell and Relf both surpassed 3,200 passing yards in that span.
Mullen has worked with run-heavy quarterbacks and more traditional passers, but his approach has always been incredibly meticulous and fundamentally heavy. Mullen admits that his secret for QBs is basically to keep it simple: Find your balance and base in your feet, and live off checkdowns.
"Consistently making the average play. Boy, is it boring, but it makes you a professional," Mullen said. "Chicks dig the long ball, right. Chicks don't dig the checkdowns."
But checkdowns and details win games. Even with a shotgun offense, Mullen put Harris under center every practice to help him with his balance and footwork. He pounded hand placement and how to properly position Harris' front arm on throws.
Technique wasn't right -- it was perfect -- and it started anew each day. Mullen never let mechanical problems fester. They were immediately fixed and rarely happened twice in a row. This regime started in spring and ended when the season finished.
"It wasn't a routine. Coach Mullen was specifically driving perfection out of those drills daily," Harris said.
"It was probably a miracle -- it was probably divine -- that that staff came to Bowling Green at that time and had the patience to work with me to help me develop all of my quarterbacking skills. I was a raw piece of clay."
You can call Mullen a guru or QB whisperer, but really, the success has come from getting to work.
"I think what makes Dan good at everything is that he's very intelligent and he's a grinder," said Meyer, who coached with Mullen for 10 years. "He leaves no stone unturned. I mean, think about the guys he's developed. To say he's a guru, I wouldn't agree with that. He's a grinder. He works very hard, and he takes great pride in what he does. He's a very intelligent guy."
Mullen said the first real quarterback learning curves for him came at Florida. There, he had phenoms in Chris Leak and Tebow, which forced him to change his teaching. With Harris and Smith, Mullen had the QB adjust to his style. It worked, but with Leak and Tebow, he was dealing with more talented players and more talented opponents.
With Leak, Mullen went from trying to mold some spread schemes around a pro-style quarterback to creating a spread-pro look that benefited Leak's skill set as a passer. Leak threw for more than 5,000 yards with 43 touchdowns and won 22 games, including a national championship with Mullen.
A year later, Tebow directed a true spread offense that accumulated nearly 6,000 yards. In Mullen's final season at Florida in 2008, the Gators won their second national championship in three years, and Tebow finished his time with Mullen with 7,600 total yards and 97 touchdowns.
"It's much easier for me to adapt than for them to adapt," Mullen said.
Then there's Mullen's greatest project: Prescott. Without a shred of recruiting buzz, Prescott ended his time at Mississippi State as arguably the program's greatest player. Before Prescott was the steal of the 2016 NFL draft, he shattered 38 school records and became one of only four players (including Tebow) in FBS history to throw for more than 9,000 yards and rush for more than 2,500 yards in a career.
Now Mullen turns his attention to Fitzgerald, who threw just 76 passes during his high school senior season before last year's debut. The former triple-option QB has home run speed, but Mullen is finding new ways to tweak "pretty much everything you could possibly do passing the ball," as Fitzgerald puts it.
It's another project for Mullen. It's more meticulous teaching, and it's another challenge Mullen should have no problem conquering.
"With the relationship he had with those guys, he's able to get the most out of them," said South Florida coach Charlie Strong, who worked with Mullen at Florida. "He builds his schemes around his quarterbacks, and that's where he does a great job with it."