STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen passed by another version of himself coming into work one warm, sunny day this spring. There, in the lobby of Mississippi State’s football facility, he walked by a row of flatscreen TVs showing a replay of the 2010 Gator Bowl. It was a fuzzy picture -- standard definition was still a thing then -- so he might have missed how different he looked on the sideline. Stern, serious Dan, thinking of going for it on fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter. He hardly relaxes when Vick Ballard bursts through the middle of the defense, losing his helmet as he gains 6 yards and a first down.
The school practically plopped down in the middle of a Mississippi pasture, perpetually chained to the bottom rung of the SEC, went for it five times on fourth down that day in Jacksonville, and five times it moved the chains. Was Mullen sending a message? Against mighty Michigan, Mississippi State handed the Wolverines their worst bowl loss in school history, 52-14. After the game, Mullen told reporters his team went from average to good that day. "Now," said the second-year head coach, "we want the ability to go from good to great."
He hoped that win would be a launching point, and it was. Four years later, that version of Dan Mullen is hardly recognizable. He smiles more. He doesn’t bicker with local reporters so much. He seems content. Having built State into a contender that’s won 32 games over the past four seasons, why wouldn’t he be? After kicking people out of his office for saying what State couldn’t do, he went out and finished 10-3 last season, including a five-week stint as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
In the beginning, everyone thought he’d just be passing through. Maybe he’d pull a James Franklin: surpass expectations at a less traditional program, raise his profile and bolt for a better job with more money and prestige. But Mullen stayed, insisting the grass isn’t always greener. Sticking to the same script he’s used since 2009, he said he wasn’t interested in Florida, Michigan or any of the other high-profile jobs that came open during the offseason. In return, Mississippi State rewarded him with a contract that will pay an average of $4.27 million over the next four years.
Could State have afforded this version of Dan Mullen 10 years ago?
"Seven years ago they did," he said sitting in his office with a wry look on his face, thinking back to his initial $1.2 million salary in 2009, which was less than any other head coach in the SEC and even trailed Tennessee assistant Monte Kiffin by $300,000.
A swell in TV deals and licensing contracts have helped level the playing field between the haves and have nots in the SEC, but Mullen insists increased money and attention haven't changed much inside his four walls. His school still trails the bell cows of the SEC like Alabama and Florida, and they probably always will.
"We may not have the most expensive facilities, but I think we have one of the best facilities. We may not have the highest paid staff, but I think we have one of the best staffs," he said. "How we view things, we have to be a little smarter than other people. We have to come up with other solutions other than to throw money at the problem."
That stick-to-our-guns philosophy extends to recruiting as well. Just because they’ve been No. 1 in the polls and more people than ever know the Mississippi State brand, that doesn’t mean Mullen wants to abandon his philosophy as a "developmental program." Bring up his latest No. 16-ranked recruiting class and he shrugs. It’s the best in school history on paper, but is it really better than any before it? "I guess," is all Mullen would offer. He points to the 2011 class that didn’t even make the cut of ESPN’s top 25.
"That was listed as one of my worst recruiting classes," he said, looking at his computer monitor, rattling off names like Dak Prescott, Benardrick McKinney and Josh Robinson. According to Rivals, it was ranked No. 44 nationally and 10 out of 12 in the SEC. Scrolling, he sees a few players he forgot. "Preston Smith was way down. Darius Slay out of junior college. Justin Malone, a three-year starter.
"Kendrick Market. Safety. Pretty legit player. Show all offers: Mississippi State.
"Benardrick McKinney. Athlete. From Tunica. Show all offers: No other offers."
This is the program he’s built, taking castoffs and spending a few years developing them before turning them into starters and NFL prospects. Naturally, it’s taken a few years to get going. So why leave now? Expectations might be low in a stacked SEC West this season, but the Bulldogs have what every coach craves: continuity. In a league full of inexperienced quarterbacks, they return one of last year's top Heisman Trophy contenders in Prescott.
Justin Malone, a senior offensive lineman, said Mullen has been open about the speculation of him leaving for another job. At the end of last season, he addressed it.
"He came in and said, 'I’m not planning on going anywhere,'" Malone said. "There’s no way to tell the future, but he will say, 'I don’t plan on doing that.'"
Said senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun: "It’s reassuring. You look at the media and they’re saying he’s leaving, but he’s telling you another thing. That does give you a lot of confidence and respect, because he stands on his word."
There might be a perception from the outside that Mullen should want to leave. It might even be founded on rational thought. But don’t tell anyone in Starkville that.
"No matter what situation, everyone thinks there’s a better situation," Mullen said. "I know everyone wants to point out the negatives: your budget; you’re in the smallest state in the league and there’s two schools; tradition says it’s hard to win there, it’s hard to sustain there. There’s all this different stuff. But what I look at is the positives: we have a great president and a great AD, so I have great leadership structure that’s very much aligned; I’m running a program I’ve built already; we have as good facilities as anybody; we sell out our stadium; our fans show up. All of those things are in place."
So why change? Why start over somewhere else?
When Mullen thinks back to that Gator Bowl four years ago, he laughs. He’s not surprised that he hasn’t left as much as he’s surprised he hasn’t been told to leave.
"Pretty fortunate," he said. "As a coach in the SEC, you don’t know how long you’ll be in the chair."
Given all he’s done at Mississippi State, no one is asking him to leave it anytime soon.