STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen has made a good life for his family in Starkville. He’s taken a middling Mississippi State program and made them competitive in the SEC. Just last season, he guided the school to its first ever No. 1 ranking and first Orange Bowl trip in more than 70 years.
Indeed, there have been a lot of firsts during Mullen’s seven years leading the program. But maybe it’s time for a last. As in, his last season. As in, it might be time to move on.
Now hold on a minute, OK? You’re not about to read why Mullen should be fired, so don’t go crazy. To suggest that would be patently absurd. What he’s done for that program, fighting to raise the bar and pushing for improved facilities, should be applauded, if not worthy of a lifetime appointment. Athletic director Scott Stricklin should keep cutting Mullen checks for as long as he can.
But at what point does Mullen decide he’s had enough? You have to imagine that he’s tired of butting his head up against the wall known as the SEC West. Whether it’s the insane level of competition or the talent disparity that exists, there is a glass ceiling for him at Mississippi State. After spending five weeks at No. 1 and finishing 10-3 last season, his team was picked to finish last in the West. And really, what more do you need to know than that?
Watching Mississippi State lose to Alabama on Saturday -- and drop to next-to-last in the division -- was a reminder that all things are not equal. Mullen had the right game plan against the No. 2-ranked Tide: put everything into stopping the run on defense, spread the field and throw the ball deep on offense. He had a few players who could create mismatches: wideout De'Runnya Wilson, defensive lineman Chris Jones, quarterback Dak Prescott. But he didn’t have the full package. The offensive line let down Prescott, who couldn’t get the ball out to his receivers fast enough, and the defense gambled and eventually went bust against Alabama running back Derrick Henry.
Whether it’s Alabama, LSU, Florida or Georgia, those schools have more four- and five-star prospects riding the bench than Mississippi State has on its entire roster -- a fact Mullen will freely admit, calling State a "developmental program." When Mullen and his staff do turn their raw two- and three-star prospects into polished stars, it takes time, and even then they’re few and far between.
The resources and talent pool just aren’t there. Though things might come together for a 10-win season once every few years, competing for an SEC title consistently isn’t a reasonable expectation.
Mullen has built the program into a perennial bowl contender. He’s recruited, developed and coached the best player in school history (Prescott). And now that player is close to leaving and the time to rebuild is approaching.
As Mullen prepares for his eighth offseason in Starkville, there might be no better time to go than right now.
If there was ever a year to look around at other jobs, this is it. We’re on pace for the largest pool of job openings in recent memory. Miami, USC, Virginia Tech, Missouri, South Carolina, and Maryland are already open. That’s not to mention rumored potential openings at Georgia and West Virginia.
If Mullen doesn’t see himself finishing his career at Mississippi State and hopes for a so-called "elite" job one day, then he better start looking around. Even if an opportunity comes up that’s not his dream job, it might be the right job to lead to it. At least at a place like Maryland he wouldn’t have to deal with Alabama and LSU on his schedule every year.
Remember, Mississippi State is Mullen’s first heading coaching stop. And exactly how many successful head coaches can you recall that stayed one place for their entire career? The answer is somewhere between not many and zero.
The itch to tackle new challenges and start over never goes away for coaches at this level. Like many of his peers, Mullen enjoys the process of building from the ground up, and the idea of sustaining is unusual and challenging. Just ask Nick Saban, who never stayed anywhere for long until arriving at Alabama in his late 50s.
Mullen is only 43 years old. He isn’t a Southern boy. He’s from Pennsylvania, as is his wife. They met while he was an assistant at Bowling Green and went to Utah and Florida before ending up at Mississippi State. So the idea of picking up and leaving isn’t a foreign concept.
They’ve done a fantastic job of becoming a part of the community in Starkville. By all accounts, they love it there. The way Mullen has made Mississippi State football relevant is undeniable.
But after all he’s done, what more is there to accomplish? Mississippi State should do everything it can to keep him, but what more does it have to offer?
It’s going to be a hard choice if Mullen decides to move on, but if the timing isn't right now it might never be.