Dan Mullen focused on 'critical' year

If you want the typical coach-speak that's so prevalent in college football today, don't bother looking up Dan Mullen.

Heading into his third season of what has been a masterful rebuilding job at Mississippi State, Mullen embraces the soaring expectations that have enveloped Starkville the way most coaches run away from them.

He goes out of his way to gig Mississippi State's archrival every chance he gets and delights in doing so.

That rival, of course, is Ole Miss. But to Mullen, who has yet to lose to the Rebels as Mississippi State's head coach, it's known simply as the "school up north."

And while most coaches would rather an NCAA enforcement representative accompany them on every recruiting trip than be caught publicly labeling any season the most important one in the history of that program, Mullen says so without batting an eye.

Here's why: His first season was about getting Mississippi State's players to buy in and believe they could play with anybody. The second season was about getting them to believe they could beat any team in the country.

"I think this, our third season, is the most critical," Mullen said. "This, to me, is the most important year maybe in the history of the program, because you're not just going to get to the SEC championship game on a one-year whim. Teams that get to the SEC championship game are consistent winners and then have that breakout year."

For Mullen and Mississippi State fans to even be talking championship might seem like a fairy tale for a lot of people around the league.

After all, Mississippi State has been to the SEC championship game only one time (1999), has one of the smallest athletic budgets in the league and has suffered through losing seasons eight of the past 10 years.

But when former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne and his then-assistant, current Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, sat down with Mullen during the interview process back in December 2008, Byrne said he knew within 20 minutes that Mullen was his man.

"He has a relentless drive to succeed no matter what, and that was obvious," said Byrne, now the athletic director at Arizona. "He didn't care about what had happened in the past. He didn't care about what we did or didn't have at Mississippi State. He had a vision, and the confidence to go with it, that he was going to get it done."

I think this, our third season, is the most critical. This, to me, is the most important year maybe in the history of the program, because you're not just going to get to the SEC championship game on a one-year whim. Teams that get to the SEC championship game are consistent winners and then have that breakout year.

-- Dan Mullen

Even then, had it not been for Mullen's wife, Megan, who knows if he would have taken the job?

Mullen, then the offensive coordinator at Florida, had never been to Starkville. He'd never toured the campus or seen any of the facilities. He didn't really have a feel for the people, either.

So with an SEC head coaching job dangling in front of him, he called his wife about 2 o'clock in the morning wanting to know if she knew anything about Starkville.

It just so happens that Megan spent several days in the area while working for The Golf Channel and covering the 2006 U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur at Old Waverly Golf Club, which is located in nearby West Point, Miss.

"I immediately told him to take the job, that we'd get to play Old Waverly," Megan joked. "The thing I remembered most were the people and how nice everybody was. I drove around the campus, had a steak at Harvey's and did the whole thing.

"Honestly, if I hadn't been here those five days and met all the people I did, my answer might have been different. We were at Florida playing for a second national title and didn't have to go anywhere. So, I think my experience here made it a lot easier for Dan."

Mullen already knew that the program needed a serious pick-me-up. There was no edge, with the players or the fans, and Mullen was more than happy to provide one.

Call it bravado or even an air of confidence bordering on cockiness, but Mullen worked tirelessly to raise expectations, and as he says, to make it "our state."

His players have taken on his personality, which has been reflected in their play. The Bulldogs won nine games last season for the first time since 1999. They enter the 2011 season ranked 20th in the USA Today coaches' poll.

Mullen and his staff have placed a premium on the development of players. Quarterback Chris Relf was among the most improved players in the league a year ago and enters his senior season as one of the top dual-threats in the league.

You're not going to find many five-star prospects on the Bulldogs' roster, but all that matters to Mullen is that they play like five-star prospects three and four years down the road.

"We're all in now, everybody connected to the football program," said Mississippi State senior safety Charles Mitchell, one of the captains on the team. "The confidence that we have wouldn't be here if Coach Mullen hadn't come. He brought that to us, and he has the whole state feeling that way."

Mullen steadfastly refuses to utter the words "Ole Miss" in public, although he concedes that he might have let it slip a few times in staff meetings.

Even at home, it's always the "school up north" and never "Ole Miss."

That is, "unless there's a four-letter word before or after it," Megan said laughing. "No, I'm just kidding, but we don't say that word around here much."

Mullen insists it's nothing personal and that he has a lot of respect for Houston Nutt as a coach. Instead, it's his way of instilling pride throughout the Bulldog Nation and continuing to change the mindset at Mississippi State.

"This program needed somebody to stand out front and say, 'We're going to change things, and we're going to be good here at Mississippi State,' " Mullen said. "I don't think you can be timid in doing that. You have to be outspoken and out in front, leading the way."

When Mullen has gone after Ole Miss, it's just about always calculated.

After Mississippi State upset Ole Miss 41-27 in 2009, Mullen grabbed the microphone and bellowed to the roaring Scott Field crowd, "I know one thing. There's certainly one program in this state that's definitely on the rise and going in the right direction."

And on national signing day this past February, when Mullen was quizzed about Ole Miss' class being ranked higher than Mississippi State's class, Mullen shot back, "Good, I thought we did pretty well, too. I guess we'll find out next Thanksgiving, just like the last two Thanksgivings."

For the record, the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game is played every Thanksgiving weekend.

Mullen admits that his mail from the Ole Miss fans hasn't been very flattering.

"Yeah, I don't think they like me very much, but that's a good thing," he said. "We must be doing something right."

When it comes to rivalry games, Mullen has made all the right moves.

He's 2-0 against Ole Miss as Mississippi State's head coach. While he was the offensive coordinator at Florida, the Gators never lost to Florida State in four tries. And while he was the quarterbacks coach at Utah, the Utes were 2-0 against BYU.

"If you want to instill pride in our program, you have to believe that, No. 1, we have to win that [rivalry] game," Mullen said. "That's where you build your foundation of a winning program."

Not only has he done that, but he has created the kind of buzz around Mississippi State's program that hasn't been seen in decades.

The university announced in June that it had sold every available season ticket, beating last year's record. It is exploring the possibility of expanding 55,082-seat Scott Field.

"There's a new persona at Mississippi State and, really, across the whole state," Mitchell said. 'There's nothing we think we can't do."

Chris Low covers college football for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espnclow@aol.com.