'Yankee' wins over Mississippi State

Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott have driven Mississippi State to a No. 1 ranking. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Winning is a powerful elixir. Winning will buy loyalty and sell tickets. Winning can unite a campus, reconnect alums and create a national identity. But now there's a new standard for what winning can achieve. Winning can make half the state of Mississippi (the maroon-and-white half) fall in love with and fall in step behind a brash, arrogant, fast-talking -- there's no other way to say it -- Yankee.

Halfway through the 2014 season, Mississippi State is 6-0 and No. 1. The Bulldogs started the season winning, and kept winning, and suddenly the trappings of success well-known to the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world began to flow into Starkville.

"College GameDay" set up right there at the Junction, the former railway crossing that is the birthplace of the university. Quarterback Dak Prescott is playing like a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Hail State? Hail, yes.

The transformation of Mississippi State on the field wouldn't have happened without Mullen finding his way into the hearts and minds of the southern family that is Mississippi State football off the field.

"Mississippi is not a state a lot of people move into from the outside," said former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne, who left for the same job at Arizona four years ago.

Byrne hired Mullen, who's from Manchester, New Hampshire, and played Division III ball at Ursinus College, near Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, not Mississippi), and started out as an assistant coach at D-III Wagner College on Staten Island in New York City.

Culture shock doesn't begin to describe Mullen's arrival. It's not just that Mullen is a Yankee, mind you. It's that he is, as one SEC head coach describes him, "a complete a--h---."

That SEC head coach is Dan Mullen.

"I'm a complete a--h---," he said with a laugh. "That's who I am. But I'm a really good person. I don't sugarcoat things. That's what it is."

Sugarcoating has a long, glorious history in these parts, and not just on Krispy Kremes. Prescott called it the difference between "Southern blunt" and "Northern blunt."

"Northern blunt may be just a little bit harsher," Prescott said. "Southern is, 'This is what I'm trying to tell you, but I'll butter it up, make it a little bit nicer flavor.' Northern is, 'I don't care about your feelings, if this is what I want to say, I'm going to say it that way.'"

Mullen, the native New Englander, thinks buttah is for lobstah.

"To put it this way," Mullen said, "one thing I'm not is phony. And I think people, when they look at me, they can tell: I'm not fake. I'm not phony. I am who I am."

It has ever been thus. In Buddy Martin's authorized biography "Urban's Way," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said of Mullen, "I was ready to fight him when I first met him." That would be at Notre Dame, where Meyer coached receivers for Bob Davie and Mullen, 26, served as the offensive graduate assistant. Mullen questioned everything Meyer did.

"I wanted to say, 'You want to just shut your mouth and go set the cones up for me as my GA?'" Meyer said. "But then you start listening to him talk, and he's got a great mind for football. And when you cut through all the six or seven layers, he's a great person. Now those layers aren't there anymore."

Meyer got a head coaching job in 2001 and took Mullen with him for the next eight seasons, from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida. He made Mullen a full-time assistant at age 28, an SEC coordinator at 32.

At every stop, Mullen and his quarterback engaged in the same pas de deux. They met. Mullen delivered his unvarnished assessment of the quarterback's skill. The quarterback decided Mullen was a complete you-know-what. And they fell for one another.

"I go back to Josh Harris," Mullen said, referring to the Bowling Green quarterback. "I rode Alex Smith. I rode Chris Leak. Even Timmy. I rode Timmy Tebow."

Smith, the Chiefs quarterback who played for Meyer and Mullen in Utah, ended up in Mullen's wedding. Meyer told Martin that Mullen's bedside manner during recruiting nearly caused Tebow to sign with Alabama.

"He's definitely hard on you," said Tebow, an ESPN/SEC Network analyst. "... When you get to know him, he's someone that cares so much that, when he talks about his players, he gets emotional. He is someone that cares a lot. That's a special quality for a coach."

And don't forget Cam Newton.

"I rode Cam hard when he was at Florida," Mullen said. "Cam always tells the story, when I recruited him here, he said, 'Coach, I still love you even though you threw a can of Coke at me in your office one day for missing class.'

"It was at least half-full because it made a mess all over the wall. I didn't throw it [at] him. I threw it to make an impact and it exploded on the wall. I had to go wash my walls down. I always think afterward, they understood what my standard, what my expectations of them were, and that I would never settle for less than their best."

Because of the success Meyer had at Florida, Mullen became an SEC head coach at 36.

The Mississippi State that hired Mullen had come off 18 seasons of coaches with Alabama ties. Jackie Sherrill won one SEC West championship, in 1998, but won eight games in his last three seasons (2001-03). Sylvester Croom won 21 games in the next five.

Byrne, of hiring Mullen in December 2008, said, "We needed some swagger." Byrne's replacement, Scott Stricklin, added, "We were never going to do what Alabama does better than Alabama does it."

Mullen bided his time at Mississippi State before he spoke his mind. During his first month, he would make requests. One might be as big as a new football building, or as small as post-workout smoothies and energy drinks for his players. And he would get the same answer:

"We can't do that at Mississippi State."

Mullen called a meeting of the entire athletic department.

"I said it was all their fault that we had lost here," Mullen said. "There was a strategy behind it. I don't do much without a strategy. I really wanted to come and call everybody out. And I don't know that within the structure of the athletic department, people ... had been called out like that, especially [by] a young, 36-year-old Yankee. And to call them all out the way that I did, there was a lot of shock in that room."

Once Mullen tore them down, he built them back up. But everyone was on the same page. Instead of telling him no, the staff knew it had better find a way to say yes.

"I think probably that was the first time a lot of them had met me or talked to me," Mullen said. "And here's this arrogant 36-year-old Yankee. They're thinking, 'I've been here for 25 years, what does he know?'"

Six years on, with a 42-28 record (.600) and a No. 1 ranking, Mullen said, "But I think now everybody understands -- that I'm an arrogant 42-year-old Yankee."

The citizens of Hail State saw how hard Mullen worked for their school, and they gave him a chance.

"I've had a couple of our boosters and alumni come up to me," Mullen said, "... and [say], 'OK, we understand you. And boy, you piss a lot of people off. But I think now that we understand who you are. That's just who you are, bless your heart. That's who you are.'

"Once that happened, they really embraced me even more, because they accepted me for who I am."

Mullen knew enough to include among his staff coaches who knew the state. It is said that Mullen has never stepped into a living room in the state without recruiting coordinator Tony Hughes at his side. Hughes has coached high school, junior college and FBS football in the state for nearly 30 years. If there's a high school coach he doesn't know, it's because Hughes crossed the state line.

"The culture of Mississippi is like this," Hughes said. "They are very untrusting of you if they don't know who you are. I would say probably the South in general, and Mississippi in particular, is like that because of the negativity. But he's shown no partiality in the way he relates to people. Over time, when people saw that and heard about it, he won the trust of the people from Mississippi."

And he is learning the customs. Stricklin remembers flying somewhere with Mullen three or four years ago. When they got off the plane, Mullen said to the crew, "How y'all doin'?"

His enemies try to leverage Mullen's otherness against him. The Ole Miss message boards decided he is a Scientologist, when in fact he grew up Catholic and is now Episcopal. When "College GameDay" came to Starkville, someone held a sign that read, "Dan Mullen Hates Sweet Tea." In certain ZIP codes of the South, that's like saying the mayor of New York hates bagels.

"And I love sweet tea!" Mullen said, laughing.

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ben Beckwith has seen Mullen soften. It might be time. It might be success. It might be that he and his wife, Meagan, have a daughter, Breelyn, and a son, Canon. Beckwith isn't sure.

"Everybody's got their good side and their bad side," Beckwith said. "He shows his good side a lot more than he used to."

Canon may be the best example of how Mullen has adjusted.

"My son says, 'Owl-ah-ba-yah-mah,'" Mullen repeated, citing Mississippi State's longtime nemesis an hour east in Tuscaloosa. "He has a Southern drawl. He was born here in Starkville, so he's local. I might be a Yankee still, but my kids are local, so they like me a little more."

If Mississippi State really wants to keep Mullen, the university doesn't need to invest more millions in the college football arms race. Mississippi State will build and run an Italian restaurant. No offense to the pizza joints of Oktibbeha County, but Mullen is looking for more.

Whether that extends beyond Mississippi State, no one knows. What Mullen said doesn't bode well for Michigan fans who covet him.

"I love living in the South," Mullen said. "Usually you live up North in the cold and snow and you spend one or two weeks visiting a warm location. I'd much rather live where it's warm and if I need to go visit the snow, I'll go visit the snow for a week. But hopefully, I've shoveled my last driveway."

There is no snow on the driveways of Gainesville, of course. But it is clear that Mullen is happy in Starkville. He is making $3.2 million per year, which would be hard to spend in Gainesville, much less Starkville. He is winning more at Mississippi State than anyone has at Florida in five seasons. He has a new football building and a sold-out stadium.

Dan Mullen, a Yankee, is comfortable at Mississippi State. And bless their hearts, Mississippi State is comfortable with him.