Posted by Adam Jacobi
The last coach to speak on Day 1 of the 2011 SEC Media Days was Dan Mullen, head coach of the upstart Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Bulldogs finished 9-4 (4-4) last season, good enough for a No. 15 ranking to end the year (even while only managing a fifth-place finish in the six-team SEC West).
If those numbers seem merely good but not outstanding, objectively speaking, yes, that's true. This is Mississippi State we're talking about, however, a football program with just two nine-win seasons in the last 30 years (1998 and 1999) and a historical reputation alongside Vanderbilt and Kentucky at the bottom of the SEC. So clearly, nine wins is a big deal, and considering the amount of offense returning (nine positional starters and the kicker), it's hardly out of the question for a second straight year.
At Wednesday's Media Days appearance, Mullen credited his fans early and often for that turnaround, citing the 10 straight sellouts thus far, and he seemed to indicate that their continued support is what'll keep Mississippi State performing at such a high level consistently going forward.
For our fans, when I got hired, they were saying, "Boy, if we start winning games, you'll sell out the stadium and things will be great." It actually works in the reverse. You sell out the stadium, you create this game day environment, you're going to start winning football games. Our fans really bought into it. They bought into their role and their responsibility in making our team successful.
Questions about the Bulldogs' personnel were a little light, focusing only on bruising tailback Vick Ballard (968 yards, 19 TDs in 2010) and returning quarterback Chris Relf, a senior in 2011. Ballard was a first-year starter in 2010, coming out of junior college, and Mullen cited the praise from Ballard's coaches as a main indicator of future success. "When the coaches come out, and his junior college coaches say, 'He's the one that makes us go,' that's something that really draws your attention as a coach," Mullen said.
Mullen did not have such high praise for Relf as a prospect, however; Mullen said that in his first year coaching the Bulldogs, he "had a lot of doubts whether [Relf] could play quarterback in the SEC. Chris played his first year, relied on some of his natural ability, ran the ball well, made some good throws, but was very inconsistent." Mullen is now impressed with Relf's development and decision-making, and the coach praised Relf's maturity several times during the interview.
Of note, also, is Mullen's near-unconditional support of Mike Slive's academic proposals, noting correctly that currently, high school academic eligibility and college acceptance standards don't have much in common with each other, and that a high school student-athlete's grades usually climb considerably during his senior year once the importance of academics becomes tangible. "I'm all for increasing the standards," Mullen said. "We just want to make sure there's a plan in place, that we don't just increase the standards but don't have a plan to raise the standards of these young people while they're in high school as well."
One thing Mullen didn't bother mentioning, however, was his team's in-state rival: Ole Miss. Not once was that football program, its school, its fan base, its coach, its players, or any other aspect of its existence acknowledged during the course of Mullen's 40-minute appearance -- not even when Mullen was asked about the "Welcome To Our State" billboard on Mississippi's border that bears his face and his school's logo. Oh, Mullen mentioned Southern Miss and its head coach, Larry Fedora, as two parties that might not appreciate the billboard, but the billboard's real aim -- riling up Rebels fans -- went unmentioned.
Indeed, Mullen preferred to discuss Starkville and Mississippi State, implicitly thumbing his nose at Ole Miss' famed campus and tailgating at the Grove as follows (emphasis ours):
"I give our athletic department a lot of credit. They've made our game day not just a game. They've made it an event. If you come to Starkville on a Saturday, it is an event. It's the place to be in Mississippi. There is so much going on for everybody in the family, whether it be out in the parking lot, in the tailgating, in the kids' area outside the stadium, to actually all the excitement of the game itself. They have all bought in, and our fans have done that."
"I think one of the biggest challenges we had was people coming to Starkville.... You just don't pass it by. It's a hidden gem. Everybody that comes to visit us, that's the challenge we've had. Once they come on campus, whether it be recruits, parents, even fans, they say, 'Wow, I didn't know what a beautiful place this is, what a great place to live, what a great community Starkville, Mississippi is.' That's within our challenge."