Dan Mullen’s Leaving Mississippi State, You Can Count on That
“Why would Dan Mullen leave Starkville?” asked John Fair, the official (read: only) Mississippi State fan of DudeYouCrazy.net, via text. He wasn’t confrontational, in fact he presented the question purely as potential fodder for the site.
Preemptively stating the counter-argument, Fair noted:
- Mullen has built State into something it’s never been.
- He’s led the push for new facilities, stadium expansion, academic support and even the marketing of the university.
- Mississippi State, in all its current glory, is his “baby.”
To be fair, there’s a lot of fairness to Fair’s assessment. (Dude’s note: That was too damn easy.)
There’s literally never been a more compelling time to remain the head coach at Mississippi State University. Facilities have never been nicer. The stadium has never been bigger. The team—at least from a polling standpoint—has never been better. Presumably, support has never been stronger.
But before weighing those positives against the potential of other coaching destinations let’s recap where Mississippi State has been as of late.
Heading into the season Mullen’s seat was neither hot nor cold. It was just a seat. In the words of a few Mississippi State commenters over the past few years, Mullen was welcome in Starkville indefinitely. This sentiment was, so it seemed, equally reflective of his overall competency and a fan base of generally lower established expectations.
Jennifer Jones commented on the site last fall that “as long as Mullen doesn’t get embarrassed and makes it to a bowl game,” he’s welcomed back. “Even with an Egg Bowl loss,” she clarified.
I’m not a Mississippi State fan. Outside of John Fair, producer Brooks from the podcast and a younger cousin, I don’t really know any State fans. But the impression I get is that Jennifer Jones’ stance is (or at least was) somewhat commonplace.
Cross that collective appreciative indifference with a No. 1 ranking and the resources that Fair pointed out, and suddenly Starkville, Mississippi has some appeal. Suddenly, the theoretical opening in Gainesville, Florida presumably made vacant by the future firing of Will Muschamp has less draw. Suddenly, it seems like Dan Mullen just might stay a Bulldog forever.
Forever is a Long Time
In the words of the greatest philosophers of my generation (Outkast), forever never feels that long until you’re grown.
Oddly enough, forever probably made more sense for Dan Mullen and Mississippi State University before his team grew up and matured into the most pleasant treat of this half-baked college football season.
If this seemingly unlikely first-half run had not occurred, Mullen would have been more likely to stick around, meet meetable expectations ad nauseam and live the life of the big fish in the small pond until his career expired. But Mississippi State appears to be damn good and the danger of this newfound success is the very real threat of Mullen leaving.
The most pressing concern is the issue of sustainability. While Mississippi State is on top now, there’s nothing in recent history to indicate the Bulldogs can stay there. That’s not say that they definitively can’t stay there, but it’s worth noting that Mississippi State has had hot, unsustained starts before and this program isn’t alone in its advancements.
In 2012, the Bulldogs opened the season 7-0. That start gave way to five losses over the team’s final six games (including a Bowl). That 8-5 campaign in 2012 opened up to a 7-6 season in 2013. This year’s Mississippi State team is undeniably better than that 2012 squad, but early-season success does not always translate through the season’s entirety—much less to future seasons.
It’s also worth recognizing (as pointed out here) that even on a broader scale the odds of a top mid-season team remaining at the top throughout the course of even one season aren’t overly favorable. To be clear, this isn’t a Mississippi State problem, because it’s not a problem at all. It’s what makes college football irrationally entertaining.
But now the taste of elite status that Mullen has experienced as a head coach could entice him to a more traditional powerhouse program with greater odds at reaching such heights regularly. After all, if he can achieve such success in Starkville, why couldn’t he in Gainesville? Or [insert major program college town here.]? He’ll certainly have those options.
Keep in mind, a 42-year old coach with two national championships as an offensive coordinator and a winning record over six seasons as the head coach of a bottom-half SEC program is absolutely a blue chip coaching candidate for any opening. He is very much a big fish (as alluded to earlier) regardless of how the rest of the 2014 season turns out.
And while Mullen may have more perceived flexibility as a byproduct of lower standards in Starkville, he didn’t get to this level as a coach by favoring the most comfortable path. Hell, you all saw his fake punt in the first quarter while leading No. 2 Auburn 21-0 last Saturday. This is not a man who feeds solely off comfort.
But even if he favored ease of work and minimal expectations, one would be foolish to think that Mullen could create a perennial Top 10 program without increasing expectations at an equally exponential rate. It was thoroughly entertaining and great to poke fun at, but there was truth to Saban’s “Why are you disappointed with a win?” rant this week. If expectations can get to a level of “pissing off” Saban, the most maniacally processed winner college football has ever seen, why couldn’t they reach Mullen? If staying on top is hard in Tuscaloosa, why wouldn’t it be infinitely more difficult in Starkville?
And the most notable differentiations between a program like Alabama and a program like Mississippi State are not necessarily a favorable one. State doesn’t have the resources, history or prolonged recruiting prowess that Alabama has. To be judicious and as Fair pointed out via text message, Mississippi State is making notable improvements to facilities. But so is Alabama. So is every major cog in the college football arms race.
To be sure, these problems aren’t unique to Dan Mullen or Mississippi State. But to an extent they are unique to Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. After all, very few coaches have been able to lead relative “also ran” programs to such highs in college football over the past few decades.
Over the past 10 seasons, the following programs have finished atop final polls:
- Florida State
Each of those programs rank in the nation’s Top 16 in total winning percentage since 1869. Mississippi State ranks 87th.
College football is hardly inviting to up-and-comers; just ask Boise State and Hawaii before that. Further, winning consistently in a power conference at a non-powerhouse is incredibly difficult. That’s part of why James Franklin, who was making real progress at Vanderbilt, left arguably the most expectation-less job in the SEC.
Fair is right; this is Mullen’s baby. As such, if Mullen succeeds in maintaining the Bulldogs’ current ranking, it will be a credit directly to him more than a credit to the traditional football prowess of the university. Similarly, if he falls short (this year or in any year in the future), it won’t be an indictment of Mullen so much as a reflection of the prolonged state of Mississippi State football.
With that in mind, Mullen’s window is wider than many coaching candidates. As long as he doesn’t “get embarrassed” as Jennifer Jones said in her comment, he’ll remain a hot coaching choice.
The Problem for Mississippi State
The problem for Mississippi State is that Dan Mullen is talented enough that he doesn’t have to be a smart or over-achieving man. That’s not to say he’s unintelligent or unmotivated, but rather it’s to say that offers he can’t refuse will come knocking. The problem for Mississippi State is that these offers won’t be entirely complicated. The problem for Mississippi State is that there’s not a modern precedent for him turning them down.
Urban Meyer, whom Mullen followed from Notre Dame (where Mullen was a grad assistant) to three additional schools, took Bowling Green to new heights. He wasn’t satisfied, so he moved up to Utah. The Utes experienced unprecedented success under Meyer, but the Florida job was bigger and better.
Steve Addazio coached under Meyer at Florida before taking the head coaching job at Temple. Now he has a better job at Boston College. Gary Anderson, the current coach at Wisconsin was previously the head coach at Utah State and before that an assistant under Meyer at Utah. Charlie Strong, another Meyer disciple, ditched Louisville for bigger and better things when the Texas job opened.
This isn’t an Urban Meyer thing, however. It’s a good football coach thing. But the point is this: The pattern of the coach who had the biggest impact on Mullen and gave him his first non-graduate assistant gig is to win and move to better things. The pattern of those who came up the coaching ranks alongside Mullen is to win and move on to better things. I’m not sure there’s enough pull in Starkville to break that cycle.
There’s also not enough money. If Mississippi State offers Mullen X dollars, another school can offer X + 1.
Not a Unique Circumstance
When he leaves (and I think he will within the next “few” years), Mullen’s legacy at Mississippi State will be one of brilliance. He brought a program in the deepest, most talented conference in the history of college football from mediocrity to prominence and (for at least one week now) a No. 1 ranking. You can’t take that away. But his legacy won’t be as the man who built and maintained the program. The maintenance will be up to someone else.
In our texting conversation, our resident Cowbell Ringer referenced Bear Bryant building Alabama and Bobby Bowden building Florida State.
I don’t think we’ll ever see one coach build a program and stay for a prolonged period ever again, because I don’t know that we’ll see a program built from the ground up for prolonged success any time soon. Now, that presents a bit of a chicken and egg scenario in and of itself. But a coach talented enough to build a lower-tier program into elite status—even for a moment—is going to be snatched up by a bigger, more consistently elite program far too regularly. Whether such turnover is good for either program or the coach itself is debatable, but the current pattern and the allure of college football’s greatest program is not.
With that in mind, Mississippi State fans should be enjoying this season more than any other fans in the country—not just because they’re on top, but because they probably won’t have Dan Mullen forever, especially not if the Bulldogs keep winning like this. And that’s not really anybody’s fault.
That’s all I got/
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