New coach, new culture at Mississippi State

abitter@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 23, 2009 

HOOVER, Ala. — Seconds after stepping up to the microphone, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen paused for a second, pulled out his cell phone and pretended to Twitter an update on his first time at the SEC’s media days, slowly saying his words as he typed: “I … am … on … stage.”

“I wanted to be a cutting-edge, young coach,” he joked.

So far, he’s succeeded. The 37-year-old first-time head coach has brought an infectious energy to a Mississippi State program in need of some.

A marked departure from the old-school style of Sylvester Croom, who resigned after going 21-39 in five years in Starkville, Mullen, who is 17 years Croom’s junior, is decidedly new school.

He joked Wednesday that he would only take questions via Twitter or Facebook.

He brings with him a spread offense that is all the rage in college football, and rightfully so considering it netted him two national championships while he was the offensive coordinator on Urban Meyer’s teams at Florida.

And when Mullen speaks, he does so with a burst of energy, rarely slowing down to take a breath. After his introduction Wednesday, he rambled on for 20 uninterrupted minutes before getting to questions.

“He’s a fast talker,” Bulldogs linebacker K.J. Wright said. “He’s from up north. That’s how all the Yankees talk.”

But so far, he’s endeared himself to the Mississippi State faithful.

“He’s told us what it takes to win,” Wright said. “He’s changed the culture all the way around.”

It will take some effort to completely reverse things. The Bulldogs have had one winning season since 2000, two years ago when Croom guided MSU to an 8-5 record and a Liberty Bowl victory. But the Bulldogs never finished higher than 103rd nationally in total offense during Croom’s five years, a shortcoming that sealed his fate.

Enter Mullen, one of the minds behind Meyer’s spread offense at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, who will try to find the right personnel in Starkville to fit his scheme, whatever form it might take.

“I don’t know if we’re spread option, spread passing, spread running or just spread,” Mullen said. “To me, we’re a multiple spread team. I want to make sure the defense has to defend the entire field sideline-to-sideline. Through personnel and through formations, we want to create advantageous one-on-one matchups, where I get a player in the open field matched up against someone that he’s better than. That’s the offense we’re going to run.”

Although this is his first head coaching job, he’s not intimidated, even among the coaching giants that walk the SEC sidelines. He’s taken mental notes throughout his coaching career, from when he was a graduate assistant for Syracuse’s Paul Pasqualoni in 1998 up through his time with Meyer.

“I got to spend a bunch of time before I left talking with Urban about the road ahead, about the other issues, the non-football issues that you’re going to deal with,” Mullen said. “The administrative issues, the discipline issues, the motivational issues, how are you dealing with it when you have 85 children that you’re responsible for … (and) every other issue that is non-football oriented that’s going to be out there.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think you can prepare for that type of experience until you’re actually sitting in the chair taking it on, solving, dealing with all those issues.”

Mullen has plenty of passion. He choked up while talking about his relationship with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, his former pupil, whose work ethic, Mullen claims, is unparalleled.

His team goals this season aren’t related to wins and losses, but rather getting that kind of effort out of his players.

“I’ll be proud of my team if you walk out of that stadium and say, ‘Wow, did you see how hard those guys played every single snap of that game?’” Mullen said. “They played with relentless effort, they played with a passion for the game of football, they get after it, all 11 guys, for all 60 minutes of the game.”

From the looks of it, it’s an enthusiasm certainly not lacking from their coach.

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