Originally published in the March/April issue of Mississippi Sports Magazine www.mssportsmagazine.com
By MakeItRainSports Featured Columnist –
In 2008, the dynamics of college football in the State of Mississippi were decidedly different than they are today. Ole Miss was on a huge upswing due to solid recruiting by former coach Ed Orgeron and the excitement of new Head Coach Houston Nutt. Mississippi State while coming off a bowl game in 2007 was not able to build off that win and were headed for a 45 to 0 drubbing by Ole Miss in the eggbowl. Southern Miss was feeling out new coach Larry Fedora and had to have felt lucky to get to the New Orleans Bowl after a 2-6 start to the season.
MSU’s Athletic Director Greg Byrne, immediately fired Sylvester Croom after the poor showing in Oxford that November, and promised, like many had before him, that a national search would ensue. Byrne promised the Bulldog faithful, the football program would be transformed. The next coach would have “energy,” “charisma,” and “hard working.” But isn’t that just standard speech for an athletic director in Mississippi.
The State of Mississippi has long been recognized as a fertile recruiting hotbed. A State that has lost many of the best and brightest of the year’s recruiting crop to the States of Louisiana or Alabama. What is left over by bigger schools are split between MSU, Ole Miss, Southern Miss and multiple SWAC schools. All having much smaller annual budgets and facilities than the surrounding States.
All these factors and more over time has cemented Mississippi athletics’ as a second or third tier within the SEC. Few if ever have Olemiss and MSU been at the top of the SEC standings, or even near the top. So, the words of Greg Byrne had to ring somewhat hollow outside the MSU faithful.
Byrne found himself offering the reins of the program to then 36 year old Dan Mullen, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the University of Florida.
Byrne said about Mullen,”He has a confidence about him as a coach and as a person and he had confidence in his plan, in being able to go into Mississippi State and concentrate on what his strengths were.”
Florida QB Tim Tebow said,”They are going to get a coach who likes to work, who will do a great job. They will have success because of the way he is.”
By any measurement this looked like a solid hire, expecially, considering the state of MSU’s football program at the time, but what Byrne didn’t know was the total effect this hire would eventually have on the entire state of Mississippi.
Mullen quickly made his strategy for rebuilding MSU known. He went right at Ole Miss, and claimed MSU would dominate recruiting, and that MSU would soon be the “one” school for all Mississippians to play and cheer. He held nothing back in pumping excitement into the program. He even reached back into the Woodie Hayes days and branded Ole Miss, “The School Up North,” using the similar nickname Ohio State used for Michigan.
Ole Miss looked to be very strong heading into 2009, coming off one Cotton Bowl win and ultimately won another after a top 5 start in the preseason poll. MSU only won 5 games in 2009, but one of them was a decisive, 45-31 win over Ole Miss in Starkville, after which, Mullen stated, ”There’s only one team that’s on the rise in this state.”
2010 brought a nine win season and another egg bowl victory over Ole Miss, which led to Mullen saying, “This team (Ole Miss) will never beat us again.”
Mullen’s rhetoric whether part of his overall plan or half happen stance, proved to be effective at taking the momentum away from Ole Miss and very quickly surpassing them as the best program in the State. A highly effective billboard marketing campaign used the term, “Our State” as a play on words of Mississippi State controlling college football in the State of Mississippi.
Mullen’s brash tones were not ignored by other programs.
Larry Fedora at Southern Miss joined in the billboard wars by pointing out, “We are proud of the fact that all the great players from the state of Mississippi on this team have an opportunity to actually play for a championship.” Pointing out the CUSA championship USM won over Houston last year.
Delta State took out full-page newspaper ads to promote their multiple national championships in Division II Gulf South Conference.
Mullen energized the entire State of Mississippi like no other coach ever has. Many claim his Northern disposition will eventually be his downfall; they feel this stirring of the fan base, is somewhat classless and doesn’t put MSU in the best light. But I will tell you this is a good thing for Mississippi.
Look at the State of Alabama, where play on the field and off is fierce all year long. Even the most recent transplant is forced to choose a side between Alabama and Auburn, and alumni put their money where their mouth is.
Now more than ever, all football schools in Mississippi are improving the coaching staffs, improving the facilities, and pushing for better talent during recruiting. And the fans are “all-in” behind their respective schools (Just take a quick listen to a radio talk show or a visit to a fan message board).
Mullen continues to push the envelope whenever possible, whether it is to openly turn down a job that he may or may not have been offered, or to remind the rest of the state who he thinks is the best school and fan base. Mullen has turned the heat up on the other schools, hopefully for good.
In a southern state with so much history and football tradition, the schools have just been going through the motions, for years. But thanks to a Yankee football coach from Pennsylvania, the title of the Best in Mississippi means something again.
This passion, this fire, this desire to win by all schools: This is our State.