After so many other occasions, the latest instances of Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen being tied to open head coaching jobs never fazed Ethan Lee. With Mullen’s success in leading the Bulldogs to 10 victories two years ago and nine last season, Lee had grown accustomed to Mullen’s name popping up as college football’s coaching carousel spun.
Lee, managing editor of the popular Mississippi State website For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, figures other followers of the Bulldogs’ program feel the same way. For Mississippi State fans, coaching rumors involving Mullen have become part of life.
“It has happened so frequently, it does not surprise me anymore whenever a job comes open (and Mullen’s name is mentioned as a possibility),” Lee said. “I don’t think it surprises many people in the Mississippi State community as a whole anymore. We’re just kind of used to it.”
Mullen, who arrived at Mississippi State before the 2009 season, has been rumored as a possibility for multiple head coaching positions in recent years.
- Five years ago, he was reportedly Penn State’s top choice to replace Joe Paterno.
- Two years ago, he was linked to the Michigan job that went to Jim Harbaugh.
- Last year, he was reportedly a consideration for the Miami job that went to Mark Richt.
- Earlier this month, he was reportedly a finalist for the Oregon job that went to Willie Taggart.
- Last week, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King floated Mullen’s name as a possible target for NFL teams that must hire a head coach.
There are a number of guesses for why Mullen’s name is popular this time of year.
His 60-42 record with seven consecutive bowl berths at Mississippi State, highlighted by a five-week stay at No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll and an Orange Bowl appearance during the 2014 season, show his ability to achieve consistency at a location not familiar with prolonged winning. The Bulldogs (5-7) play 6-6 Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26.
After former coach Jackie Sherrill led the Bulldogs to six bowl berths from 1991-2000, Mississippi State made one postseason appearance from 2001-09.
But there’s also curiosity about how Mullen’s high-powered agent, Jimmy Sexton, has shaped and will continue to mold Mullen’s future.
This past spring, after Mississippi State did not give the coach an extension, Mullen replaced his long-time agent, Rick Diamond, with Sexton, whose firm represents more than 50 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches. The Clarion-Ledger’s Michael Bonner reported earlier this month Mullen’s representatives are negotiating a new deal. The current contract for Mullen, who earned $4.2 million this season, expires on Feb. 28, 2019.
“It’s really nothing now,” Mullen told reporters recently, when addressing the coaching rumors. “I guess at first it was flattering. Then it got annoying. I bet early on everyone’s like, ‘I wonder if he’s going to be here?’ Then in the middle, they’re like, ‘He’s definitely not going to be here.’ Now, I think you all just assume I’m going to be here.”
Mullen’s body of work is undisputed
It remains to be seen how long Mullen will stay at Mississippi State. But for observers like CoachingSearch.com managing editor Chris Vannini, Mullen’s history of developing quarterbacks is a key factor in how he’s regarded outside Starkville, Miss. That strength coupled with Mullen’s ability to adapt to a variety of environments — Mullen was born in Pennsylvania, raised in New Hampshire and has enjoyed professional success in the South — makes the coach appealing to potential employers throughout the country.
Dak Prescott’s recent rise with the Dallas Cowboys as a fourth-round pick after four seasons at Mississippi State also has enhanced Mullen’s national profile, Vannini said.
“The quarterbacks he has developed at every stop (are) impressive,” Vannini said. “And you throw on to what Dak has done in the NFL this year, I think that’s a real stamp in his quarterback development.
“He’s a guy from the Northeast who succeeded down in Florida (as an offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach), succeeded at Mississippi State. I think he’s a personality who can fit in a lot of places, and I think that’s why Oregon was a possibility, because he can adapt to the environment.”
Still, little draws attention like producing positive results in a place not known for winning. Some who follow Mississippi State’s program view Mullen’s overall body of work as impressive, despite the Bulldogs posting their worst regular season this year since going 5-7 under Mullen in 2009.
“If you succeed where nobody has, I think it just plays a lot into it,” said Justin Strawn, an editor at For Whom the Cowbell Tolls. “To have sustained success is something that’s uncommon (at Mississippi State). … You think that if he can win in Starkville, who knows what he can do if he worked somewhere else? I think that’s where you see a lot of people coming after him.”
It’s difficult to know if Mullen’s representatives have driven most or any of the recent interest in him. Leaking a client’s name to reporters as a possibility for an open job is a delicate practice that affects an agent’s credibility depending on if the client is hired.
Mullen’s choice of Sexton, who represents coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, could be a signal for many things: Mullen’s desire to have an experienced presence oversee his possible next extension, a want to position himself well for years to come at Mississippi State or an itch to place himself in a spot to land a top head coaching job elsewhere someday. It’s also possible Sexton could serve Mullen in each of those areas in various ways.
“Can an agent have an effect on whether or not their client is being rumored for certain positions? Absolutely. The key of course — and as an attorney myself who represents a lot of coaches — is if you’re trying to create leverage for your client, getting them rumored for certain positions can certainly help,” said Jason Belzer, president of GAME, Inc., a coach representation and sports consulting firm.
“That being said, you can’t do it too often, because it’s like the boy-crying-wolf situation. If every other job opens up, and your client’s name is rumored for it, eventually the school begins to catch on to the fact that maybe these are unsubstantiated. But to that effect, just being rumored for a job or being mentioned for a job doesn’t necessarily itself create leverage. If you actually go interview for a position or there’s serious interest in doing so, that may happen.
“I know Jimmy very well. He’s one of my competitors, but we obviously work in the same industry. Jimmy does what he has to do to help create more leverage for his client. Do I think some of the rumors surrounding Dan or any of (Sexton’s) other clients are sometimes true, sometimes not? Absolutely. Sometimes, they can be completely fabricated. But by the same token, he’s being very calculated. So is Jimmy involved (with Mullen’s rumors)? It’s very difficult to pinpoint. If he does his job very well, no one is ever going to know whether or not someone is actually having a conversation with somebody or not.”
Vannini said the interest in Mullen likely has more to do with the respect the coach has earned over time.
“With Dan, I don’t think it’s someone just trying to get his name out there, because everybody knows who he is and knows what he has accomplished and the job he has done there,” Vannini said. “How close he gets to other jobs or how real different situations are kind of depends on the situation. I think it’s more the respect that people have for Dan in the athletic director world than maybe just agents throwing his name out there.”
Whatever the reasons for the interest in Mullen, the conversation about his future at Mississippi State will continue with each new coaching rumor involving his name. Still, Lee said he anticipates the coach to remain a familiar presence around the Bulldogs’ program for the near future.
“I don’t expect him to leave any time soon,” Lee said. “With (quarterback) Nick Fitzgerald at his point in development, I think he’ll be around for at least two more years, maybe more. But I don’t know. I expect he will leave eventually.
“He’s had plenty of opportunities. When you look at the entirety of it, it’s incredibly surprising that he has decided to stay in Starkville.”