For the past seven years, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has been nothing short of a miracle for the Bulldogs. But in recent years, around this part of the season, he has also been a consistent source of anxiety — the kind you hate to have to worry about, but are glad you aren’t burdened with the opposite.
Everybody seems to want him.
This year, Mullen has been at the center of seemingly countless job hunts. Reports had Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland, South Carolina and Miami all interested in Mullen to fill recently-opened positions. From their side, it makes perfect sense.
In his seven years at Mississippi State, Mullen has taken a team that had one winning season in its previous eight years before his arrival and has given them six straight. He took a team that had never been ranked in the top five in the AP poll and led them to No. 1 last season. He took a team whose record for consecutive bowl game appearances was three and marched them to six in a row. He took a team that had never had a head coach be a finalist for coach of the year and won the 2014 Maxwell Football Club National Coach of the Year award to go along with his 2014 Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year trophy.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is how we’ve changed the expectation of winning,” senior quarterback Dak Prescott wrote in an open letter to fans this year. “When I first got here, we went 7-6 and played in the Music City Bowl. Our fans were there, it was sold out. Now, if we went to the Music City Bowl, our fans wouldn’t be that excited about it. It would be a down year or whatever you want to call it. Really, there’s just an expectation of winning that exists that didn’t before.”
So it makes sense that other schools would be flirting with Mullen now. And honestly, now would be a pretty smart time for Mullen to leave, if he wants to at all. The senior class that helped him lead Mississippi State to its best season in school history is graduating this year. Of course, the senior Mullen will miss most is Prescott, who leaves Starkville as the best quarterback in school history. The Bulldogs broke 22 single-season records last year, 10 of those by Prescott. It’s going to be hard to replace the man Mullen calls the “best player I ever coached.”
So next year would be a challenging year for Mullen to find the level of success at Mississippi State that is now expected of him. But it would also be a challenge to start over somewhere new. The biggest difference between the two for Mullen is that in Starkville, the 43-year-old coach has already proven he can take a middle-of-the-road team and make it legendary. Yes, staying in Starkville and taking the Bulldogs back to a top 10 ranking in the next few years would prove that this transformation wasn’t a one-off, but if he fails to do so, Mullen would sully his record.
“Coach Dan Mullen deserves so much credit for what he has done here,” Prescott wrote. “I wouldn’t dare for one second to want to play for another college coach.”
Wouldn’t it be great to leave with that being how the greatest player in school history remembers you?
All of that makes sense. What is confusing is that all but one job Mullen has been linked to has been filled — South Carolina.
Maryland has taken Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, Miami hired former UGA coach Mark Richt, Virginia Tech chose Memphis’ Justin Fuente and Virginia announced Friday that it picked BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall to take over.
So whatever Mullen is doing, he’s running out of time.
Is he actually trying to leave Starkville this year? If so, his options are dwindling.
Or maybe he’s just trying to leverage this apparent interest into a better contract from Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin. Stricklin and Mullen agreed on a four-year deal last season, and the coach made $4 million this year.
“I can understand why people would want to emulate the success we’ve had at Mississippi State,” Stricklin said, according to Michael Bonner of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “Our job is to make sure we continue to make sure we put ourselves in the position to have the kind of success that other people look at and think they’d like to have for themselves.”
Mullen himself offers no clues with his understandably cryptic responses to the rumors.
“I’m not talking about any of that,” Mullen said, according to Bonner. “Every year I come here, every single year, you guys ask me the same questions. I’m not going to waste my time commenting on rumors on the Internet.
“It’s the same deal. The only year you haven’t asked is my first year as the head coach. Same thing. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.”
No, it doesn’t. And no, there’s no good way for Mullen to respond to the stories. As Justin Sutton of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls pointed out, there’s no benefit for Mullen to confirm that he’s interviewing for jobs unless he’s going to be announced as a new hire immediately. If he isn’t interviewing for a new position, saying he’s going to stay in Starkville could come back to bite him if he ever does decide to leave.
So what can Mississippi State fans do? They can hope. They can hope that Mullen appreciates the place where he made a name for himself. They can hope he’s confident that the Bulldogs won’t fall off once the senior class leaves. They can hope South Carolina (the only school Mullen has been linked to that still has an opening) picks its replacement soon.
But for the most part, they can feel confident. They’ve got a coach who has done so well at their school that he can’t answer his phone in public without newspapers reporting he’s on a phone interview for 15 different schools. He’s a commodity, but for now, he’s Mississippi State’s commodity, and all signs point to that being the case in 2016.