For years now, whenever his name popped up in a high-profile coaching search, Dan Mullen has told us how much his wife loves Starkville and how happy he is at Mississippi State. Here’s hoping he meant it, because the escape hatch has closed.
Starting with Miami in 2010 – and again last season – Mullen has reportedly been a candidate for a slew of brand-name programs: Penn State in 2011, Michigan and Florida in 2014, Virginia Tech and Georgia in 2015. It’s unclear whether he is a terrible interview or incredibly loyal, but for whatever reason, Mullen stuck with the Bulldogs.
And now he’s … stuck with the Bulldogs. Assuming they don’t (foolishly) fire him.
“A lot of times I’ll look and say, ‘Really, is that a better job?’ ” Mullen told Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated in 2014, when asked about vacancies in Gainesville and Ann Arbor. “I know in the perception, a lot of people say there’s no doubt that’s a better job. But in reality, I don’t know if that’s always the case.”
Today, Michigan is ranked No. 2 in the country and 14th-ranked Florida leads the truly terrible SEC East. Mullen’s Mississippi State team, meanwhile, is off to a 2-5 start for the first time since the swan song of his predecessor, Sylvester Croom, in 2008.
“My wife told me just the other night: We’re No. 1 in the country, everybody wants this job,” Mullen said in that interview with Davis two years ago. “This is the ultimate destination job.”
He said that with a straight face back then. To be fair, it was an easier sell in 2014, when Mullen had miraculously beaten three consecutive top-10 teams and gotten the Bulldogs to the top of the polls for the first time in school history – and stayed there for five weeks on the way to an Orange Bowl invitation.
But it wasn’t true then (and it surely isn’t now) that Mississippi State is a destination job, much less the destination job.
Sure, since Mullen arrived, he’s gotten a new $25 million football complex and $75 million stadium renovation and a $4.3 million annual salary, all things that make it a significantly better job than when he was hired. But consider: That 2014 season, the program’s best in 15 years, still concluded with three losses.
The Bulldogs still didn’t play for an SEC title that year, finishing second in the unforgiving West, and haven’t finished higher than fourth in the division in any of Mullen’s other six seasons. They’re last this year, 1-3 in league play, and it isn’t likely getting any better.
They’ve already lost at home to South Alabama, struggled to beat Massachusetts, gotten blasted by Auburn and lost to Kentucky for the first time in eight tries under Mullen. Now, after Samford this weekend, here comes Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss to finish the season. Gulp.
Mullen would do well to finish 4-8 against that schedule. This week, SB Nation’s Mississippi State site wrote a piece headlined: “Cost-Benefit Analysis of Keeping and Firing Dan Mullen.” Canning the guy who got you to six straight bowl games when you’d only been to five in the 16 years before he arrived would be truly idiotic, but yeah, the shine is off the former golden boy.
The 44-year-old Mullen, who has been a hot coaching name since his days as Urban Meyer’s right-hand man mentoring No. 1 pick Alex Smith at Utah and Heisman winner Tim Tebow at Florida, suddenly finds his options dwindling, his stock plummeting. One has to wonder: Why on earth didn’t he get out while the getting was good?
Was he so arrogant as to believe he could supplant three traditional powers in his own division: Alabama, Auburn and LSU, all of whom have won a national title since 2007 and played for one since 2011? Or maybe having a great quarterback skewed his view of reality.
At any point during the Dak Prescott Era – when the Bulldogs’ own Tebow Lite was racking up 9,376 yards passing, 2,521 yards rushing and 111 total touchdowns – Mullen would’ve been wise to hit the eject button, if he ever really wanted to leave Starkville. But he didn’t, and now he can’t.
“I don’t like commenting on other jobs,” Mullen said when asked about reports he might replace Frank Beamer as the Hokies’ head man last year, “because I think it’s a waste of time and I love the one that I have.”
Here’s hoping he meant it, because his name probably isn’t popping up for any big-time openings this year.