As the 38-year-old coach's voice betrayed, dealing with the death of the 20-year-old defensive end is no easier or simpler for Mullen. Bell's Tuesday passing from cancer has left the Mississippi State program numbed, leaving Mullen and staff an unexpected and uncomfortable task. Yet a necessary one for all that.
"Right now we're trying to keep our team focused and in a routine for them, that their lives can stay as normal as possible," Mullen said today. That will include a Wednesday afternoon practice, a modified session for the open date. The week's schedule now has a Thursday evening memorial on campus with details to be announced by MSU this afternoon.
Mullen said the Bell family will hold their service Sunday noon in Birmingham, with their own details also forthcoming.
"We'll just try to keep the team together as much as possible," Mullen said. "So they have their coaches and their football family to help deal with it." Which will involved putting on the pads and practicing, something non-sports types may not understand but which makes every sort of good sense to football people. Mullen saw Tuesday's two-hour session, coming immediately after the team was formally told the news they'd already expected, as beginning the recuperation process. It will continue.
"We just wanted to make sure everybody was together. Going to practice is a time our guys can do something they love. I know it's something Nick loved." Mullen went the length of opening his home last night to players, and reports are just about the entire roster came by. "It was just a very casual deal, guys came and left as they wanted. Some stayed longer and some stayed shorter," he said.
"As the days go by they'll be able to get more of a handle on their emotions. So we'll just try to keep the team together as much as possible, so they have their coaches and football family members to help deal with it." Though, Mullen added, "It's going to take all different time periods to deal with it.
"There is no right or wrong way to feel. That routine of doing things allows you to not just sit and get lost in the emotions. It allows you to go out and do things you normally do and hopefully feel like a normal person as you try to deal with this grief."
But who helps the coach? Mullen related Tuesday that he was part of the Florida staff when a scout team quarterback died in an accident, so he has seen this sort of tragic situation. But this time Mullen is the man in overall charge, the one everyone will look to for, well, almost everything. He said today that his peers have come the second-year head coach's support.
"I think it's great. When you're in this, you know what a ‘football family' is and how much goes into it. And how much these players dedicate themselves to the family. It's been a great outpouring of support from our fans, and from other coaches around the nation. Because they know how hard it can be." Mississippi State knows, having lost a pair of players in the 1990s to tragic deaths during their college careers. Mullen said Jackie Sherrill had sent a message, though Mullen had not been able to get back in contact in return as of this morning.
As the young head coach said, there is no definitive right or wrong approach to coping with sudden tragedy. But, it seems, Mullen believes there is a right sort of message college athletes can take from the shock of loss. The Bulldogs knew Bell was ill; he'd had emergency surgery after playing four games this season to remove one mass from his brain. But Bell was about to begin the heavy treatment regimen, and had been on the MSU sideline when his teammates won a Homecoming game with UAB.
So Tuesday's passing was a fresh shock to the system. As Mullen said, it is one thing when a teammate dies in an abrupt accident. This was different.
"They knew he was sick, to see this as something that's not a sudden accident, that they knew was there, it puts a lot of things in perspective for our players. We try to build them up to be so big, so fast, so strong, so tough, they can do everything. This ‘warrior' we create or whatever it is.
"To see how precious life is, and how fast thing can change, that is something our players are dealing with. How precious life is, every day is right now, and to take advantage of every gift and day God gives them on the earth."