"I don't think it ever came up," said Mullen, though "I know in the interview process I made a point of I understood how important rivalry games were." Which almost certainly was why from the moment Mullen arrived on campus and for the first time worked beating ‘the school up north' into his program priorities. Since then that has been his only way of referring to Rebels.
Whatever the response, this was not something new for Mullen. In fact it isn't new by him, either, as gridiron historians recall how legendary rival coaches of Ohio State and Michigan refused to call each other by school name back in the day. And there are other such examples across the college landscape.
But all Mississippi State, and by forced extension Ole Miss, folk know or care is how Mullen applies the practice. And as Mullen explains, he's was working this way long before becoming a head coach. "I know when I coached at Utah we never mentioned or uttered ‘BYU' ever; we called them school down south." Ditto for his stint at Bowling Green with rival Toledo also tagged geographically. And of course in four years with Florida, the in-state rival from Tallahassee was ‘that school to the west'.
What also might be worth noting is how, as an aide to Urban Meyer, Mullen was just about always on the winning side of such series and thus could keep up the tweaking. It was far riskier here in his first head coaching post though, especially when the Bulldogs took to Scott Field a year ago as defined under-Dogs to the #25-ranked Rebels. Mullen's first season concluded with his team celebrating a 41-27 upset, and the coach addressing the largely-lingering crowd with the quote which has become a rallying, or repulsing depending on sideline, cry for the series.
As he told the crowd, "There's certainly one program in this state that's definitely on the rise." Though Mullen said Sunday that his address was unplanned, MSU officials today said that there had been pre-game discussions of what to do after a win. Impromptu or not, it resonated through the state and even across the conference.
Asked today if he still holds such sentiment, "Yeah, we're definitely on the rise," Mullen said. "This program is definitely on the rise going in the direction we wanted to go in. Since that game to now, we are the program that's on the rise. And we plan on keeping it that way."
Implied is the 2010 fact that this year it is 7-4 State assured of a bowl bid while the Rebels are 4-7 and locked out of postseason play. Ironically, the positions are almost exactly reversed from 2009's game, right down to the Bulldogs being ranked #25 this week. Interestingly, Mullen was not getting good vibes from his team in the lead-up to last year's Egg Bowl.
"I don't think we had a great week of practice last year going into the game. But what I did see as the game drew closer, we have so many players on our team that have grow up in this rivalry, as the week went on you could see the focus of our team building more and more into the explosion on the field." The aftershocks rippled through Bulldog recruiting, though Mullen noted today such things tend to pay off farther in the future; and record ticket sales for 2010.
Keeping with the 2009-to-2010 comparisons, is Mullen at all concerned that now his team is the hunted with something to lose (i.e., bowl status) while the Rebels can expend all emotion on playing spoiler and jump-starting their 2011 season?
"This game is a lot to play for. We'll get to play other games down the road, they're not going to. But last year's game showed our players that you had better have 100% focus on this game. And our team does. We're not worried about anything else past this Saturday and making sure we keep our trophy." That would be the Golden Egg, which other than some extracurricular winter stints at the coach's house parties or MSU functions has resided in a brand-new, encased stand in the lobby of the Templeton Center for all Mississippi State athletes to see. Daily.
"The trophy is right where it belongs and that's where we want to keep it," Mullen said today.
A great rivalry doesn't require a trophy of course, but a tangible symbol of success doesn't hurt either. At Bowling Green, Meyer's teams battled Toledo for the ‘Peace Pipe' Mullen said. "That was a pretty big game while we were up there." At Utah they don't need a trophy as the rivalry with Brigham Young literally assumes religious intensity. "And you were red or you were blue and there was no in-between. Very much like this state is."
Mullen's years in Gainesville though were somewhat different, if no less intense. "At Florida, to some fans Tennessee is the big rival, to others it's Georgia, to others Florida State." In this case the same-state bitterness was diluted, at least for the SEC school, by the reality of much longer-standing feuds with conference cousins.
Now he coaches in an annual war that has all the ingredients, and the increased vitriol that only close familiarity inspires. "It has conference implications, and within the state it is ‘the' big game," Mullen said.
"During my career, which is not long, I've been involved in some big rivalry games and in-state rivalry games, so I understood the importance. But maybe not the extent that this one was. After winning last year and seeing the reaction of our fans, how it catapulted us into the offseason, I mean I understand how big a game it is. I knew it was a really big game, now I know the enormity of it for everybody. Not just our University and fan base but the entire state of Mississippi."
With the added dimension of being a league game, and moreover road league game this year. Yes, Mullen says, there is a home field advantage and that has something to do with the fact the host school has won the last six meetings.
"How we look to change it? The game is being played in state of Mississippi; we're Mississippi State and we represent the state of Mississippi, so a game being played in this state we consider one we should win."
And for the record, Mullen has also played in a rivalry, though he had to be asked who was the team his Ursinus squad wanted most to beat. "Dickinson," Mullen grinned. "They're in Carlisle, Penn." But as for odd trophies and ancient animosities, wellllll…
"It's just because it's the last game of the season! We didn't play for anything. I don't know what my record was against them, but I know we won the last game!"
Which is all that matters for any senior taking the field Saturday at…well, you know where.