From The Dawghouse

Memo to self: while en route to the Gator Bowl next week do check the rear view around the state line. Perhaps looming in my mirrors will be one of those now famous, or depending on loyalty infamous, Dan Mullen billboards bidding welcome to our fair state. And, of course, staking a bold Bulldog claim to command of the home turf.

A claim that has naturally furthered a certain rival's post-Egg Bowl funk deeper than the most pinkish ACLU lawyer upon sight of a Christmas crèche in the town square. Or a PETA rep who reads what is on my family's weekend menu, including chunks of the buck dropped with a single shot by my youngest, blondest niece. The loaded rifle probably weighed more than she does but never doubt a Jones County lass.

Where was I? Right. As thousands and thousands of us make the ‘tween-holidays trek to Jacksonville we'll be waved along our winning way by Mullen himself, thanks to a well-timed and better-placed investment by an athletic department not resting on any 2010 laurels. Oh, they are celebrating the season just past more than even we…it's their job to make Mississippi State successful and by golly these Bulldogs have delivered. The Gator Bowl is as much an achievement of the coaching and administrative staff as it is the players themselves. It's also an excellent opportunity to tack another W on the record by the way, and I hope no Wolverine loyalist is insulted that this sets up on the surface as a promising matchup for the '10 Bulldogs.

And, to end what was otherwise a pretty dismal Dog decade (yes, decade, they really do run ‘01-‘10 no matter what an arithmetically ignorant public has been trained to think) with a rather remarkable flourish. I mean, hopes were naturally high that Dan Mullen would send State football in a better direction given time. But to turn it entirely around in one year and achieve this degree of year-two progress hasn't happened in Bulldog Country since Emory Bellard. That was thirty whole falls ago, and yes, I was there.

I was also still there as the initial success crumbled quickly. Which is why, however, I'm not in the least concerned about any other correlation. Where that program fell apart due to poorly-refilled staff slots and lousier recruiting, compounded by erratic finances…every observable indicator today is pointed positively. Mullen has already shown he can replace assistants and upgrade in the process. Recruiting has only improved over the course of year-two, with the addendum that now Mullen is adding-to a roster already winning while featuring lots of returning talent that can be further developed.

The financing? Without diminishing the necessity of continued improvements here, too, only an old State hand can appreciate just how healthy the ledgers are today compared to Back Then. Not rolling in cash, understand, and still not in the same league as, well, a whole lot of our league. But Mullen has the resources needed to get the job done and think bigger. Now. Today.

Speaking of money, let's get this out of the editorial way. Though nothing is in stone, much less contractual ink, best indicators are when Mullen's deal rolls over it will be for northward of $2.5 million per after all clauses are calculated. The actual signing—a subject of no small hysteria among some lately—won't come until after the Bulldogs return from bowling. For that matter after bowl season itself is done everywhere, per MSU sources. If this re-ignites panic among the prone, sorry, can't be helped. Mullen, or perhaps better stated Mullen's agent, would not be taking care of their own best professional interests taking a hasty deal.

Nor would Scott Stricklin and Dr. Mark Keenum be doing due diligence in extending any agreement that wasn't the best Dog deal. And as said often enough before, money won't be the factor keeping or losing a State coach nowadays.

What will factor is State's declared commitments to further improvements in the program, and big-buck ones at that. Yes, I mean the football facility we were shown speculative sketches of back in August, to be built overlooking the practice fields. Some would see it as a luxury. Not them that know.

Not with the sort of growth we have reason to anticipate, even expect. Besides consolidating football operations into a convenient central location (access and parking are questions though) this would free up priceless Bryan Building space for the admin staff growth that is equally inevitable. Emphasis on fund raising arms, obviously. And remember how I predicted in this space some time back that athletic departments will become their own self-contained media entity? It'll arrive sooner than even I figured, as those billboards also signal.

As for the other obvious area, stadium renovation and modest expansion are very much on administrative minds also. An anticipated end-of-tax-year major donation would accelerate but by no means complete payment possibilities; another way of saying that to get everything State wants done, done, will still mean borrowing a whole lot o' bucks over a long, long payback period. Some have speculated the work could begin after the 2011 season, but last week a higher-up cautioned that 2012 remains most likely with completion in time for 2014 kickoff…and the 100th year of Scott Field quite coincidentally.

For those who demand it get done sooner, please understand a project of this dimension doesn't just cost huge cash but will disrupt campus operations for a long time too; thus Allen Hall and then the IHL have the final say. So relax on this one for a while, and just get ready to buy 2011 tickets.

Which, by the way, should come in at the same overall price, we're promised; just for one less home game. But since this is the ‘good' SEC schedule with all three of the real rivals coming to campus it's worth every Dog drachma. For that matter visits to Memphis and UAB are ‘home' games in all but name anyway given the crowds who'll follow.

Which drags us back to the more immediate matter of where Bulldog football stands as '10 turns into '11 and, presumably, year-three under Mullen's management. The coach is certainly, openly for that matter, excited about taking his second team bowling. By the way, last week Mullen said something interesting; that being bowl-eligible already actually helped how State preformed in the REAL annual bowl. "They knew the Egg Bowl wasn't going to be their last game, and it made them relax a little bit more for that game." Just something to keep in mind for future MSU reference.

I'm prouder myself to see how happy this coach is for a bunch of Bulldogs he did not recruit, that they get to go out on a grander stage than most previous peers. Though I'm sure, sure every one of y'all recall what was written in one of last week's Notebooks, I'll repeat here just in case: there are seven Dogs on this roster who played in the Liberty Bowl (quick: name them!) and 13 more from the 2007 roster who have lasted long enough to enjoy post-season play again. Naturally every college senior wants to go out on a winning note and in a bowl/tournament. In this particular State case I think it means just a little bit more than usual to the seniors of 2010.

Mullen does, too. "I think they want to leave their mark on this program. When they showed up four years ago the program was awful different than now. I mean, they're playing Michigan in a New Years Day bowl game in Florida. They've certainly left their mark on Mississippi State football and they want to finish up their final game the right way." Translated: winning, again.

Not that the underclassman club arriving in gator (bowl) country next week has any lesser intentions for themselves, of course. Winning is a delightful addiction and lemme tell you, the pups I watched practicing last week in what was in all-but-name a winter camp for pre-spring development are hooked. One got the notion that they'd just as soon resume practicing in January as wait for March, that's how high ambitions are already for 2011.

In these days of controlled media access to coaches and players, quotes must often be squirreled-away for future use. Well, here's one mid-season Mullen comment that applies nicely to this moment.

"There's not a magical wand you wave to build a great program. Last year's team gave us a foundation to build the program on, and this year's team is building on that. We're hopefully building not for short term but for long term success, where we're constantly having good seasons and competing for championships."

Again, that was almost two months ago, when the Bulldogs started notching SEC wins and earning rankings. Now? Mullen might not have any magic wand but the man surely has shown some wizardry in changing a fragile football club into a potent program with all sorts of greater potential. How much I doubt even he knows. But the trends are all tantalizing.

"Oh, I think we've got a great future," Mullen said last week, after a practice. "The direction the program is headed in right now, we have some good young talent here and I think a lot of players around the state of Mississippi are really taking a look at what we can build here. If we can get ourselves to where some schools are, where the top players in Mississippi all decide to go to school together, then we can get on that level as a national power."

Go over that again. Yes, he said it—a national power. Because based on his own evaluation the makings of such a MSU monster are being accumulated and assembled. Take this further comment on how he intends to attract the additional personnel needed to fill in remaining gameplan gaps, or just plain improve on what is already at hand.

"When they see the facilities, the commitment that the University is making; the passion that our fans have for the program. And the type of talent that we can put together will make it very attractive. And hopefully make it a permanently a top-notch program."

Dan Mullen is not given to understatement by nature but even for him those are strong statements…or are they? Perhaps he's just stating, or State-ing, the facts as he sees them and as he wants them known.

Known both within and without our state borders, that is. So. Take a happy peek at those billboards as you join this pleasurable post-season pilgrimage (I originally typed ‘happy holiday hegira' but that'd be a bit contradictory re: Christmas). But even more so, upon return salute that triumphant figure and the inherent promise of our Bulldog football future.

Welcome to our State, indeed.

SCHEDULE NOTE: Ye Aulde Editor is shutting down the Starkville office on Wednesday for Christmas break before arriving in Jacksonville on the 29th. While on the Free State farm access on-line will be minimal at best, maybe once a day if that often; and I don't even have TV at the house, just my XM boombox. I'll be using the downtime to do chores, make my annual contribution to Global Warming by burning lots of carbon-based trash, shoot up a bulk-box of .22 rimfire for relaxation, assure myself the neighbors have left our wild turkey flock alone as agreed, as well as begin the baseball preseason issue features.

All free from interruption hopefully, though I'll listen to see exactly who is, who isn't, and who oughtn't be suiting up for our dysfunctional Dog roundball bunch. It's so easy to lose track of that club's carousel these days, but they can wait until January 8 for more serious attention here.

In other words, don't call us, we'll call you. Do have a Merry Christmas, and join us in Jacksonville to ring in the Happy New Year. Responsibly, that is.

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