Mullen had every right to the happy mood, after Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett ‘formally' presented Mississippi State's trophy for the 52-14 rout of Michigan back on New Years Day. That trophy had been brought back from Jacksonville and has shared football office space since then with previous Bulldog bowl mementoes…and of course, the Golden Egg.
All excellent stuff for the second-year head coach and program after their 9-4 turnaround season. Still, Mullen isn't one to rest long on any laurels and there is pressing work to be done toward 2011. And, beyond.
Most obviously, the upcoming conclusion of this recruiting campaign.
"This is the craziest time of the year as a coach," Mullen said. Who, for all his animated actions at times, is not fond of crazy. And few things in sports can take the sort of radical lurches as January recruiting. Mississippi State folk have certainly seen that themselves in recent weeks as commitments, which fans also tend to forget are non-binding comments from kids, have changed around the state.
The popular impression is that State has lost prospects. Mullen has his own outlook.
"And we've gained a few. You're always going to lose a few and gain a few in recruiting as it goes. And Signing Day is Wednesday, so we'll see what happens Wednesday. But guys that we have coming in, they know what our program is all about, they know nothing is going to be given to them and they have to earn everything out there on the field. Those are the type of guys that succeed in the world. Those are the kind of guys that we like and I think we're getting a good class with that type of players."
Mullen and Mississippi State were hosting the last round of prospect visits this weekend. Such contact concludes tomorrow, and come Wednesday pens go to papers and copies will spit out from football office printers. It's the irony of his profession how teen-agers hold such sway on a February Wednesday that will impact on-field results for years to come.
Needless to note, the last days of waiting make Mullen rather restless. "When we step off the field on a Saturday, I'm sure we have pretty good control over what's going to happen during that game. In recruiting, you don't. That to me is one of the hard things in recruiting.
"I love being around the team and the things that we can control, which is our hard work and our effort. That's really important to us. You know, there's no shortcut to the top of the mountain, nothing is given to you in this world and our kids know that. And the recruiting, you're telling guys that and I think they can see that in the program. But you never know how 17-year-olds' minds are always thinking to make decisions!"
How those decisions play out in the next four days will make all sorts of Signing Day headlines. At the same time Bulldog football is already underway with the 2011 schedule, beginning last week. As recounted in Friday's story with Coach Matt Balis, the off-season strength program began January 18 with a two weeks of semi-introductory and evaluating drills. Today, things got a lot more stringent per the boss.
"We had a great workout this morning," Mullen reported. "It's the transition back into the off-season." A transition from the success of one season to the demands of the next one, which as Balis explained is new territory for this Mississippi State staff and team. Mullen said there is the change in mindset among the varsity and redshirts that is just another part of the process.
"We played less than a month ago, we're holding up the trophy on New Year's Day that we just got presented with. And that transition flows right now into getting back into the off-season training, working out, developing mode and out of the game mode." That, by the way, applies to Mississippi State coaches…
…which Mullen sounds more than ready for. "So hopefully when we get off the road recruiting, we did that today, we're about to hit that right now. I think today was our first real tough workout for our guys. So we're going to hit the ground running when we get off the road recruiting." Not, it needs noting, that things ever actually slowed down much for these coaches. Least of all for Mullen as he had to realign his assistant staff with the hiring of linebackers coach/co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, the promotion of d-line coach Chris Wilson to main coordinator, and of graduate aide Angelo Mirando to wide receivers coach.
This staff is already putting together spring practice plans, when not occupied with recruiting. And of course there are the spring underclassman camps and next year's prospect evaluations. It doesn't stop. It's not supposed to.
"We're going to work as hard as we can," Mullen said. "You see in our program, we're going to do things the right way and win through hard work. There are no shortcuts to the top. And that's how we're going to do things. So I worry about our program, I don't worry about other things."
Mullen doesn't have to worry about increased support for the program, with announcement of a major donation anticipated shortly. That gift is to be the core for funding that new building Mullen mentioned, the football office and support facility. Mississippi State continues to court the other funds needed before any ground can be broken. Athletic director Scott Stricklin has quoted a price of $20-25 million for the facility. "We've got a couple of things set and in place," Mullen said. "We've just got to get the final touches and move forward."
For their part fans are asking about a bigger, better Doghouse in the form of an expanded and renovated Davis Wade Stadium. Last week saw the latest round of MSU meetings with architects and construction firms on the subject, and State has released tentative—if that—renderings of what the final product would look like. MSU administrators forecast an expanded stadium to open for the 2014 season, not least because a sizable amount of money will have to be borrowed for this major project. Mullen makes it clear that in his mind the facility is the more immediate need.
But he has no problem encouraging State to think big in all facility areas, either.
"I know we're working on it. Like I've said, I want to see this year we sell out season tickets; once we get that waiting list…I want to sell the tickets out before we expand the stadium. I like having a sold-out, exciting atmosphere. So I think our fan base is going to come through this year. You'll see, we'll sell out earlier and earlier each year, and then we'll start a waiting list and that will kick into we need to expand the stadium."
And, along the way, make sure there is an appropriate venue to house the shiny stuff Mullen expects to keep bringing home each winter.
"Yeah, we've got to get a couple more trophies, and then I need a big trophy case in the facility to put them all in!"
Mississippi State announced the schedule for Signing Day with Mullen making a couple of appearances after the 4:00 public gathering on campus. There are sure to be lots of satisfied State folk meeting him and assistants at these events, as well as some snacks…such as the cookies Mullen was given from the basketball press room during the interview. Asked what Balis would say, the coach said he needs extra fuel this time of year.
"It's recruiting season. Then I've got to get on my diet!"