And next Friday opens team spring practicing, with four sessions prior to spring break and ten more scheduled from March 24-April 9 including the Maroon-White Game on that last date. Mullen is leaving one of the 15 possible practices open for application as he sees necessary, likely after the spring game.
If it sounds like a busy semester schedule, well, it is. To the point Mullen paused in mock-shock at a query about his recent down-time. "The off-season? Well, as you can see we don't have an off-season!" But Mullen wasn't complaining about the pace; a 9-4 breakthrough in year-two, including another dominating Egg Bowl success and even more impressive Gator Bowl romp on January 1 only inspires this coach to greater efforts—and ambitions—this third time around.
It should also offer added inspiration to the Bulldogs themselves as well as a fan base eager to get 2011 underway, Mullen said. "Winning that last game, the Gator Bowl, has a huge impact. One, it leaves a good taste in everyone's mouth from January 1st through September 3rd this year. It leaves that kind of excitement." Inspiring, indeed.
Yet at the same time Mullen is careful about one potential turnaround-trap. For 2011, which began as soon as the first varsity and redshirt Dogs reported to the weightroom last month, to be considered success won't simply mean more of the same.
It means more of everything.
"Now, it's a little bit different," Mullen said. "We won a New Years Day bowl game and it's a little bit different challenge for us this off-season. A lot of guys are patting themselves on the back. In our first year winning that last game catapulted us into, you know, what could have been and what could be in the future. Now it is finding that next level, of not being satisfied with being 15th in the country. Not being satisfied with being 9-4 and in a New Years Day bowl game.
"It's continuing to take steps and progress forward. Because there can be a lot of sense of achievement in what was accomplished. That is the part that we fight, that we push, to have bigger aspirations this year. To take that next step and continue to push yourself to that next level."
Reaching next and higher levels obviously means pushing the current Bulldogs a little harder, a little faster, and based on reports they are responding. In fact Balis might be looking for new ways to stress the squad after some apparently had enough wind and spunk left after a grueling stadium run to social-message their pride. Such bragging can be dangerous with a strength coach who is even harder than his demanding boss to be satisfied a player has put in a real day's work.
But the other obvious factor in continued progress is restocking the roster with the right and, hopefully, even better personnel. In the three weeks since Signing Day much has been said about the 2011 recruiting class, and not all of it the typically glowing talk of recruiting fans. Even State supporters didn't seem as enthusiastic about the third class inked by this staff as the previous two, for a variety of reasons that matter to them. Individual stars, collective grades, analysts' opinions, and the like.
Funny thing, though. Three weeks after the last letter-of-intent rolled off the football office machine, Mullen's opinion is still strong about his third signing season. Perhaps even stronger.
"We've very happy with our recruiting class," Mullen said. "Very happy. You always want more, but I'd have to find a way to create some more spots for everybody. There were another 15 kids I wish I could have signed, because there were some we thought could come in and contribute to the program. But that's just how we are and the direction we're headed as a program." As in, the number of remaining inherited players and Mullen recruits already on the roster combined with the incoming additions has put Mississippi State temporarily over the 85-man August limit.
No wonder Mullen grins again when an old-timer recalls the days of almost unlimited signing classes and 120-man rosters. "That'd be a good deal! But there are kids we didn't have spots for." That might have been a minus on Signing Day, but in the bigger Bulldog picture this points to a real plus for the program.
Mullen hasn't been able to run Dogs off. Whether inherited or recruited, the players have made their own commitments to do as asked by this coach and worked up to or even beyond Mullen's demands. Upon arrival in December 2009 he honestly anticipated much more attrition, as did observers. Just the opposite has come to pass and the roster overfloweth.
That fact also speaks to just how accurate Mullen and staff have been in evaluating intangible aspects of potential signees. He is proud of noting 47 of the 53 signees in 2009 and '10 are still with State. "Contributing the program," is how Mullen puts it. "To me the success of a building program is because these young guys are getting in and developing within the program."
Such evaluation has to go beyond what is seen on cellul…umm, on digital recordings. To be sure Mullen wants discs and tapes of prospects for reviewing and then comparing with what he and his coaches see when observing players in-person. A Digital Hero there is encouraging alright. Yet Mullen and Mississippi State increasingly rely on more immediate viewing of the kids when they come to campus for Junior Day or summer camps. That is the best way to get a true height-and-weight, or to see just how fast, agile, and strong a young man really is in a controlled setting.
And one other very important evaluation happens in these setting. Players talk, and Mullen listens. Listens for some specific character clues, that is.
"When I talk to guys and listen to what they say, do they talk about hard work? Do they talk about wanting to be great? Or do they get caught-up in I want to get as many stars next to my name as possible? In my mind I want guys who talk about wanting to be great and about hard work and Coach, I want to do whatever I can to help the team. That's sort of mindset is in the guys that are going to be successful."
Mindset matters, in other words. But then so does matter matter, since a willing spirit can't keep a weak body going on a SEC field. What should be standing out about this State signing class is the type of player typical for 2011. There are plenty of ‘skill' and ‘speed' guys of course…but even the fast and agile folk have a physical reputation in high school, while it is the size and spread of the big bodies that characterizes the whole class.
As Mullen agreed with Dawgs' Bite, Mississippi State football is best when the Bulldogs are just bigger and tougher. That was true back when the Kinks were charting, not to mention when a certain coach-to-be was first picking up a football; and just as true today. His first two State teams were physical folk and that will only increase with upcoming clubs.
"That's what we look for. Like you see, you have got to be tough. We want guys that are naturally athletic and can do a lot of things; we'll figure out where you're going to play on the field. And we want guys that are physical because we are a physical football team. We want to be physical on both sides of the ball."
This particular recruit class saw State expanding its reach with signees from opposite ends of the sunbelt, from Florida to California. It was line coach John Hevesy who went west to find a blocker, and the initial image of him cruising the L.A. area might boggle a few minds. At least until Mullen notes his closest aide recruited southern California at Utah. "We're well-known out there!" he jokes. Still the core of State courting remains Mississippi talent, and most of all the small towns and rural regions that produce just plain good ballplayers.
"Guy that did it all. And we've had some success with those, the Jon Banks of the world and those guys. We've done a good job of recruiting and evaluating and seeing what their ability level is." Even if that ability is spread around a lot of positions on Friday nights, making ‘projection' a bit tougher sometimes. Mullen doesn't complain. "If I was a high school coach and I had a guy who play everything, I'd let him do everything!" On top of that State is generally willing to let such newcomers take their best shot at a couple of possible positions before they're assigned a serious slot. Even then as they and their careers develop moves might always be made to suit a player's skills and State's needs.
"So when you go recruit we have criteria that we look for in our guys. I guess everybody has their own criteria of things that make up good football players. But I look at the quarterback position. Tim Tebow and Alex Smith had similar college careers, they were both first round draft picks, both all did all this great stuff. One was a five-star and one was a one-star coming out of high school. Both of them were extremely successful playing for me.
"So you better dig deep into what you're looking for, for your type of guy. For us, do guys fit our program? Do they look to be able to develop into greatness?" Which by the way isn't always an automatic image during scouting. Mullen still rues seeing Darron Thomas of Aldine High School in Houston, Texas and, well, not seeing it as a Florida recruiter. But then, "We all missed on him. I really like his high school coach and it shows you how smart I am not to listen to a high school coach I respect! But there are those guys out there."
Mullen is confident in time fans and foes will see just how successful 2011 recruiting was, when put into context of combining with personnel already in the developing program. Mississippi State has, probably quicker than most thought, reached a point of more ‘routine' recruiting where the main goal is restocking most areas of the depth chart; rather than needing to fill-and-fix, fast. They aren't there yet, but are getting closer to this ideal situation.
Certainly State exceeded outside expectations when the 2010 Bulldogs didn't just turn it around, they made a long leap forward. The final ranking of #15 (A.P.) was the best since 1999. "And hopefully everybody saw how close we were," reminds Mullen. "When you lose by three to the team that eventually wins the national championship, we needed to make one play in that game. Intercept a pass, stop them one time, block another kick, make one more catch, get one more first down; and all of a sudden maybe we were the team that is catapulted after that week-two of the season to the national title.
The other team in our league that played in the Sugar Bowl, we lose in double-overtime to. So we are that close…but that final step is the hardest step to take. That is what we are trying to get accomplished this year. What we did last year wasn't enough, we missed it, we gave up that one play we needed to make. What we need to figure out is that you don't know which play it's going to be! If you decide to take a play off, what if that was the play? What makes it hard is that commitment to the next level, to be great. That's what we need."
With most of the starting lineup returning it's a safe guess State will kick off the season ranked as well. That, Mullen said, is really more of a reward for previous performance than a reliable forecast of future results.
"When I have the opportunity to vote in my first couple of weeks I use a lot of my votes kind of rewarding teams for last year. If you see them, the first couple of weeks you see teams jumping all over the place! Because you don't know where everybody is early on. That's a nice reward I guess for last season, but the ranking that matters is in December and January. Rankings in August really are completely irrelevant. Ask Auburn how important their preseason ranking was last year!"
One important MSU matter attended to prior to the Gator Bowl was upgrading and extending Mullen's four-year contract, which jumps to $2.65 million annually or $10.6 million over the scheduled length. State was also improving assistant contracts which had to wait until after Mullen revamped the staff by promoting line coach Chris Wilson to full defensive coordinator; graduate aide Angelo Mirando to wide receivers coach; and hiring Geoff Collins as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
Such things are also rewards, but have broader implications Mullen said. "It sets a stability for the coaches, for our fans, and for our players and our recruiting. They see the success that has happened this year, but they also know there is stability with that success. I think that is a big advantage for us as we continue to build for the future."
Which is also to say settling in at State for the longer haul. Mullen, wife Megan and 2-year-old son Cannon—and of course family hound Heisman, a familiar post-practice guest—have literally made themselves at home. The chance to put his own stamp on a developing program is one part, the obvious part; but so, Mullen said, is how he and family live. "And we just like living here," he said.
"There is quality of life. I think we put so much time into this and pressure on ourselves as coaches, I know I do. There's not one fan or one person that puts more pressure on us to win than I do myself. Nobody's expectations to win are higher than mine. So if I'm going to do my job that way, I'm going to make sure I live where I'm happy waking up every day and we feel we have a good quality of life outside of football."
Mullen jokes about no off-season, but the truth is the family did get away for a while this month. "Right after Signing Day we went and sat on a beach for a couple of days." A beach in Jamaica, specifically, where the locals spell it ‘futbol'. "Where you're not allowed to touch it with your hands," said Mullen, who it needs noting has been known to keep up with the UEFA standings in that sport, too. But most of what the Mullens did in the Caribbean involved kicking back, not kicking off.
"I played with my son (who pop added has a "bunch of stamps on his passport" by now), read a book. When I go to shut it down, I like to shut it down. We'll do the same thing after spring and try to get a couple of days here and there, time off in the summer. When we get away we have a lake house in Reynolds Plantation in Georgia. We'll try to rejuvenate the batteries. That's how we decompress. But here in town in the off-season it is nice, we get to meet some friends and go out to dinner. I'll go out to Old Waverly and play golf here and there, when we get to spring break there's a good chance you'll find me and my wife over there trying to play a couple of holes Friday before it gets too dark and then go have a nice dinner. We do stuff in the local community to rejuvenate ourselves."
Possibly, even listen to some classic British Invasion rock? Well, whatever is on the ipod right now, give Mullen credit for getting some of the coaching kinks out in this short span between Signing Day and spring training.
COMING FRIDAY: Mullen discusses each member of the 2011 signing class individually.