Mullen Expecting A Super Crowd Saturday

The first time Dan Mullen challenged Bulldog fans to turn out for a spring game in 40,000-strong numbers, well, sure, some took it as an idle comment. Then when over 30,000 reported for the 2009 Maroon-White event the notion gained credence, reinforced by even greater turnout last April. So now that Mullen has made Mississippi State a winner and momentum is surging?

Suddenly 40K seems quite OK as a realistic spring game goal for Super Saturday 2011. Certainly the man responsible for such an ambition is not relaxing his expectation of Mississippi State fans. "We do want a huge crowd," Mullen says.

Odds are that Mullen and MSU will get exactly that tomorrow.

Based on build-up over the past month the athletic department is counting on re-writing all records for attendance at a Bulldog spring game. The 2010 official attendance of 34,217—an absolutely coincidental figure of course—set the accepted mark. And whatever the exact number was, there were certainly three or four times as many fans entering Davis Wade Stadium for last year's event as there were watching some of the mid-2000s intrasquad games.

Which means that spring game Saturdays are once again truly super at Mississippi State. And this year's edition should rank as the best yet in terms of fan involvement. "And the fact that it's free admission!" Mullen adds.

Free entry yes, but well-worth whatever it will cost Bulldog boosters to make this weekend's trip. Historically here coaches have had mixed feelings about spring games, some seeing it as an interference in real off-season practicing or even an opportunity for players to get hurt. Other coaches would make a big deal of these intrasquad events the first year or two before losing enthusiasm.

Not Dan Mullen. To him a spring game is, to be sure, something fun for the players. But he is equally insistent it be entertaining for fans. They are the ones who cheer the team on in fall, so Mullen wants them to have reason for cheering in April as well. Fortunately his players have bought into this approach just as they have all other aspects to his program, and Mullen forecasts a good Saturday show…or else.

"They better look sharp! But I think it does help them. When they step out on the field and see 40,000 fans they're going to pick up their level of play and show what they can do."

Besides, just as with almost everything else Bulldog players do during or outside their season, Mullen structures the spring game for continued competition. It's to be fun, yes, but winning has a reward. Or maybe better said, losing has a price. In this case the losing team—not just players but their assigned coaches and support staff—will return to DWS at 10:00 Sunday morning to clean the same house they will be protecting come fall's home games.

It's not personal but naturally Mullen and MSU hope those unhappy losers have a whole lot of stuff to pick up, the result of another record-setting crowd for a spring game. Whether the guest coaches share in the outcome, now, Mullen isn't sure, though he does know his own aides won't be happy if they have to give up their free Sunday morning to drag a trash bag around.

The Maroon team has drawn twin brothers Lee and Leo Seal as their coaches, while the White team will be coached by Jim Rouse. "And his wife Julie trying to assist," Mullen added. "He says she's much better at football!" The Rouses were primary donors for the current Holliman Complex weight room and longtime University supporters. So are the Seals, sons of Leo Seal Jr. and who this week made official their record-$12 million donation to Bulldog athletics. This is the ‘naming' gift towards the Seal Football Complex to be constructed, once the $20-to-$25 million total funding is secured, overlooking the practice fields.

Like their late father Lee and Leo were also Bulldog players. Now they have charge of one sideline this Saturday at Scott Field. "I'm not sure which one is on offense and which one is on defense, but they told me they'd get it worked out between them," Mullen said.

While Mullen will not over-risk a number of starters tomorrow, he has promised every healthy Dog will get on the field at some point. Fans will certainly recognize most of the numbers, too, since Mississippi State returns, by conservative count, 16 of the usual 22 position starters from the team that went 9-4 last fall, scored a second-straight Egg Bowl victory, routed Michigan in the Gator Bowl, and scored a final national ranking.

So in a real sense the 2011 spring game offers an excellent chance for one final celebration of the 2010 success in Mullen's second season. Along with that, speculation continues over what four figures will--by sheer happy chance--coincide with the official attendance; 3,123 or 5,214?

Equally important though, this Maroon-White game is the first date for the '11 season. Perhaps the only date some will have to see this team in-person, too.

"There are people who don't have the opportunity, especially in today's economy to afford season tickets and come out," Mullen said. "This is our opportunity to make sure we are connected to everybody in this state that believes in this program. They have a free day to come on campus and watch their football team play."

The only free day, too, because spring games aren't the only games bringing record crowds to campus. The past two seasons have brought 12 of the 20 largest attendances ever at DWS, and in 2010 Mississippi State made history by selling all season tickets—full price, special packages, faculty/staff, and students—available. There have been ten-straight home sellouts and based on accelerated spring demand athletic director Scott Stricklin expects all ducats to be accounted for again.

"Season ticket sales I think we're running about 2,000 tickets ahead on renewals from where we were this time a year ago," Stricklin said. Some of this is due to current season ticket-holders upping their requests, but the core remains renewals. In fact Stricklin this week issued an alert, not to say warning, to anyone delaying their re-order.

"This is a unique way to think about it: the deadline to renew tickets is basically the end of April so people have three or four weeks to get their renewals in. If they don't get their renewal in they're going to lose their season ticket, because we have got people waiting to buy them." Indeed the Bulldog Club has reported a waiting list of several hundred already logged. By summer they will know if any such seats opened up for 2011. Or, not.

Which means, Stricklin said, "We'll have people come to the game this Saturday at 5:00 who won't be able to buy a season ticket, this may be their only opportunity this year to come see the Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. That's pretty impactful! I mean, there's not many times in our history we've been able to say that. And we want to continue to create that environment and move forward."

Forwards as in the eventual renovation and expansion of DWS. Some of this process was set in motion years ago with a regional market survey by State to find current and potential demand for season (not single game) ticket purchases as well as for new suites and club seating MSU definitely plans to construct by mid-decade. Stricklin and University president Dr. Mark Keenum continue to oversee planning on such goals, which include major—and expensive—renovations of the existing stadium. Stricklin confirmed this will require major borrowing, whereas the Seal Complex will be fully funded by donations in-hand without need for loans. No state dollars are being used, either.

It's all a great big task. But as the results on the field these past two years, and more importantly the support in the stands for both fall and spring signal, the time is right for Mississippi State to make these major moves. Mullen, unlike most young coaches, is not pushing for any big expansion of seats just to have a bigger house. "I might be a little different on stadium expansion, in that I want our stadium to be sold-out every time we walk into it." Thus Mullen's mention this week of wanting a waiting list of 10,000 before any major increase to capacity.

Yet at the rate things are moving in Bulldog Country these days, Stricklin can already think of ordering some ceremonial shovels. Mullen definitely anticipates putting a winning team on the field to be cheered on by ever-greater crowds…fall and spring alike.

"The fact that we now have a waiting list for season tickets that is continually growing , the fact that we're having a spring practice we're hoping to get 40,000 people in our stadium, that sits very well with me and stadium expansion. That we not just clean-up and make our stadium more friendly to the fans, they've also looked at the future to expand and meet the demands of Mississippi State fans and students and all the people of Mississippi who want to come watch their state team play."

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