And vice-versa. "We bounce a lot of things off each other, we've been friends for a long time," said Fitzgerald. "When I think about making tweaks or decisions Dan is one of the first guys I call." Now here the peers are about to begin preparing their own teams to compete on EverBank Field in the 68th annual Gator Bowl. It is Northwestern's first appearance in the Jacksonville classic; while Mississippi State was their two seasons ago, whipping Michigan 52-14 on New Years Day 2011.
That was the first of what now will be three-straight Bulldog bowl teams under Mullen's management, tying the program record. And these veterans can write their own history if they score a third consecutive postseason victory.
"I know our team couldn't be more excited to come back, they had such a great experience at the bowl game last time," Mullen said. "The time we had was special. It's such a great reward for this senior class, they're the first class I recruited, they bought-into what we're building, and now get to go to three bowl games and a second New Years Day bowl game."
Those upperclassmen Mullen refers to have played their parts in 29 victories so far, including the thumping of a Big Ten opponent. Now comes a first-ever collision with the Wildcats. "I'm excited to play a great institution like Northwestern," Mullen said. "And Pat and I are close friends. I know he's helped me in my young career as a head coach, I know I've been able to bounce ideas off him. I can't wait."
Fitzgerald feels the same, as he takes the Wildcats to a fifth bowl in as many seasons. "When I announced to our young men here, they were very excited," the coach said. "Very honored to represent the Big Ten. We've got a young team but our success has been led by a terrific senior class, 25 of them graduate as the all-time winningest class in Wildcat history. We're playing a very good football team, Dan and I are very close friends and I have the utmost respect for what Dan does."
Enough so to obtain Bulldog data, as did Mullen of Northwestern information. Because he's been on the recruiting trail—Mullen called into the teleconference from the Atlanta airport—"I haven't had a chance to look at it," he said. "But our graduate assistants have been grinding away to get it broken-down. Not only the opportunity to play the team, but respect of their team as we study them in off-season in making changes and improvements to our team."
It only makes sense. Mullen made his name scheming spread-sets up first for three-school boss Urban Meyer and then for his own Mississippi State squads. In the past three seasons all sorts of Bulldog team and individual offensive records have been rewritten, whether by ground-pounding teams led by Anthony Dixon and Vick Ballard; or this season in the air by Tyler Russell and receivers. And it's no coincidence the three most accurate passers ever at MSU have been…Mullen's there starting quarterbacks to-date.
Meanwhile though Fitzgerald, a star defensive back in his playing days, has written his own name large in the coaching community with how his Wildcat teams haul the ball around. No wonder a couple of once-young hotshots in the business like to exchange ideas. Their paths crossed when Mullen was working at Bowling Green and Fitzgerald coaching linebackers at his alma mater. But it was on the recruiting trail they established a relationship per Fitzgerald, specifically when they were competing for Houston-area prospects. Mullen was with Utah by then.
"We've stayed in contact ever since," said Fitzgerald, adding though "We're not young any more!" By coincidence Fitzgerald turned 38 Sunday, still two years younger than Mullen. He also recalls a meeting in Chicago. "We had a fun day down at Wrigley Field." The respective numbers have been punched pretty often ever since. "It's been less about schematics, than how we manage and lead."
Mullen said he called Fitzgerald not too long after becoming Bulldog head coach in December 2008. "But I've called on a lot of different occasions, on all the different issues you have to deal with on a daily basis as a head coach. Pat has always been gracious to help out when we had questions, or we had ideas, to weigh-in.
"Look at the success he's had, not just short-term but consistent success. That's why he's one of the premier coaches in college football." As to obvious suggestions that the two hold lots of offensive ideas in common, yes, Mullen said. That part is true. But as Fitzgerald said it isn't so much Xs-and-Os. "There are similarities in what you believe, as your philosophy.
"You're not going to find a fiercer competitor than Fitz, from back when he played and led his team to the Rose Bowl to now."
"You learn a lot about guys and their character on the road. And Dan is one of the best in the country. When you get to compete against a friend, it's more special," Fitzgerald said.
"But, it's not about us. It's about our young men."
As far as Mullen's men are concerned, New Years Day in Florida is a big Bulldog deal again. "We only have 29 guys that are juniors or seniors, this will be a newer experience for a lot of our guys. But I know as a staff we had an unbelievable experience the last time, the whole week. It's as good a bowl as I've ever been to, both teams are going to enjoy their time."
Mullen is due back on campus by Tuesday, while staff puts final touches on bowl camp plans. Fortunately much was already set up since State became bowl-eligible in October. Even better, they've had experience preparing for this game and this playing date first-hand. "I think we'll implement the same schedule," said Mullen. "It worked well for us!"
A total of 22 Bulldogs who played in that victory are still on State's active roster, including eight starters from that win; receivers Arceto Clark, Chris Smith, and Brandon Heavens, guard Gabe Jackson, defensive tackle Josh Boyd, and defensive backs John Banks, Corey Broomfield, and Nickoe Whitley. All these varsity Bulldogs are working for another piece of program history this year. They have matched the 1998-2000 teams by earning three consecutive post-season trips, but can surpass that by scoring a third victory too.
Bowl practice information will be forthcoming this week, including public practices and scrimmage dates. Mississippi State has been accepting advance orders for bowl tickets since last week and can now apply them to this specific game, with allotment information also to be announced.
Gator Bowl CEO Rick Catlett did want fans informed that each school receives, besides the usual allotment, 2,500 Club area and 2,500 lower-level sideline tickets for sale, which are better he said than what can be ordered through the bowl office itself.