"I know Steve (Ehrhart) is going to ship us some more," Mullen said during Thursday's first combined bowl press conference. "There are more on the way! Let all those Bulldog fans know there is more on the way."
The Bulldogs won't be on their way to Memphis until the day after Christmas. They do get back busy with football on Friday though, as the campus phase of bowl camp begins with a closed practice. This is followed by four open-to-public sessions Saturday-through-Tuesday. Mississippi State players concluded fall semester examinations today, and their only football-related work since victory in the Battle for the Golden Egg were four days in the Seal Center weightroom.
So Mullen has been free to attend to other business, most obviously making recruiting visits around the region in advance of both December 18's winter signing period for early graduates; and the larger February signing day. In fact, Thursday's appearance in Memphis fit into Mullen's schedule. "This is a huge recruiting area for us and this press conference lets us spend the day here."
While the head coach was mixing recruiting with other duties, Bulldog Club and Ticket Office staff were attending to seating those fans who'd already snapped-up so many tickets. They visited the Liberty Bowl stadium to determine seating sections, posting views and vantage points on-line. Bulldog fans attending this year's event will find the stadium, and for that matter the environs, in far better and upgraded conditions from the last such bowl trip in 2007.
"I'm hoping our fans decide we're making this a home game," Mullen said. "We have 55,000 at our home games." Not to mention a four-and-a-half season stretch of sellouts at Davis Wade Stadium, extended to finish the 2013 schedule with the beyond-dramatic overtime victory against Ole Miss. That win and return of the Golden Egg has spurred State fans to make bowling plans again. Mullen just wants to remind any on the proverbial fence about their New Years Eve intentions.
"We need to keep that streak alive and sell this game out, and give us a little bit of a homefield advantage." The Liberty Bowl is assisting in this too, by allowing cowbells at the game…with the sole proviso that the SEC's guidelines for legal home-game use be followed just as if it were Scott Field-North.
Rice Coach David Bailiff , whose CUSA champions Owls are Mississippi State's opponent, is bemused at the idea of ‘ringing responsibly'. Everyone else had to chuckle at Mullen raising the image of Will Ferrell, in that now-famed ‘more cowbell' skit, to justify the unique tradition…not to mention debunk ideas cowbells are simple noisemakers.
"They're actually instruments!" Mullen countered.
This is the 55th Liberty Bowl game. And by most happy Mississippi State coincidence it comes on the 50th anniversary of the first Bulldog team to participate in one of them. That was the now-famous 1963 game, played in Philadelphia, with Mississippi State coming out ahead of North Carolina State 16-12 on a wickedly cold afternoon. Tales of coffee frozen in the cup are not mere legend as truly veteran Bulldogs attest today.
Since that first experience, and the event's move to Memphis and what was built as Liberty Bowl stadium in 1965, two Bulldogs teams have participated. The 1991 squad lost to Air Force, while the 2007 team beat Central Florida. Both times State fans turned out in literal record numbers and the 63,816 at the '07 game remains the all-time bowl standard.
Mullen was two years away from taking over Bulldog football then. He has, however, had experience with the Liberty Bowl from his days as a Utah offensive coach. That, he says now, did not get him into the Liberty Bowl gala; but future wife Megan did in her job as sports anchor for the Salt Lake City television station. "Since we've been here she's been pushing so she could go back to the gala," said Mullen who will be present this time for sure.
Somewhat more seriously, "We couldn't be happier to be here. With the adversity we've faced through the year, the ability to come here is pretty special for us. I don't think there's been a bowl more supportive of us and our players have been looking forward to coming here." Including, Mullen suggested, the largest part of the MSU roster which hails from addresses within easy travel distance of Memphis. "Country kids coming up to Memphis," he joked, though Bulldog folk will happily concur…and ring their cowbells too.
Bailiff's bunch might not bring special instruments to Memphis. The coach does have a fine football team though, fresh off whipping Marshall for the CUSA crown. "We're so thrilled to be here," said Bailiff, noting the Owls have 23 seniors—19 of them fifth-year veterans—intent on ending their careers successfully. And there was at least a hint of ‘beat the SEC' to the coach's comments. "We're a physical team, a lot more athletic than people realize going into it," he said.
And, "We want to lead the world in chest-bumps and high-fives, so we're going to have a lot of fun playing this game." As for personal ambitions, Bailiff mentioned that when he came here in 2002 as a TCU assistant he was promised by Ehrhart to be made a ‘duck master' at the Peabody Hotel if he returned with a team of his own.
"We've done it, Steve!" Bailiff said. Mullen said on his previous trip "I was only a lowly assistant" so he wasn't promised any such promotion. Now, he'd like to try his hand coaching the famous foul.
For all the fun and anticipation of the game, there was the sobering side to Thursday as Mullen made a visit to world-famed St. Jude's Hospital. He will bring the whole team there during bowl week of course, but it happened that the eight-year-old son of a friend from Florida was at St. Jude's today for a checkup.
Mullen said such beyond-the-field experiences make an impression on healthy young college ballplayers when they meet children battling for their lives. "They (the children) think our kids are tough; go over to St. Jude's and see some kids that are really tough."
Bulldog campus bowl camp runs through next Friday. After their short Christmas break the team goes to Memphis on the 26th.