Dan Mullen Is Building A 5-Star Program

Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen is building a 5-star program at MSU. We take a look at how he has done this monumental achievement for a program not known for top-10 rankings in football.


Your team is ranked No. 3 in the nation in the latest AP College Football poll. You even received 2 first-place votes in that poll. The SEC Network's SEC Nation visited last weekend when you played the No. 6 ranked Texas A&M Aggies. Your team defeated the Aggies 48-31 and it really wasn't even that close because it was 48-17 late in the 4th quarter. Now, ESPN's Gameday is coming to town as are the No. 2 ranked Auburn Tigers.

Who are you, one of the perennial powers such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia or maybe Oregon, Ohio State or Notre Dame? Nope, you are Mississippi State. Mississippi State, you say?

Mississippi State and the number 3, as far as rankings go, have never happened in football. Yes, the MSU baseball team has been there and even been ranked a notch higher at No. 2, but this is MSU football. In their 119 history of playing football the No. 3 and Mississippi State have never been side-by-side in any college football poll. But they are now!

So, how did this come about?

It all started in 2008 when then-Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne took a gamble on the hiring of a relatively unknown Dan Mullen, who was the University of Florida offensive coordinator at the time of the hiring. Mullen was known as a great offensive mind who also knew how to develop quarterbacks, but he had never been a head coach It was a gamble but one that Byrne felt was worth the risk.

Mullen came in with a great pedigree, all as an assistant coach under one of the best head coaches in college football, Urban Meyer. He served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida and coached Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. He also coached Utah QB Alex Smith, who was selected number 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. He also helped lead Florida to two National Championships (2006, 2008).

But winning games and receiving national rankings at Florida can't be compared to winning games and earning national rankings at Mississippi State. At Florida, from 2005 to 2008, the Gators won 44 games. During that same period at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs won 18 games. Florida ended up ranked No. 1 twice during that same period. Mississippi State earned no top-25 rankings at the end of any of those seasons.

The task was tall for Mullen but he took the job.

At Florida, what you do to build a top program is sign 4 and 5-star recruits, a lot of top 4 and 5 guys. From 2005 to 2008, Florida had the No. 11, 2, 1 and 10 ranked recruiting classes in the nation, according to Scout.com. They signed a total of 65 four and five star recruits. The more talent you have, the easier it is to win games.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, had recruiting rankings of 39, 39, 27 and 33 during that same timespan and signed a combined 11 four and five star recruits.

But Mullen had a plan to offset the disadvantages MSU had in talent and traditional national rankings. It included hard work, hiring excellent assistant coaches who would buy into his plan, and signing players who had talent but were under the radar.

He immediately brought Florida assistant coach John Hevesy with him. Then, he added Greg Knox, Tony Hughes and Scott Sallach to the staff. Sallach and Hevesy were two coaches who knew Mullen well and would work well with him. Hughes, who had previously coached at Ole Miss and Southern Miss, knew the recruiting landscape of Mississippi, as did Knox, who had coached at Ole Miss and Auburn the previous 14 years. He also kept assistant coach Melvin Smith on the staff. Like Hughes and Knox, Smith knew the Mississippi recruiting landscape.

Mullen and his staff immediately went to work instilling the values of hard work. He also came up with the term "developmental program" for the type program that he was going to build. He would use that phrase a lot over the course of his six years at Mississippi State.

During their first few months on the job, Mullen and his staff worked hard on the recruiting trail, making sure they kept the current commitments onboard. That recruiting class was ranked number 19th by Scout.com, one of the highest rankings in recent MSU history. It had its share of four stars with the likes of future NFL players Chris White, Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd and Pernell McPhee, it also had a bunch of two and three star recruits that would also end up in the NFL, including Darius Slay, Gabe Jackson, Deontae Skinner, Johnthan Banks and Cameron Lawrence.

All of those players eventually bought into the work ethic that Mullen knew would be needed to be successful at Mississippi State.

During the course of the next three to four years, the players in that class would be the ones who would help Mullen instill the work ethic needed for the MSU football program to be successful. They also helped MSU win 29 games the next four years and play in 3 bowl games, two of which they won.

Over the course of the next three years, Mullen and his coaching staff continued to look the nation over for talent that was under the radar. While they signed several four star recruits during those three years, they continued to sign two and three star talent that most of the top programs passed on, talent such as DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, OL Justin Malone, DB Taveze Calhoun and LB Richie Brown. They also added walk-on offensive lineman Ben Beckwith to the team.

But there was still work to be done. While MSU won 29 games and played in three bowl games, the national media had only ranked them among the top 20 teams once at the end of those seasons. Plus, Mullen had the monkey on his back of not being able to win the games against top-10 teams, To take that next step, he had to start winning the games his teams were the underdogs in.

In 2013, Mississippi State went to their fourth bowl game in a row, something that had never happened in MSU football history. A change was in the air, but no one other than those within the football program itself knew how dramatic that change would be.

The 2014 season began with three wins that were expected against the likes of Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. What wasn't expected were the accolades, SEC and national, received by MSU football players.

Lightly recruited Preston Smith, a two-star recruit that was going into his senior season, achieved something no one else in SEC history had achieved, he was named Defensive Lineman of the Week three consecutive weeks. National exposure was starting to head MSU's way but a top-25 ranking was still eluding the Bulldogs.

Next up for the team was a battle against No. 8 LSU in LSU's Death Valley.

MSU was up to the task and defeated the Tigers 34-29. The game wasn't as close as the score indicated. The national media realized that and ranked MSU for the first time this season, 14th in the AP poll. Junior QB Dak Prescott was named Athlon's National Offensive Player of the Week and the SEC Co-Offensive Player of the Week while Ben Beckwith, a former walk-on, was named the SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week.

With a bye week after the LSU win, MSU had a chance to saviour their victory and the national media had a chance to start taking a long, hard look at the MSU football program. After the next weekend of football, despite not playing, MSU moved up to 12th in the latest polls.

What Mullen had been building since arriving in 2008 was finally being recognized by the national media.

Next up for the Bulldogs was another top-10 team, the No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies. The SEC Network's SEC Nation broadcasting crew decided to come to Starkville for that matchup. ESPN even did a day-long All-Access segment of the MSU football program. QB Dak Prescott, who had accounted for 373 yards and 3 TDS, was now being mentioned as a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman Trophy Award.

MSU once again prevailed in dominating fashion, defeating the Aggies 48-31. And like the LSU game, this one wasn't as close as the score indicated, with MSU leading 48-17 late in the 4th quarter.

With the victory, Mississippi State made the statement to the college football world that they were for real and the national media agreed 100%. Mississippi State skyrocketed up the AP poll from 12th to 3rd, Dak Prescott is now being mentioned as one of the top five players in the Heisman Watch by ESPN College Football, ESPN College Football also has MSU in their mock season-ending four-team national championship playoff.

Next up for Mississippi State on their football schedule are the No. 2 ranked Auburn Tigers, another team that ESPN College Football projects in their mock national championship playoff. It not only could be a battle of epic proportions but it could be another historic moment in the annals of the Mississippi State football program.

ESPN's College Gameday, the heavyweight when it comes to broadcasting crews in the college football world, realizes this and is joining the party this weekend at Davis Wade Stadium. Like the rest of the college football media world, they want to see this 5-star football program that offensive coordinator-turned head coach Dan Mullen has built at Mississippi State through hard work and meticulous evaluation of talent. It may not be the most glamorous way to build a football program but I believe LSU head coach Les Miles and Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin would agree it works.

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Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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