Scott Stricklin has been ready for the question. Just as Mississippi State’s athletic director is ready to talk contract extension and upgrading with his award-winning coach. After all, “He’s been here five years and we’re five-for-five in extending him,” Stricklin pointed out. “So I’m sure we’ll make it six-for-six.”
For his part, Dan Mullen’s sixth season has produced a first-time honor. He was recognized this week as the SEC’s Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. That made Mullen the fourth Bulldog coach to achieve this status, joining Paul Davis (1963 AP), Charley Shira (1970 AP), and Sylvester Croom (2007 AP and Coaches).
Meanwhile during this awards-week Mullen and Stricklin are occupied with organizing Mississippi State’s preparations for the Orange Bowl trip. There #7-ranked Mississippi State and #12 Georgia Tech play on New Years Eve in Sun Life Stadium. There is much, much to get done from both the coaching and administrative side before a quick Christmas break. Such as, today's trip to Miami for an official Bowl appearance.
Thus, the athletic director explained, contract discussions with Mullen have been necessarily brief. And that is no reason for any concerns.
“We’ve actually had some productive conversations,” Stricklin said. “Dan, in his defense his focus has been recruiting and bowl prep. But I’m optimistic we can get that wrapped up pretty soon.”
Mullen was honored following Mississippi State’s 10-2 season, in which the Bulldogs rose from unranked to the top of all polls in October. The #1 ranking by AP, Coaches, and the College Football Playoff committee, was more than just a consensus. It marked the first time Bulldog football occupied the #1 position in any national poll or ranking.
The Bulldogs are currently #7 (CFP) and #8 (AP, Coaches) going into bowl camp. With a victory in the Orange Bowl, they will earn the program’s first top-ten final ranking since the 1940 team was #9 in the last polls. That team also played in the Orange Bowl, and won.
Mullen is 46-30 at State so far, the third-winningest coach in the program’s 119 years and 115 seasons.
There is an under-appreciated aspect to Mullen’s selection. When his three predecessors were named COTY, it was after a ‘surprise’ sort of season; the first winning year for all those coaches at Mississippi State. Davis went 7-2-2 in his second season, and it was the first winning campaign at MSU since 1957. State didn’t have another winning year until 1970, earning Shira the honor in his own fourth year. It also took Croom’s fourth year to have a winning record, and the first at MSU since 2000.
Mullen’s case is entirely different, and much more positive for both himself and the program. After a 5-7 debut in 2009, a year where just one play or officiating call in a particular could have let those Dogs break even, Mullen has put together five-straight winning records. Each year has also produced a bowl berth and, three times of four so far, victories in the post-season. The 2014 team will play for a fourth bowl win this New Years Eve in the Orange Bowl.
Besides these SEC recognitions, Mullen is up for national honors as well. He is the Region 2 AFCA Coach of the Year and one of five finalists for the national COTY award. He is also one of the three finalists for the Maxwell Football Club Collegiate Coach of the Year. The other finalist are Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, ironically Mullen’s mentor at three programs before Mullen took his first head coaching post here at MSU; and Oregon’s Mark Helfrich. The winner will be announced December 22.
Maybe by then Mississippi State will have something to present to the coach on-paper. Maybe not. Stricklin is confident, not concerned even with suggestions Mullen is a hot property in the profession this winter as other programs have or will have head coach positions to fill.
Remember, Stricklin said, “Those are the same people who hold me he was on the hot seat last year! So I don’t put a lot of stock in that.”
That ‘hot seat’ gossip was about as unfounded as any other football rumor. While the Bulldogs had sputtered down the 2012 season stretch after a 7-0 start to finish 8-5, then were 4-6 late in 2013, Mississippi State’s administration did not waver in commitment to the coach. The reward of avoiding public pressures was a strong finish including a Liberty Bowl win, then this history-making 2014 season.
Now Mullen will be appropriately rewarded, just as always before said Stricklin.
“It’s very similar conversation to what we normally have. We want to make sure we reward Dan for what he’s done, and also continue to invest going forward not only in him but his entire staff. And I think we’ll be in position to do that. Like I said, we’ve had productive conversations and I’m hopeful we’ll get that wrapped up.”
There is even precedent for sealing such deals during post-season celebrating. Mullen’s first big new deal came the day before the 2010 Bulldogs played in the 2011 Gator Bowl. Announcing an upgraded contract at the bowl game site was followed by a thrashing of Michigan on New Years Day.