Monday Morning Coffee Break

Football-wise, 2008 began with high expectations, followed by extreme lows and ended with great excitement and anticipation with the hiring of Dan Mullen as MSU's new head football coach.

The 2007 season ended with an 8-5 record after Mississippi State defeated the University of Central Florida 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl, the first bowl that Mississippi State had played in since 2000. And with seven offensive starters, eight defensive starters and both kickers returning there was a great deal of optimism among coaches, players and fans about the 2008 season.

But a dent formed in that optimism near the end of spring practice when several players were involved in a gun incident on the Mississippi State campus. Starting offensive tackle Michael Brown, one of the premier offensive tackles in the SEC and possibly the nation, along with backup defensive tackle Quinton Wesley ultimately wound up being dismissed from the squad. Three other players - starting cornerback Anthony Johnson, backup linebacker Jamon Hughes and backup defensive lineman Rodney Prince - were all suspended for the 2008 season for their part in the incident.

Despite the loss of those five players, the coaches remained optimistic thanks to a good nucleus of returning players and talented youngsters.

But then came more unexpected losses of other players who were expected to contribute significantly.

Starting sophomore right offensive tackle Derek Sherrod had to sit out the first game due to an infection in his leg. Reserve senior quarterback Josh Riddell transferred. True freshman wide receiver O'Neal Wilder, who was projected to be a backup at the beginning of the season, suffered an injury in the pre-season that would eventually keep him from playing during the year. Starting senior safety Derek Pegues and sophomore linebacker Karlin Brown, a backup, were suspended for the first game due to academic reasons. Redshirt freshman kicker Eric Richards, who was being counted on to kick off, suffered an injury that pretty much ended his season before it even began.

Before the season even started, the football team's depth chart had suffered serious losses. And it showed in their season-opener against Louisiana Tech, a game that MSU lost 22-14.

In addition to the loss on the field, Mississippi State also lost starting linebacker Jamar Chaney, a senior, to a season-ending injury during the game. And starting tight end Marcus Green, a redshirt freshman who great things was expected of, was also injured. Although he played in the next game, his injury eventually caused him to miss the last ten games of the season.

As the injuries mounted, so did the on-the-field losses, as Mississippi State literally limped through the season, finishing a very disappointing 4-8.

MSU athletic director Greg Byrne and head coach Sylvester Croom met the day after State's season-ending loss to in-state rival Ole Miss 45-0, a meeting that resulted in Coach Croom resigning.

Less than a year on the job and Byrne was once again looking for a head coach. Would he hit a home run like he did with the hiring of John Cohen as MSU's new baseball coach or would he simply strike out and make the best of a bad situation?

Byrne, who would do the CIA proud with the secrecy of his head coaching searches, hit what appeared to be another home run with the hiring of the University of Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, a 36-year old with the energy of a 18-year old and an acute awareness of the importance of recruiting rarely seen.

Mullen, just a day after he sat foot on the campus of Mississippi State, attended a fan gathering in Starkville, met with the media immediatly afterwards, then hopped on the plane for fan gatherings in Tupelo, Meridian and Jackson the rest of the day, all the while meeting with as many recruits (committed and uncommitted) as possible in between the gatherings.

By days end, he had traveled between 350 and 400 miles, spoken to more than 1,500 MSU fans and met face-to-face with several recruits and their families. He also brought back memories of Jackie Sherrill with his reference to Ole Miss as "the school up north." As many of you may remember, Coach Sherrill used to call Ole Miss Mississippi.

Give Dan Mullen credit, he has quickly learned one of the fringe benefits of being a member of the Mississippi State family is poking a little fun at Ole Miss .... or should I say "the school up north."

Next up was the hiring of his coaching staff, at least a skelton staff that could take care of recruiting.

After doing a quick evaluation of the Croom coaching staff, he decided to retain four members of it - Melvin Smith, David Turner, Rockey Felker and Reed Stringer. And as you would expect, all four are considered good to great recruiters.

Once that was done, he either jumped on the company plane or hopped into a car with one or more of his assistants to meet with as many recruiting prospects as he could prior to the beginning of the December recruiting dead period.

While visiting with recruits, he still found the time to hire several more assistant coaches - North Alabama head coach Mark Hudspeth, South Alabama offensive coordinator Les Koenning and Southern Miss running backs coach Frank Wilson. And like the four members of the Croom staff that were retained, these three are also considered very good recruiters. And two of the three - Hudspeth and Koenning - have produced good to great offenses where they have coached.

As you see, two underlying themes to a Mullen staff is the ability to recruit, and, in the case of the offensive staff, innovative offensive minds.

In the meantime, on the home front, the Mississippi State fans are as excited as I have seen them since the winning days of the Jackie Sherrill era, an era that, at times, saw Mississippi State football contending for the SEC Western Division title on a regular basis and playing in the SEC Championship Game once.

And why shouldn't we be excited? Our new coach is considered one of the top offensive minds in college football, he has produced great quarterbacks wherever he has coached, he is known as an exceptional recruiter and he brings great energy and self-confidence. And he wants Mississippi State fans to feel like they are more than just fans, but an integral part of the program. I mean what other coach in the history of MSU football has asked, no, demanded that MSU fans attend the spring football game to the tune of a packed stadium, all the while ringing their cowbells so loud that the noise can be heard throughout the state.

Dan Mullen makes us, the MSU fans, believe once again that Mississippi State football can be great, just like it was in the late 1990's. And that's how it should be.

Now, do what you do - show your support for our football team by attending Super Bulldog Weekend and the spring football game.

The Maroon Tidal Wave is back!!


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


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