Bulldog Club staff reported over 400 filled the Stoneville Monday meeting and over 800 overflowed the Olive Branch appearance that night. A Tuesday night trip to Nashville brought out some 300 more folk, all eager to get the first look at and hear first-hand from the coach charged with bring Bulldog football back to SEC-contention status. Mullen accepts this responsibility with the same energy and enthusiasm he's demonstrated since the December 10 hiring.
"It's been a wild trip for us the last month," Mullen said, referring to both his first duties with the Dogs as well as concluding his obligations at Florida with a successful B.C.S. Championship game. Of course the reception he's gotten this week have kept the fire burning. "We've had great turnouts wherever we went, it's far exceeded our expectations."
At the same Mullen has turned this week's trips into opportunity to express some of his own expectations. Specifically, that everyone who's come to hear him talk in January will report to campus at least once in March or April to watch the Bulldogs practice. Most of all, on April 18 for the re-scheduled intrasquad scrimmage to conclude spring camp. These speaking events naturally are aimed at the faithful, but Mullen has been preaching that their allegiance needs to be displayed at the spring game for the benefit of the Bulldogs themselves.
"We're going to go through the 14 toughest practices that they could ever imagine, that will lead us up to the Maroon-White game. They're going to run into the stadium and my expectations are for 40,000 on that day. The team is going to make those sacrifices, so what are you going to do? If they're going to make those sacrifices they need to see some reward, the reward is having a sold-out stadium."
If any extra incentive is needed, Mullen reminded fans that there will be a lot of special guests at the spring game with a host of the best high school juniors (rising seniors) prospects in Mississippi also invited to watch the festivities at Scott Field.
For benefit of the new regime and fans alike, spring practices have been moved back a couple of weeks and don't begin until mid-March now. This certainly helps Mullen and his staff to take care of January job-one: recruiting. This weekend brings the initial round of official visits, fortunately coinciding with a home basketball game Saturday night…and Mullen certainly wants to take advantage of the energy being generated by his hardwood cohorts right now.
Recruiting is so much on Mullen's mind, in fact, that he said it's likely his assistant staff won't be finalized until after February 4's signing date. He has announced five new aides already, while four members of the previous staff have been retained so far (one in an administrative role). The boss hasn't even formalized any position-titles for his staff, either. "Their job until February 4 is to recruit as hard as possible; after that I'll make some announcements about assignments."
A delayed camp also gives the revamped staff more time to familiarize themselves with their current players. Mullen waited until everyone was back for the spring semester, and he himself could return from the B.C.S. game in Miami, to have a full-team meeting, followed by individual sit-downs with everyone on the roster. Reported reactions from all sides has been positive…though the new coach likely caught the Dogs by surprise when he issued a challenge right from day-one.
"A lot of guys on the team say Coach, we want to go to Atlanta, we came here to win a championship, we want to be champions. I say ‘stop right there'. I've been on championship teams. I bet a lot of people in this (team meeting) room wish they could go to Atlanta. The wish they could have that confetti falling on their heads, they wish they could be on national TV every week. But wishing you could be there is a long way from wanting."
Soon enough State players can start showing the coach how badly they want to be champions; in fact they're taking the first steps right now in weight-and-conditioning work under new strength coach Matt Balis, one staff whose title speaks for itself. And in April fans can make their own strong statement, to both the coach and to his 2009 varsity.
Prior to the luncheon, Mullen took time to speak with media away from the crowd. Besides Dawgs' Bite, staff of Associated Press, the Laurel Leader-Call, and Hattiesburg American were present. The full conference follows, with the questions by DB so designated.
DB: Greg Byrne and the Bulldog Club are keeping you busy with what, five trips in four days? "Yeah, I'll end up hitting six places by tonight. But you know what? It's been fantastic. The great thing is the reception everywhere we've been. It's far exceeded what we expected going into it. So it's been really exciting everywhere we've been and it's good for me to get out and meet all the great Bulldog fans everywhere."
DB: Reports we get are that every stop has had capacity crowds. "I think it's great to see that excitement. And I just hope we keep that carrying over. I think it's the excitement of a bunch of things. I think we've got a little momentum with the basketball team winning right now, and a lot of pressure on John (Cohen) to make sure we have a good spring! And I'm hoping we have a huge turnout at the spring game to just keep that excitement rolling into the next football season."
DB: What does this say about the hunger out there for positive things with football? (laughing) "I'll tell you what, it's great for me. Because we're going to ask our players to make a major commitment to what we're doing. And in return for that you hope they see that support. The fabulous thing for us right now, I'm starting to see that support so I think when we get everything going here our players are going to see that support. I'm expecting a huge turnout at our spring game at different practices. I really think that momentum right now is going to carry through spring."
DB: Tomorrow ends the days on the road? "There's a high school A.D.s and administrators meeting in Vicksburg and I'm going to stay there tonight to meet some people, then I'll speak tomorrow morning to the conference. Then rush back up because we've got a big recruiting weekend."
DB: Right, you stop visiting and start hosting visits. "That's what it is right there. We get to start showing the hospitality and be the entertainers instead of the entertainees! But it will be big a weekend for us recruiting, then we've got that final drive, that final two weeks that we're out recruiting on the road before Signing Day comes up."
DB: Will you use all 25 grants this year? "Yep. We're going to fill up full in that class. Because they won't give me more! But we have room 25 so we'll have a full recruiting class."
Q: Speaking of recruiting, talk about recruiting players in the south part of this state? "Well, the key for us is we're going to put our number-one focus on recruiting the state of Mississippi, that the players in this state realize they can go play for their State University, and represent their state on a national stage football-wise. There's an awful lot to making the people of this state proud of their football team, and they can be a part of that. So we are going to recruit this area very hard, every one of our coaches.
"We are not going to leave the state of Mississippi until we've been in every high school in this state first."
Q: Talk about the junior college football in Mississippi? "I mean it's obviously huge. Two players from Gulf Coast are already with us, Chris White and Sean Brauchle are already on campus. One of the big benefits for us is obviously having those junior colleges right here in the state.
"When you look at recruiting and how it works, there are a lot of schools that have to go all around the country. Talk to Urban Meyer, why did he take the job at the University of Florida? It's because I don't have to get in a plane, I can drive to go see all my recruits. That's one of the main reasons I took the job here at Mississippi State, so I don't have to go all over the country. Not just that, we have great high school football players in the state and if I need to place a high school player somewhere he's right in our backyard, I'm not sending him out to California to go play junior college football. And if we have some holes we need to fill and we're going to do it with a junior college player, I'm going to do it right here in the state. Having that system to me is an unbelievable benefit for myself and the Mississippi State football program."
Q: Have you ever done anything like coaching in the national championship game one week and the next week been making six stops? "I tell you what, in the coaching profession it gets pretty wild. I remember I coached a Fiesta Bowl game for the University of Utah; we got back to my house at two in the morning and did three loads of laundry; and were on a noon flight to Florida, never to return to my house. I couldn't even go back to move out unfortunately because we had a death in the family, my grandfather passed away so we had to go to England to see him.
"So it's a part of it, I guess. It was a neat deal getting to play in the national championship and just kind of added to it. Because I don't know if both parties would have been as excited to have me coaching in that game if we were not playing in a national championship game, I think both sides might have said oh, we should move on. But being in that big a stage it was beneficial for me to coach in that game."
Q: Do you think as a recruiter that gives you a boost? "It can't hurt! I guess when kids come in my office and look at my ring case, I've just added a couple more rings to it! But for me as a coach it gives a boost to why you coach. The reason you coach is to see your players succeed in life, you know. That's going to go a long way in cementing the legacy of a young man named Tim Tebow. I made the commitment to Tim when he came to Florida that we were going to win championships together. So I'm glad I was able to fulfill that promise before I left or before he was able to leave."
Q: A coach I talked to said you have a reputation as one of the crackerjack recruiters in the nation. "To me there's two aspects of the recruiting. One, is the evaluation part of it, of finding the talents of certain players and going after certain players. You can find the evidence of that in a Brian Johnson, who when I started recruiting had zero scholarship offers. His first offer was Utah and it was the only scholarship offer for quite a long time. There's a kid four years later walking off with two B.C.S. (bowl) rings, that nobody really wanted.
"It's the evaluation part and the eye for what you're looking for, number one. And then the ability to build those relationships with the players, get into their homes and be able to relate to the young people as well as put a product on the field that players want to play in. It's great, I can walk into peoples' houses and say hey, this is the offensive style you're going to play in as a quarterback. In the last six years I've had three Heisman finalists and one has won it; two B.C.S. national championship game MVPs; two first-team All-Americans, three Academic All-Americans of the year, and the first overall pick in the NFL draft playing for me. It's a great situation to step into, to come in our offense and play quarterback in that!
"Obviously look at all the receivers, the numbers, and the way we utilize different athletes. We have this fabulous offense that we're going to put out there for you to come play in. So when you have those things and they realize the excitement, the energy our program is going to be in, and they have a coach that's going to believe in them and give them a very family atmosphere and they're going to be taken care of, I think we have a lot to offer that way. And I think kids look at it and say I really want to be a part of program."
DB: How close are you to completing your staff? "We're getting there. I think after Signing Day we're going to have it. I'm worried more right now about recruiting. Shortly after Signing Day I'll make the announcement of what everybody's role and position will be on this staff."
DB: You held the first team meeting last Friday, and it lasted over three hours. "Yeah, we were in there a while. I just wanted to cover everything. I wanted to make sure they understood where I stood on things the program. And I wanted to find out where they stood on where the program was.
"You only have one opportunity at a first team meeting, so I wanted to make sure when we walked out of that room nobody could say something wasn't covered. I wanted to make sure we covered it from top to bottom."
Q: You're going from a ‘gold standard' program as far as funding and visibility. Talk about the challenges with a small budget, a state with a small population, how you overcome that. "Well, the great start I've had is just the tremendous support of everywhere I've been on this tour right with the fans and the excitement of things. But when you get into some of those things, we're going to make the most of what we have. We have great facilities right now and there's a plan for us in the future of continuing to develop and find a way to get on top in facilities. I don't expect us to be behind anybody in the SEC down the road. Right now I'd like you to find a better academic facility anywhere in the nation than what we have.
"The people in this state I think are going to support us. And even when you get into budgets, there are a lot of schools that have huge recruiting budgets because they have to fly all over the country and pay for kids to fly in from all over the country to come see them. The benefit to having all these great players right in your backyard is it allows you to operate potentially at a smaller budget because a tank of gas to Jackson and back is a lot cheaper than an airplane ticket or a private jet to Jackson and back! All of those things, we find a way to make it work.
"I'll tell you what, I think our budget is going to be higher than some teams that we were successful at in the MAC and the Mountain West Conference. Some of that stuff is a little overboard I think. I've been some places and seen some things that went a little overboard. So I've always been a person that we'll find a way, whatever we've got we'll make the best of, and I think we're going to be fine."
Q: Special teams have been lacking in recent years, talk about coaching that. "Well I hope it becomes a big factor. I'm a big special teams coach, I will be heavily involved in coaching the special teams. That will be a nice deal for me, and a major focal point for our team. Not just in the season but you'll see that this spring. It's hard to judge how it's been in the past because I only had the opportunity to play against Mississippi State once in my four years at Florida, that was my first year there (2005).
"What I see, that Coach Croom has done an unbelievable job, is our team had a 2.65 GPA. And I'm not walking into a program with a bunch of kids arrested or all these different things, he's done a great job instilling values. The on-the-field stuff we'll worry about after spring, we'll see how the special teams are then.
Q: Do you think you've held Croom's recruiting class together? "We'll find out on February 4! I guess there's two ways you look at it. One, in recruiting you have an immediate judge when that paper comes through that fax machine. Then I find out how we apparently have done in recruiting. Then ask me two years from now how we did recruiting this year. You don't judge a recruiting class until they're about two years down the road.
"I always go back to my recruiting story. Scott Peolie of the New England Patriots keeps a little thing of the draft list on his desk of who he took in the fifth round. Because that's who he took before he took Tom Brady in the sixth round! Alex Smith had one scholarship offer; three years later he was the first overall pick in the NFL draft, so I think there's a couple of people out there who say I wish I'd offered Alex Smith a scholarship because it turned pretty good.
"It's such an inexact science. We'll find out how recruiting goes down the road."
Q: We're here in Hattiesburg, what are the chances of playing Southern Miss in the next couple of years. "We'll see. I'm excited we're opening with Jackson State next year, really excited to have an in-state rivalry like that going on. I think it's just great to play in-state games like that. So there's a bunch of the teams I think we'd love to get on, at some point play every team in the state. Because just for the people, the excitement that builds in the state right now. I think our schedule is booked for a couple of years here but that's certainly not out of possibility in the future just for the excitement it will cause here in the state."
DB: Has the family moved to Starkville yet? "Megan got to Starkville last night. And Heisman, our dog. A one-year-old Wheaton Terrier. I told her if we'd got one the year before it would have been named Champ; if we'd got one this year it would be named Champ. But since we got it in 2007, it's named Heisman. It was almost named Davey O'Brien!"