Riding In Road Dawgs Style With Dan Mullen

"This is dangerous here," Dan Mullen grins, shedding shoes, stretching out legs and leaning back in the lounge-like seat before we've even left the parking lot. Though calling this a ‘bus' is almost insulting. For this May 5 date on the 2009 Road Dawgs Tour, the Bulldog coach and MSU staff—and one guest writer rider—are rolling in rock-star style. Literally.

After making the previous Road Dawg trips via plane or personal cars, for today's venture into the Delta the Mississippi State's coach will ride a coach; a corporate coach provided by Senator Coaches out of Florence, Ala., and piloted by Kent Hardy. "I always wanted to drive this one, and I'm having a blast," he says. Why so, and how is this football-related? Because not only has this particular coach hauled around such acts as Def Leppard and Journey…it is used by the ESPN ‘Gameday' crew for games in this region. Yep, this very van has hosted Corso, Herbstreit, and our favorite sideline sight Erin Andrews.

Alas, she's not on the passenger list today. But the rest of us really are coming to your cities if you happen to reside in Clarksdale and Greenwood. That first stop is obviously also music related and I've prepared the evening before by playing some Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan. The ipod is left in the car as is my computer, so fittingly only the sportswriter is without a laptop today. Yes, Mullen has brought his along. "This is great because I can get some work done," he says, "I can't do that in a car or a plane." Thus as we clear Starkville on Hwy. 82 the coach is watching Oregon's offense and scribbling an occasional note. Always looking for tweaks and twists to his ‘spread' scheme, he agrees, as the Ducks break out of their red zone against Purdue with an inside read-and-run.

Meanwhile Bulldog Club execs Mike Richey and Bart Gregory compare notes from the previous trips with Chad Thomas of athletics promotions and Alumni Association directors Janet Downey and Michael Richadson. They counted about 160 for lunch in Columbus the day before, an excellent midday turnout typical of this tour. A.A. boss Jimmy Abraham isn't on the bus, he's gone ahead to his old hometown of Clarksdale to see family, friends, and celebrate his father's 83rd birthday. Athletic Director Greg Byrne isn't here either; he is at a SEC meeting in Phoenix.

They're missing an interesting trip as the coach (not to be confused with the Coach) will spoil any rider. Downey wonders aloud what it would be like touring with Def Leppard; the wise-guy writer can't resist quipping "Hysteria." The sofas and seats would befit any executive office, and there are enough flat screens for a NASA launch. The biggest one is over Mullen's shoulder so he's half-turned that way, splitting attention from the Ducks outlasting Purdue in overtime and, initially, some Sportscenter. It's showing the finish of the New York-Boston game as Johnathan Papelbon closes out another save.

Yes, New England native Mullen is a Red Sox fan. "I can't wait to meet Paps," he says. Bart tells the former Florida Gator coordinator about John's special boots; made of alligator hide with the lizard's eye on each. Having passed Mathiston, almost everyone—again, saving Bart who goes up front to search those screens for the movie "Tommy Boy" on satellite—sends a ‘twitter' out including Mullen that, well, that we're on the road. I might resign and retire if ever forced to go the twitter route.

Mullen has changed channels to Fox News for a while. Soon I move to the next seat to watch game video with him…and let me tell you, it's like being a first-year student sitting in on a doctorate-level course. The things Mullen aims his laser-mouse pointer at are as fascinating as instructive as indications of what is in store for State players. What the quarterback is looking for pre-snap, how receivers come off the line, which ways the guards and tackles pull (or don't), and then what is as well as should have been done at that instant. But of equal import to him is what the defense does or doesn't do in every situation. The angles they take, or don't; who fills gaps or fails; overloads and unloads and everything. As well as the fact that after digging their way out of the other red zone, Oregon opens almost every possession in plus-territory due to superior special teams work.

This matters because while Mullen is best known for offense, specifically spread, the fact is he's prepared a career to be the complete coach. Offense, defense, kicking, the whole package. This isn't a one-dimensional boss for the Bulldogs. Nor is his offensive philosophy built just on speed and skill matchups. Doing an interview with 680AM in Atlanta, he talks of using ‘mashers' in this gameplan. As in, fullbacks and tight ends and big tailback Anthony Dixon. "There's a role for them," Mullen stresses of MSU mashers, adding that his play-calling would ideally be 50% run, 50% throw. And while Tyson Lee is the #1 quarterback, Chris Relf very much as a role. "We're going to play two quarterbacks and take advantage of both of their strengths." After he hangs up we discuss Relf's development, the outlook for Tyler Russell, etc. What is clear is that now regardless of scheme—spread, pro, option, whatever—"You've got to build things around that quarterback," Mullen says.

At the Clarksdale Country Club I run into old friend and lifetime D.B. subscriber Sandy Stillions, who just has to remind me that he remember my first day as a young assistant SID to Mr. Bob Hartley and Bo Carter back in…I ain't saying. We recall longtime volunteer State football photographer Ted Kelly also. WABG-Channel 6 wants to interview Mullen before lunch. I'm told Mrs. Brenda Williams, mother of the late and by MSU fans lamented Darren Williams, is present, and that's a welcome piece of news.

More obvious is Charles Mitchell and family as the sophomore safety has interrupted his May vacation to come hear his coach talk. He's even asked to deliver the invocation and does so well. Mitchell is wearing a black golf shirt emblazoned with the new ‘Champions Club' logo marking his achievements on and off the field both before and during spring camp. Rightfully proud of it, too, and I'm proud State didn't settle for a mere tee-shirt for these elite spring players.

"When we get back for summer June 1 he's going to announce the (new) Champions," Mitchell says. "I'm working out right now at home, getting rest and getting ready for summer." Asked what strength coach Matt Balis would think of his deep-fried diet today, Mitchell grins. "Oh, he's not going to say much, I always make my weight!" Which leads to the ever-popular question: what does AD weigh now? "When we ran 40s Friday before we left campus he said he weighed 240," Mitchell reports. "And he said if he weighed 235 he'd run a 4.4!"

Lunch, of course, is divine Delta-grown catfish and the fixins. As a guest—OK, freeloader—on this trip I wait to last and talk to folk; some familiar, some new. Like Jimmy Chow who is next-to-last in line. Turns out he not only lived in Old Main, as did my father (though not in Polecat Alley), but Mr. Chow, Class of '65, was a resident and in there when the legendary dorm burned down.

"Clarksdale is glad to have Coach Mullen here," Chow says. "It's just nice to hear and see things about State, especially for the students that are coming along. We appreciate having everybody over and I'm looking forward to learning about the spread!" He'll have to wait a while for that, though. I'm still gobbling a filet when Mullen starts into his talk; the same one delivered six times already and to be reprised on the rest of the tour. Boiled down to the core theme, he took fans back to the spring game—which he called "our best practice of the entire spring, the best we executed on offense, defense, and special teams"—and after thanking all who attended issued the challenge.

"You were able to make a big difference. And it's pretty simple, if we can 31,000 people to show up at a practice for us there's no reason we shouldn't have at least 55,000 at every home game next year. No reason at all. And if we have 55,000 there imagine what the effort is going to be like? You have an important role in our football succeeding and us becoming champions. You need to be there, supporting us, cheering for our guys, ringing your bells, to make it the toughest stadium in college football. And once you do that you're going to be responded with a team that plays with tremendous effort."

In short, and graded by my own experience in public speaking, it was just about a perfect combination of a pat-on and shove-in the collective Bulldog back. He praised the fan base without, as I later tell him, letting them off the hook for future commitment. That indeed was the goal, and Mullen achieves it. My favorite comment is when he dares all to think big—make that, bigger—by saying "There's nothing wrong with wanting to be the best."

Mitchell knows the talk very well himself."It feels good because they get to hear what we hear every day and see how it is, not only hear from us but from the head coach. It's not only good for us, it's good for them as well."

Mullen also takes some questions, and naturally enough the spread subject comes up first. Asked just how much of the offense is installed, "Probably about 50%," he says, then offers a surprising insight. "We probably used about 60% of our offense last year at Florida, because 40% of it didn't apply to the team we had. We had a big, huge, giant playbook and we only used part of it with last year's team depending on the personnel." That selective combination of players and plays was sufficient to win a national title…though Mullen later returns to his regard for the other side of the squad, noting how it was the goal-line stand by Florida's defense against Oklahoma that was the game's turning point. Again, a reminder that this isn't a one-track mind in charge.

Oh, and somewhat related to the cowbells reference, Mullen is asked if the Dawg Pound Rock will be shown this fall. Yes, though "We're working with the SEC Office to make sure we don't get in trouble, because they like to enforce a lot of different rules around here!"

Back to the bus to run back down Hwy 49 to Greenwood, which of course we'd passed through earlier. Remember the rock references early on? Bart has the driver point out Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero blues club. Mullen informs that he can play some guitar himself but is better on the piano. And Chad, a Kentucky native in his fifth year at State, wants to see the infamous Crossroads of 49 and 61. I explain to Mullen the legend of Robert Johnson when he "went down to the Crossroads" but have to inform Thomas there are three places claiming to be the spot. Then we MSU alums discuss what we'd sell to the Devil in return for football success. As my immortal soul is on safe deposit above, I can only offer an internal organ or two for beating LSU, Alabama, and TSUN this fall.

As the cholesterol takes over some try to nap though Mullen can't help watching more Oregon, this time as they beat Stanford and then rout Washington. He yawns often; long night with 11-week old Canon we ask? Yeah, his son was up often and probably because family hound Heisman was barking much of the night. The bus satellite suddenly comes back having found a signal. Mullen ask if the History Channel is OK, we agree and learn about the Marianas Trench and plate tectonics. (Confession: I'd seen that episode before).

At three it's back to ESPN where Mullen comes wide away to watch UEFA champions league soccer, as Manchester United leads Arsenal 3-0 in the semifinals. A football coach is a football coach either side of the pond, I guess, because Mullen is into this stuff. "If it comes on Sunday morning Megan just shakes her head," Dan smiles. He knows a lot of the Man U players, though can't resist noting---as a good conservative—that the team is at least partly funded by our taxpayer dollars because that team is sponsored by AIG, a beneficiary of a bailout.

The announcers describe Arsenal's play as "guileless and witless." I'll have to remember that for future use in my own game story, though only for the opposition. Because we're running a bit ahead of schedule we pull off in a parking lot at Greenwood. Janet and Chad go for coffee, Bart goes to Dunkin Donuts for carbs with his caffeine. By 4:30 we're parked by the Yazoo River in Cotton Row so Mullen can have a private meeting with Fred Carl, who coincidentally I saw at Saturday morning's graduation receiving an honorary degree from MSU. The meeting goes almost 90 minutes; I used the time to call State and ask if another basketball signee had been announced. Not yet, but pending.

When Mullen returns I ask if he's procured any new appliances. "I said I could use a grill in my backyard!" he smiles.

At the LeFlore County Civic Center the crowd is already building, and Mullen is met by triplets; two boys wearing jerseys with numbers 1 and 3, and a cheerleader to be. I soon run into a familiar face, or at least it was before he shaved the head entirely. Former Bulldog offensive guard Michael Fair has obviously used his physical education degree well, as would be expected of a four-time member of the SEC Honor Roll. As a senior he was a All-SEC player, too, as named by both Coaches and A.P. Fair is now coaching at Pillow Academy, and reports that Melvin Smith was in the neighborhood just the day before. We recall the great days of 1997-2000, and Fair surely belongs to a most rarified group of Bulldogs who were part of four winning teams. He's glad to hear that the prospectus for the offensive line is, in my humble opinion, improving markedly with the chance to be really competitive in time. I show him the Cotton Bowl watch given me by MSU's administration that I still wear, pointing out the bent wristband left when State safety Josh Morgan and Tennessee tight end Jason Witten ended up wrastlin' on top of my camera bag on the Scott Field sidelines in 2002. "You should send him a bill to fix it," Fair suggests of the all-pro Dallas tight end.

Mullen breaks free from the meet-and-greets to eat some more of the same as lunch, and just as good of course. Nobody in the house is disappointed. "I'm just impressed with what a people person he is," Randy White tells me. "You see him out working the crowd, shaking hands, talking to everyone here who wants to talk to him. Then he moves on, but you feel like he's had a conversation with you. I really love the youth, enthusiasm, and drive."

Again I wait to go last for food, fortunately plenty is left even though the crowd reached the estimated 300-plus. Charles Cascio, who in July takes over as national chairman of the Alumni Association (former n.c. Bill Long has been at both meetings today), invites me to join him and we chat about old friends and future football potential. He too wants to know about the offensive line. Good to know more State folk realize that whatever the system, it's the muscle up front that makes it run. Or pass. Though naturally everybody ultimately works around to the ‘Will Russell Play' question. Yeah, I'm expecting it.

Before the coach talks, Abraham asks all in the crowd who either are or next fall will be State students to stand. Seven do. This area of the state has always been good recruiting territory for Bulldogs off and on the field alike, but if State is to reach the stated goal of new president Dr. Mark Keenum to reach 22,000 by mid-next-decade there's a lot of work still to be done. And even the head football coach is assisting this cause, noting that recently he went to tell the MSU Meteorology students congratulations for their national championship this past semester. "They beat M.I.T.," he said, then switching to a mock Bahstun accent "and those guys are wicket smahhht."

In fact, during the speech making the point that flying Bulldog colors year-round might impress the next Montana, Rice, or Peyton at an early age, Mullen added that showing up for events like the spring game makes the right MSU impression on prospective students as well as athletes. "That's how much you are involved in recruiting," he tells the crowd. "Because if you've there next year, what if I have the best player in the country show up one game? I can't tell you which one it will be but he'll be there for one of those games next year. If there's 55,000 there he's going to know, Mississippi State is big-time football."

Meanwhile the rest of us are in a big-time hurry to prep for departure. Mike, Bart, Janet and Michael will go on with Mullen on the rock-star ride to stop overnight in Vicksburg before going on to Wednesday's lunch in Natchez. Chad and I are taking Scott Stricklin's car—he joined us in Greenwood—back to Starkville. It's a sign of something that I, a terrible passenger, allow Chad to do the driving. Though I have second thoughts when, noting we're in somebody vehicle, Chad says he isn't worried about dodging any deer.

Hmmm, maybe I do need to call Old Scratch and up the ante on my ‘Crossroads' style bargain…

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