Now let's be clear on one fact. Bulldog personnel and fans alike have been witnessing a turning of the program all year…and I do mean all this calendar year, not simply the 2009 season itself. From the day Dan Mullen introduced himself to his inherited players, to those first ventures out to greet an encouraged public, through the labors of spring practices and summer workouts, on into August camp and finally over the course of the just-completed campaign, even the most scarred State fans have dared to have hope again. Hope that there was somebody in charge with a real plan in place, not just playing things by-whim or on-the-wing as we'd seen essentially since New Year's Eve 2000.
Yet fresh hope is still a fragile thing in today's college game and needs reinforcement, especially when the job is as challenging and the work as wearying as building up Bulldog football can be. Or put another way, there comes a point players and fans alike need tangible proof of payoff for their labors.
Well, is there anything in this corner of the football world more tangible than the Golden Egg?
I can't wait to find where Mullen and Greg Byrne choose to rest this most cherished totem of Magnolia State triumph. Though it would be nice if the public could occasionally see it, my own notion would be building a sealed display case near that team lounge door over which looms the Countdown Clock (which we showed you on this site back in August you might recall). The Egg to show a next generation of Bulldogs what they first and foremost play each season for; the clock to remind them when. It's just a notion.
So. The Egg is home. The season is done. Mullen's job? Only just begun.
It took some doing last week to scramble up any side-angles for a rivalry that normally needs no extra ingredients. What we initially got was a pretty feeble froth of the respective coaches ‘feuding' over recruiting and image. Yet by game-day both sides had seized on the subject and given it real substance; thus Mullen being able to unblinkingly proclaim that yes, indeed, there is one program in this state on the rise. I was standing near midfield when our savvy young coach found a mike and joined his ecstatic squad before the student section for an impromptu speech. As stadium speakers couldn't keep up with Mullen's excitable style most of us at field level couldn't make out many of the actual words. But then Mullen could have been reading a shopping list and the 7/8ths of a near-record crowd who stayed to celebrate would've cheered just as much. Every non-Reb in the house seemed to hang around after the horn, including young Champ who won in his own first Egg Bowl. Wonder if he's asked his long-suffering sire Tonka about that weird guy in the tie who insists on rubbing Bully's scalp for fourth-quarter luck?
Of course what he told fans Mullen was more than ready to repeat to media. And yes, that was yours truly serving up a softball query for the coach to hit out of the proverbial park, asking to summarize what he'd said. "I thanked our crowd for the support they've shown this program. And, also to show this program is certainly on the rise. Maybe to the contrary of what other people are saying in this state, I know one program that's certainly on the rise. And that's right here in Starkville."
Now that the cheering has ceased—I know, having taken a Sunday afternoon campus walk to get all that fowl cholesterol moving—it's almost time for moving on to the next stage. Almost, because there is remaining Monday business with Anthony Dixon heading for Jackson and, we can hope, presentation of the award given annually to the state's top college gridster. I still don't think it's a done deal for A.D. as even the most devout Dog has to agree young Dexter McCluster is a very special player worthy of all acclaim. Can you imagine what Mullen could do with such a versatile talent? Oh, right, we saw hints of such in how Chad Bumphis was increasingly used as his freshman season developed. That's a Trophy talent of the future himself.
And should Dixon receive his just reward tomorrow night, might I humbly propose it be called…the Boobie Prize? Again, just a notion, and I tentatively intend to be at the Rube's Shrine on Lakeland Drive tomorrow to see for myself. Gad, I haven't been the to the MSHOF since speaking at a supper for Jack Cristil years ago.
Thing is, this final act of Dixon's Bulldog career confirms that he is himself moving on, along with Jamar Chaney, Tyson Lee, Craig Jenkins, Marcus Washington (thank you sir for that highlight tape de-cleating yesterday), et.al. the senior class of 2009. In all the post-game hugging (Mrs. Megan Mullen may be of slight figure but she nearly cracked a couple of my ribs) it meant a lot to see the sheer joy on Tyson's face; he couldn't have been happier leaving home field victorious had he thrown the winning touchdowns himself, which tells far better than anything I could write about the sheer character of that MSU man. And, why he well-represents the ongoing transition as Mullen moves into year-two.
I expect some self-soothing mockery coming from the other side about claims this was a ‘signature' win for State and Mullen. They gotta make themselves feel better somehow after all at this most unexpected turn of '09 events. But the fact is every successful regime needs some sort of obvious ‘starting point' to look back on. It was no small part in Jackie Sherrill's finding a foothold here that he was the first Bulldog boss since Allyn McKeen back in 1939--!—to succeed in his debut Egg Bowl. While in the bigger picture we can factually say Mullen's hiring itself was that very starting point, the players and supporters required an event to boast about. As year-one played out it will be the 41-27 thrashing of rival Rebels that is recalled. Which it would merit in any event if only because this produced the most MSU points at Ole Miss expense since the War. The First one, that is. No, I wasn't at that game.
Heaven and earth knows nothing, nothing can inspire State folk like scoring points that this is a program with a true, honest chance to do something bigger and better. This is a very large reason why when Sylvester Croom's patient, even agonizing approach did pay off in 2007 with an honorably rewarding season, it was still difficult for Dog folk to invest their whole hearts. Not that much anything gets done at State the easy way, mind, but '07's style was just too hard to maintain in this here $EC world as we were painfully reminded a year ago. As all know now, Coach Croom ought to have retired after the Liberty Bowl, his clean-up job done.
But then it's unlikely Dan Mullen would have been available in December 2008. And look what we'd have missed out on going most any other conceivable route. It would have been difficult to obtain any other coach of his particular strengths and style that would fit so quickly into Mississippi State's own unique situation, particularly in-tandem with the promotion of Greg Byrne to oversee the whole process. The first-year results of this partnership don't just speak well for them but open up all sorts of tantalizing potential for the future.
And that is how I happen to be thinking today. Oh, sure, that warm post-win glow will remain for a while. And if my suggestion to Dixon, that he ask his coach to come up with Egg Bowl Champion tee-shirts is applied, I'll buy one myself. Because I want to remember both how A.D.'s era ended, and when the countdown clock on bringing Bulldog football back to prominence began. On a November Saturday afternoon at Scott Field. True, that ‘calendar' might just as easily have begun two months ago, and I suspect if we had it to do over again the offensive staff would give Dixon four shots at breaking the plane against LSU. Or if that fool official hadn't miss-judged Lee's footing against Houston. In fact, does anyone here doubt that if the schedule could be revised and these Dogs played LSU or Auburn in November, not September, that the SEC would be scrounging around for an 11th bowl berth?
But you play ‘em as booked. And as much as Mullen will utilize the thrill of victory from his first Egg Bowl to inspire the returning varsity to greater off-season efforts, I gotta believe he will also remind them that they are not, in fact, bowling. That most all of the teams they played this past fall are still playing while they go home for the holidays. That's not being callous; it's keeping current and future players pointed in the proper long-term direction. Put another way, Mullen doesn't seem a man to let good enough be good enough. And no matter how grueling their schedule, five wins isn't enough to satisfy this staff even when one of the quintet was the big rivalry.
Let's extend that attitude to ourselves as well. Enjoy the moment fully, and obtain some suitable items for holiday giving that keep the celebration going through bowl season. But at the same time, think about how to help Mullen and Byrne and all continue pushing this program on to that proverbial next-level. And the next. Certainly Mullen never hesitates to call fans to account in such things as showing the colors and buying the tickets; now he's got a big shiny Egg back safe in State's possession to reinforce the request.
By the way, I asked Byrne last week about one nagging issue: the SEC West slate State is stuck with bringing the three great rivals to Scott Field in odd years and sending fans on the road in even years. I raised the issue because the SEC has not listed league schedules and rotations beyond 2011 and wondered if there might be adjustments possible. He said yes, he had talked to Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss about trying to break this up, and got positive responses in terms of State going to one, any one, of them in consecutive years. But this would also entail that opponent going somewhere else in the West two-straight years, since the SEC mandates a four home/four road annual slate. This was the deal breaker, so for the foreseeable future we're just going to have to live with this rivalry rotation.
Which I bring up because 2010 is not as spicy a home slate as '09 with Auburn and Georgia coming to campus; good games to be sure but not the rabid rivalries that burn up ticket office order lines. Yet it is now incumbent on Bulldog fans to continue investing in their program and buying up those ducats regardless of whose name is on the other side of the scoreboard. Yeah, that was officially a fourth-largest home crowd yesterday…but there were obviously empty seats in the upper deck and end zone too. Yet don't think I'm being overly critical here because all who showed up did a marvelous job supplying the sort of home-field advantage this team needed. By chance, when watching that post-win party, I was standing with John Cohen and remarked that the atmosphere was so just like winning a baseball regional, on a larger scale of course but with the same thunderstorm fervor. It's something a football coach could—should--come to expect from the fan base.
Speaking of expectations. I said it on the WFCA pre-game show, thus was already on-record before the game and win; that no matter what the final score was Saturday, come Sunday we knew which team would be feeling better about the future based on who was leaving and who was coming back. And, on how recruiting is tending. Trends just appear to favor Mullen and MSU. This doesn't downplay the degree of loss in Dixon a bit…but his overwhelming presence, along with relatively limited quarterbacking no matter who was calling cadence and unproven receivers, dictated how State would play this first year. Now going into year-two Mullen and staff can presumably expand the playbook based on both how returning players developed to-date as well as redshirted talent in the offensive skill slots, and the likelihood of a major signing score at quarterback.
And, let us never overlook, that four of the every-game line starters return along with tight end Marcus Green and some young blockers about ready to contribute. Especially if, if Tobias Smith can just somehow get those ankles in condition to last a season; a big if indeed. Even then the big bodies are in far better shape for State than any time since, by no coincidence, the latter half of the ‘90s. Maybe you remember, back when Bulldog bowling was taken for granted. If not, take my word for it: those were fun times to follow State football.
And I'm convinced comparable good times are a'coming, just as noted before with a more stable gameplan in place. Maybe I put too much stock in such symbolism, but remember that note about the last two State coaches who won their first Egg Bowls? They rank 1-2 in career victories at State also. That's a sweet theme I'd happily savor.
NOTE: With football season finished, along with the four-month grind running from reporting day to post-Egg Bowl reporting duties, the Dawghouse will go into off-season scheduling ourselves. To wit, when I get something worth opining about, I'll be back. Though given the early-season shenanigans in Humphrey Coliseum, the any-time-now status of Renardo Sidney, and an increasingly-encouraging outlook for the 2010 Diamond Dogs, it likely won't be long…