And Mullen can attest to the difference he sees in the Bulldogs following the 41-27 victory in their bowl game of '09, the Battle for the Golden Egg.
"Finishing the season on a high note obviously catapults you into the next season," Mullen said. "For our guys who are left we're going to have some higher expectations next year for ourselves. They have to understand right now what we did this year was good; but not good enough. We're going to take another step next season."
The first step was a Monday team assembly with the Bulldogs returning for 2010 and beyond. "And I'll have player meetings with our individual players," Mullen added. Though, those get-togethers have to be booked around the overriding priority of the moment as made completely clear with Mullen's description of his activities since leaving Scott Field's Saturday celebrating.
"I recruited. Then, we did some more recruiting. And tomorrow, I'm going to recruit!" This after a Monday evening detour to Jackson, where senior tailback Anthony Dixon was presented the Conerly Award given to the state finest college football player at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame; and linebacker Jamar Chaney received the Senior MVP Award for MSU from the Jackson Touchdown Club. Naturally this allowed Mullen a little more post-Egg Bowl afterglow with two of the upperclassmen that worked through the transition year with their one-season coach.
"But we've been non-stop basically recruiting since the minute the game ended." That continues all this week as Bulldog coaches make visits, calls, and attend title games for both high schools and junior colleges in several time zones. If this keeps Mullen from watching his prior employer and close comrades at Florida play for another SEC Championship, just as he was doing one year ago this weekend in Atlanta, well, he has his own program to keep building and own ambitions of eventually taking them to the Georgia Dome.
Thus the obvious emphasis on securing personnel in both of the upcoming inking periods, for eligible mid-year transfers in December and the February Signing Day. Understandably, Mullen and aides are able to meet prospects with bigger and merited smiles now given the Egg Bowl outcome. Mullen certainly expects that one win to bring greater dividends under 2009's circumstances.
"There are a lot of recruits, a lot of players in the state that look at the direction the program is going in right now. Seeing sold-out stadiums every single week, seeing us play right to the wire with all the top teams in the country, and realize that we're pretty close. They also get to see us play a lot of freshmen; they have the opportunity to come here and we're going to play them early in their career and the ability to make impacts on our program right way. So I think it really is helping us in recruiting."
At the same time having played through a complete season, Mullen has been able to clarify some finer points of what Mississippi State needs in the 2009-10 signing class. Well, sort of. Because asked what this recruiting campaign is seeking most, the coach smiled. "Everything! I mean everything!"
"Right now running back is really important for us because we need a couple. We have three senior tailbacks graduating so we need guys to be able to come in and play. But really, everything. We need depth at every position. I think that's one thing that we need to build, depth at positions across the board."
At the same time though Mullen is seeking instant assistance where available. I.E., junior college talents who will get their juco degrees this month and be ready for spring semester enrollment. This is nothing like the JC approach State took in the 1990s when fall-arriving transfers sufficed to make MSU successful. Mullen wants his transfers—and any early high school grads as well--here for off-season work and spring practicing.
"The key to junior college players you saw this year," he said. "We had six and all six of them played for us. They all came in and made and immediate impact." Not just played, but all six started games. Mullen has targeted transfer talents for the same sort of impact in '10 and as reported elsewhere on Dawgs' Bite such commitments are coming in or expected soon.
"We're going to keep on-track. I'd like to go anywhere from four to eight junior college players a year," Mullen said. "You have to be more exact there. There are a lot of projections still with high school guys, you're looking at where will this guy be two to three years from now. Where, a junior college player is already two to three years down the road."
In a real, larger sense Mississippi State is already off to an encouraging start on the road to Mullen's ultimate goals. While he can't over-state the difference becoming bowl-eligible would have made, most obviously the extra two weeks of practices to apply for both the game itself as well as a winter ‘camp' leading into next year, the coach saw essential goals achieved.
"Coming into the season our goal was to play with relentless effort, play with passion, fight for four quarters. Our team did that every single game. Now, am I pleased with our results? No. We have a long way to go, we still have a lot more goals we'd like to accomplish. But our team took the steps to build a solid foundation for the future for us this year."
Not only the team, but Mississippi State's fan base took some significant steps of their own in 2009. Record ticket sales, record attendance totals for both games and seasons, all were powerful positives. Yet even the man responsible for fueling so much of the enthusiasm admitted, he was surprised by the sheer joy expressed at Scott Field as the final horn sounded…not that anyone could hear it of course.
"You know what, it did surprise me. When you get to different schools you really embrace the rivalry, and a lot of people have told me how important the game is since I've been here. But watching fifteen minutes after the game and no one has left our stadium—no one in Maroon has left!—seeing it packed that way, you just really see the importance of it. And you see the appreciation our fans have for the effort our guys gave."
All well and good. Now, Mullen signals, is the time to increase all efforts further as he will remind players in group and individual meetings in the days ahead. "We do a lot to point out what made us successful," he said…along with what made State less-than-successful. "It's very simple. We're plus-11 in turnover ratio in our wins; minus-18 in our losses. Our defense gives up under 300 yards a game in our wins, under 100 yards rushing in our wins; it gives up high 300s or 400s in our losses."
Just don't think Mullen is playing a Grinch's role trying to dampen the current joy. Just the opposite; he wants the Bulldogs to remember how fabulous they felt after one big win and magnify it on a whole-season scale. A championship scale, up to and including the Championship Game he won't attend until taking his own team. And if State players need any reminder that the end of one season just signals the start of another: yes. The locker room Egg Bowl Clock has re-started.
"Oh yeah! I walked in the locker room at eight o'clock Sunday morning and it was already counting down!"