Byrne, Mullen Thinking Bigger And Better

Coach Dan Mullen planned to interrupt his week-long recruiting schedule for a planned Thursday talk with the boss. And while he and Greg Byrne are meeting primarily to converse about contracts, it's likely another topic will come up in the course of their discussions. Specifically, the idea of giving the Bulldogs a bigger and better home kennel.

"We are looking at the stadium and what our next steps are," Byrne said Monday evening while at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame with Mullen to applaud Anthony Dixon's selection as the state's top college football player. Even as they cheered the last act of one Bulldog career, Byrne and Mullen were working on ways to keep the Mississippi State program moving to better and bigger things.

For Mullen, it is recruiting the sort of additional talent with the current Bulldog roster for better seasons and bigger wins. For Byrne, it is giving MSU fans a venue both better in amenities and bigger in volume. Last summer Byrne talked often of how Davis Wade Stadium requires some significant renovations of the existing facility. That hasn't changed, he said Monday.

"Obviously there's a lot of infrastructure needs there," Byrne said. "And obviously there are some capacity discussions we need to have."

This is an adjustment of thinking by the second-year athletic director. While he has acknowledged that in the really long-term picture that expanding DWS was a goal, this was constrained within two factors. First was the more immediate objective of adding premium seating such as new skyboxes and club areas to either, or both, the existing west grandstand and a build-from-scratch structure in the north end zone which currently has student and band bleacher seating.

The second factor was the just-begun University ‘master plan' study that is at least another year from completion, which would include finding some sort of consistent look for the campus as a whole including any new and/or renovated athletic venues. Those factors had Byrne pushing a general expansion to the back-burner.

Until October, when unprecedented demand allowed State to make available extra ‘standing room' tickets for the Florida game. These allowed an all-time record crowd of 57,178 to pack DWS for the showdown with the #1-ranked Gators. Three weeks later that mark fell with an attendance of 58,103 for the Alabama game.

And while ‘only' 55,365 turned out for the Battle for the Golden Egg almost all unutilized seats were reserved for Rebels who did not show. That was still the fourth-largest gate ever at State, and pushed the all-season home attendance to nearly 377,000…which was announced as almost 70,000 more than the previous season mark.

"I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard that," said Byrne, speaking somewhat metaphorically as during the course of another thrilling Egg Bowl win the A.D. was not often seated. "I had no idea it was that much."

"First of all I can't thank our fans enough for coming out the way they have in support of the University and our football program. And obviously Coach Mullen has brought so much to the table for us, just the excitement level and the passion he brings to the program certainly carried over to the fan base and the rest of the University."

Truth be told, though, Byrne was already altering his summer stance after those prior record-crowds gave hard proof of increased demand. There was plenty of other evidence though. "It was nice getting emails and comments from so many of our folks, that said ‘I used to walk in with two extra tickets in my pocket, now I've got more people asking for tickets than I've got tickets'!'"

Where there is demand, there are dollars. So now Byrne is thinking of ways to fit those folk inside the DWS gates as soon as possible. Make that, as soon as practical. "We're going to look at it," Byrne said. "At the same time, I don't want it to be where people can say ‘oh, I can walk up in game day and get a ticket'." Obviously during his two Bulldog Club years Byrne learned the hard fact of fans here, that Mississippi State can't over-build and ease any incentive to purchase that all-season ducat. Walk-up sales are not a secure way to budget for Bulldog sports.

"So we want to keep that demand on the ticket. That's really important," said Byrne, who will be watching sales figures closely this winter and spring given that the 2010 schedule does not bring any of the three main rivals to campus as was the '09 case. Related to that, a week ago Byrne said that he had looked into the possibility for one of those rivals—LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss—of breaking up the current home/away cycle with State going to any one of those in consecutive years for games. All were willing to help in that aspect, Byrne said, but the unavoidable other fact was that to do so they would also have to go play at somebody else on their own slates in consecutive seasons under the SEC's four-and-four league schedule. That was an obvious deal-breaker. The SEC has not provided schedules beyond the 2011 season, but neither has the league indicated that the 5-2-1 Divisional rotation is definitely changing.

Thus it is up to Bulldog fans to re-prove their infatuation with the new regime and way of playing the game by snapping up all 2010 tickets just as they did a '09 slate that not only brought all three chiefest rivals to campus but also high-profile matches with Houston and Georgia Tech. Of course, the real goal is having State folk packing the house just to see Mullen's future teams perform no matter who is on the visiting sideline. Byrne is confident this will be the case, which allows him to think of a DWS expanded to handle 60,000 or more far sooner than previously thought.

"And there's opportunities for high-end seating that we aren't able to capitalize on right now," Byrne added. "So that is really important to the long-term structure of our program, to make sure we're as competitive as we can be financially. And, to make sure we have the best experience out there for everybody."

Byrne is all about striking while the proverbial iron remains hot from an exciting season and thrilling Egg Bowl victory that, despite some obvious graduation losses, bodes so well for the immediate future. Thus, the Ticket Office was already taking orders for '10 even as Saturday's echoes faded. It isn't merely a matter of seizing opportunity as it arises; Byrne is about creating State's own chances to promote and market.

"Just because there's always competition. You've got to make sure you're thinking what your next steps are to continue to make yourself better," Byrne said.

"But I also know this. Our alumni base may be smaller than some of the schools we're competing against, but I don't think there anybody cares more about their institution than Mississippi State alumni. They're passion is on-par with anybody else. We just want to put an experience out there that our fans want to be a part of, and our student-athletes want to be a part of, and can make this University proud."

Meanwhile tomorrow morning Byrne meets with the man who has reinspired some Bulldog pride to discuss the annual contract transition. "I told Coach Mullen when we hired him that at the end of every season we'd discuss getting him back to four years. I think that's important from a recruiting standpoint, and we've done that with Coach Cohen, with Coach Stansbury, and with Coach Fanning. And we certainly intend to do that with Coach Mullen." As well, Byrne added, with Mullen's assistant staff.

"He and I are talking on Thursday and going over a lot of things. Obviously we want him to know how much we want him to be the football coach at Mississippi State, and how pleased we are with the job he and his staff are doing."

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