That crowd was treated to talks by area alumni organizers of the annual event, now in its third decade and evidently running on second-wind after a few ‘down' years. Moving to the Convention Center was one boost, as though parking is not nearly as convenient as in the fairgrounds the venue is far, far more fan friendly than the antique Mississippi Coliseum. But of course nothing brings out Bulldog fans in summer like football optimism, and from the day of his hiring Mullen has provided that by the barrel.
A 5-7 transition season, accompanied by all-time record ticket sales and attendance figures, and capped with a home-field victory in the Battle for the Golden Egg, reinforced the fresh football air Mullen brought in year-one. So Thursday night, at the symbolic opening of this next State sports year, Mullen had more than just hope to hold forth about. Though, "I'm always optimistic!" the coach reminded.
"Getting in the second year of the program there is a comfort level with myself as the head coach and our assistant coaches what to expect from our training camp. And also our players." He could just as easily have included the fans, too.
In fact, he did.
"The fans are the ones who have really picked it up for us," he said, speaking specifically of the metro-area supporters but more generally of the entire fan base. "They've made gameday an event, not just the game. Come to Starkville on a Saturday and it's an event. We had sellout crowds (last season), they did it again in the spring game setting records everywhere with attendance. Everybody is starting to see if they come to the game, cheer on the team, good things are going to happen to us and they're going to have a great time in the process."
Mullen and family enjoyed a summer break of their own recently. It began with a trip to New Hampshire, Dan's home turf, and included a side-trip to Boston where the football coach caught a Red Sox game. Not a good one though as Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched poorly—"he was terrible, had a bunch of walks." Any annoyances had to be eased with a stay in Bermuda of course with Megan and year-old-son Canon getting some island time.
The Mississippi State assistant staff has been on their own vacation too, but it all ends Monday for them. As for the boss, "Now that we're back starting to do this it kind of gets me jump-started." The coach might not want to brag too much about vacations because his players have been on campus, most in June and now all but a couple in July.
"Hopefully they're having great summers working out and doing the extra things, throwing and catching the ball," Mullen said. Of course the head coach is aware of what his players have been doing because Matt Balis reports regularly. Sort of. "It's good, we're working!" Mullen said, lowering and roughing his voice in an attempt to mimic the famously-gruff strength coach. "That's about what you get out of Matt; ‘It's good, we're working'!
"No, we have the best strength and conditioning coach in the country. I get more out of our players, they'll talk to me and say that they love the attitude of the team and guys are working hard. In their mind it's very different from last year, a lot of times they were just trying to survive the workouts. This year they know what to expect and what is expected of them in the weightroom."
Speaking of experienced expectations, Mullen said there is a natural comfort level here at the start of year-two in everything Bulldogs do. That ranges from player workouts to coach speeches. And what the head coach is telling State folk is to think big here in 2010. Again.
"You're the ones that have created this excitement," said to the crowd as he capped the evening speaker lineup. By which he meant those gate-busting crowds at Davis Wade Stadium last fall when game and season attendance marks tumbled like Rebel defenders in the path of Anthony Dixon or Chris Relf. With pre-season ticket sales expected to reach 40,000 sometime in the next week, Mullen does some cheerleading of fan response to 2010 prospects.
Yet, even here in year-two, this whole Bulldog business is just getting good and started.
"Can you give a little more? Can we do more?" Mullen told the crowd. "Can we do what it takes to be the best athletic department, the best football program, the best University in the Southeastern Conference? We'll continue to fight and do more, more, more, until we are the best." And not just best in this state of Mississippi…though the way 2009 finished was an encouraging starting point for '10, Mullen reminded.
"The last time we walked off the field we were champions and in the locker room Dr. (Mark) Keenum was able to hold that trophy over his head. We're not going to stop, we're going to pick up right where we left off. And find a way to get you the championship football team you deserve."
Tall talk for a program that has had one winning season in an entire decade. But then Mullen didn't come to Starkville with modest aspirations for himself or Mississippi State. Just the opposition, which is why he is completely comfortable talking championships today, tomorrow, this year, next year, every year.
"I'm always optimistic!" he said. "I don't know if it's more, our expectations never change. I mean, we're in this to find a way to win the SEC West and get to Atlanta. That's what you can control and that's going to be our goal. That was our expectation for last season and really our expectation for this season. It will be ten years from now, when I'm the coach here, that's not going to change. But finishing the season on such a high note has really bolstered our fans and got them really excited about this upcoming year."
A year that is just about to get underway. Next week brings another annual benchmark, the SEC's Media Days in Birmingham. He has gone through one of these press-fests already so the second time-around oughtn't be a big deal. In fact…
"It's amusing! You go there and realize how important SEC football is, all the fanfare and craziness of it. But that's what makes it the best conference in college football." Mullen has picked an interesting trio to represent Mississippi State in the player interviews: quarterback Chris Relf, safety Charles Mitchell, and guard Quentin Saulsberry. All sound players and good stories in their own way, but also all underclassmen. This was intentional, Mullen said.
"Last year I brought two juniors (tackle Derek Sherrod and linebacker K.J. Wright) and I thought that worked pretty good. Our seniors in-season get a lot of attention. And the guys we're brining are up-and-coming guys, might as well throw them in the fire right now and get them ready to have to answer questions and deal with media situations."
Mullen said at last trainer-report the summer roster seems healthy for August camp, with the exception of walk-on receiver Sam Williams who needed knee surgery after a spring injury. "He's going to be limited in training camp a few weeks but everybody else is doing OK," Mullen said. He also said that every freshman signee projected to participate in 2010 should report by August 2. "That's what it looks like right now, so we're looking forward to getting everybody here and ready to go practice." As of now receiver Michael Carr is the last rookie to be certified.
Pre-season practices open August 3, and Mullen told the crowd "the first couple of practices" will be open to the public.