Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
In five seasons under Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State had one winning season. It took Dan Mullen just two seasons to get the Bulldogs over .500, and the Bulldogs look poised for bigger things in his third season in Starkville.
Mullen debuted with a 5-7 mark in 2009, and the Bulldogs finished 9-4 last season, capped by a 52-14 Gator Bowl thumping of Michigan. It was Mississippi State's first New Year's Day bowl appearance since a trip to the Cotton Bowl after the 1998 season.
This season, Mullen has the Bulldogs off to a fast start, leading his squad to a 59-14 whipping of Memphis to open the season. Up next: a visit to Auburn on Saturday in what could be one of the biggest games in recent school history. Win on the Plains, and Mississippi State will be validated as an SEC West contender.
Mullen, 39, is used to success and lofty expectations after cutting working as an assistant for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. Mullen also has forged a reputation for developing quarterbacks, working with Josh Harris at Bowling Green, Alex Smith at Utah and Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida.
Mullen was offensive coordinator for national championship-winning squads at Florida in '06 and 2008 before leaving for Mississippi State.
Mullen, Chip Kelly (Oregon coach) and Gary Crowton (Maryland offensive coordinator) are part of the "New Hampshire mafia," as they all have connections to the Granite State. Mullen attended Trinity High in Manchester, N.H., before playing tight end at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.
Rivals.com recently caught up with Mullen.
Chris Relf was 13-of-21 for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the opener. Has he become a better passer?
"A couple of years ago, we kind of tweaked some of his throwing motion and worked on how he threw the ball, and he got more accurate and more consistent. And now he understands the offense and has some experience and has played in some games. He's much more comfortable out there on the field and he has much better control of what is going on, and that all allows him to be a much better passer."
Is a rebuilt linebacking corps your biggest issue on defense?
"It would be that and depth on our defensive line. Those are my concerns. We have some talented players there. We have some experience back on the line, but there are some depth issues. We need to get more depth in recruiting this year."
Do you talk to former boss Urban Meyer that often?
"Here and there. He and I will touch base and talk about little things every once in a while. I usually call him with a football question, and he'll respond with a family question. I probably don't talk to him as much as I should."
Do you think Meyer will be coaching in 2012?
"I don't know. I'm sure he'll coach again because he's a football coach. Once that's in your blood, it's in your blood. ... We'll see him back on the sideline at some point."
What other coaches and assistants do you talk to regularly?
"I don't have regular contact but social contact. I'll talk to guys here and there at different times of the year. When it gets to this time of the year, not many. My sounding board is my staff room with all my guys in there. In the offseason, we'll pick up and visit some people."
Did you visit any schools in the offseason?
"Oregon, because I wanted to see how they practice. I've read so much about their practices, the up-tempo-ness of their practices, I wanted to see that. We took some things and incorporated some things that have helped us in the intensity and tempo of our practices."
Do you talk to Tim Tebow often?
"Here and there. I did talk to him back in the spring a little bit. Knowing Tim, he's going to find a way to get the job done. He has that winner personality and he's going to be a success."
What did you think when you saw five SEC West teams ranked in the preseason polls?
"We picked up right where we left off. There were five of us in the top 15 at the end of last year. If you want to win the West, you are going to be the best team in the country. That's what it takes, and that's our goal. You are going to be the best team in the country when you're playing five teams in the top 25 in just your side of the division. That's life in this conference and that's what makes it great. That's what I love, that competition against the best every week."
Do you think the West is stronger than the East?
"I don't know. Florida was winning some national titles for a while, but I just think it meant the top team was in the East. I don't know it meant that the depth of the West still wasn't there. When you look at the balance that is in the West, five of the six teams have played in the SEC title game. ... But look at the league overall. I think eight of the 12 were ranked in the preseason polls. When you look at the depth, I don't know if there is power on one side or the other. It's just the whole conference."
What do you think about talk of the SEC expanding?
"We'll see what happens. I don't see that as part of my decision. I just have to get my team ready to play our schedule this year. If the commissioner and presidents think it's a good idea to expand, that's good. They have led us to be the most powerful conference in college football with what they have done. So I'll trust they'll have our best interests in the future."
There were a lot of ugly headlines in the offseason about schools breaking rules. What do you think can be done to make schools behave?
"I'm sure there are issues that come up. In today's world, everyone knows everything in today's media. You always are being filmed and videotaped. It gets so much more attention. With all those different stories out there, everyone just jumps on them. There are probably 100 positive stories for every negative story, but you just don't hear much about the positives but you hear tons about the one negative."
What's the most challenging aspect of coaching at Mississippi State?
"The biggest challenge has been making sure everyone believes and we change our culture and mindset the way we perceive our program. When we got here, there was a lot of discussion about what we can't do: We only have this many seats in our stadium, we have a small budget, all these different things of what we can't do. We changed that to focus on what we can do. It doesn't matter the size of our stadium; if we fill every seat and create a great game-day atmosphere, we will be great at home and become a tough place to play. What we can do with our budget, what we can do with the talented players in the state of Mississippi. A lot of it is changing that mindset in our state. We focus on all the things we can do and not what we can't do."
Is this one of most challenging jobs in the league?
"Yes, but you know what? I don't know if it is any more challenging the any of the others in this league. When you have eight teams in the top 25, there isn't an SEC coach who is saying he isn't in a challenging job."
Given your success, have you been pursued by other schools?
"There have been people calling, maybe some calls of inquiry to see my interest. But I am very, very happy here. Not one has even been a consideration by me and my family. We are very happy here, the way the state has accepted us, the town, the university, the direction that our program is going in. There wasn't even one that I even considered a moment."
Talk about your relationship with Chip Kelly.
"Kind of weird, huh? You have one New Hampshire guy in Oregon and another deep in Mississippi. Not where you'd expect to see us. But Chip has done a great job out there. He's always been a great coach. I've known him a long time. He helped me get my first job in coaching."
After you play at Auburn, you come home and play LSU five days later on a Thursday night. What kind of schedule is that?
"It's the SEC. What would be better? To play Alabama and Georgia like that? I don't mind playing Thursday night games -- the excitement around it, you are on national TV and everyone is watching. We'll be prepared. Fortunately, it's a home game, so we won't have to spend time travelling. Thursday nights are fun for our kids and great exposure for our university."