STARKVILLE — The case for the Dan Mullen era being the most successful in Mississippi State football history is easy to make.
Mullen led MSU to 69 victories and five Egg Bowl wins, which are both second in school history. He also helped the Bulldogs set more records: five bowl wins, four victories against top-10 teams and 10 weeks ranked in the top 10. This season, Mullen guided MSU (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) to a school-record eighth-straight bowl game.
In all, 112 school records were broken in Mullen’s nine seasons in Starkville. It will be a tough act to follow.
With Mullen’s departure to become the football coach at Florida on Sunday, the next MSU coach will be tasked with continuing to build on what has been the school’s most successful era in program history.
Athletics Director John Cohen confirmed Mullen’s departure in a prepared statement Sunday, adding running backs coach/special teams coordinator Greg Knox will be MSU’s interim head coach for the Bulldogs’ upcoming bowl game.
“We have already begun a national search to identify our 33rd head football coach,” Cohen said. “Since 2014, Mississippi State football has risen to national prominence. Our Bulldog family is as passionate and loyal a fan base as there is in the nation. … As we turn the page to write a new chapter in Mississippi State football, our momentum is stronger than ever. We are confident we will find an outstanding new leader to carry that momentum forward.”
In his own prepared statement, MSU President Mark Keenum said he is confident Cohen would “move quickly and decisively to fill our coaching vacancy with the best possible person to build on the success of our program.”
If Mullen’s permanent successor chooses, he can follow a recruiting formula Mullen left to lift the Bulldogs to national prominence.
The expectations for MSU recruiting changed for the better under Mullen. From 2005 through 2009, the group Mullen signed after a couple of months on the job, MSU had a recruiting class ranked in the top 30 nationally by 247 Sports only twice. The highest-ranked class was the 2009 class Mullen influenced. Since 2010, the Bulldogs have been in the top 30 five times, which doesn’t include the pending 2018 class that is ranked 15th. Since 2010 MSU has signed 3.4 four-star recruits per year, not including the two five-star recruits in that span, compared to the two four-star recruits per recruiting class from 2005 through 2008.
The recruiting improved through Mullen’s tenure as he sent players to the NFL more than any other MSU coach. Eighteen Bulldogs Mullen coached are on NFL rosters.
“I liked that they kept improving,” Starkville High school wide receiver and MSU commit Cameron Gardner said. “The way they played Alabama showed how much they’ve improved.”
Matt Wyatt, former MSU quarterback, current radio host and football color commentator on the MSU Radio Network, can see the difference. In many respects, the job Cohen takes to the market is drastically different from the one Mullen accepted prior to the 2009 season.
“This is the first time really in history where Mississippi State is going to go out and have some tools and attract a coach they have never had,” Wyatt said. “Look at facilities, it’s not even close. Now, is that all because of Mullen? No. A lot of things have to factor in, including fundraising and giving, the advent of the SEC Network, bowl revenue going up, all that stuff. But I still think the biggest factor was, from the word go, people saw the product Dan was putting on the field and bought in.”
Chance for immediate success
While Mullen made an impact on MSU, there are still requirements for success. Wyatt believes the next coach will still need to use a developmental approach which Mullen made his trademark. Mullen had success by recruiting players who most often didn’t have the highest profiles in the nation and transforming them into competitors against players with higher profiles in a few years. Wyatt feels MSU has the perfect man to try to find a coach like that.
“Cohen is a guy I have total confidence in hiring coaches,” Wyatt said. “People that work with John before he came an athletics director who were his references when he wanted to become athletics director, they all said the same thing: This guy has this uncanny ability to evaluate people.”
Cohen’s selection figures to have a challenge in 2018. Most new coaches have time to set up the program the way they want it before they have to meet expectations. But MSU has 32 juniors and could be coming off a nine-win season if it finishes with a victory in its bowl game, so expectations will be high in 2018 despite road games against Kansas State, LSU and Alabama.
Ray Lenow, a Bulldog Club member for more than five years who lives in Texas, made that perfectly clear.
“State doesn’t need to start from scratch and rebuild,” Lenow said. “We already have a top-20 winning team with the current kids on the roster. We need somebody who can keep the recruits and keep State on current momentum.”
That might not be easy, but Wyatt sees a formula to follow inspired by Mullen.
“Mullen’s success was a good example (that) good coaches don’t walk in and tell players, ‘This is how we’re going to do and you have to transform to that,'” Wyatt said. “They say, ‘I’m going to evaluate every player, here’s what you can do and that’s what we’re going to do.’ There’s no fitting square pegs in round holes.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson