Dan Mullen moved to Florida in December.
In February, his image moved to a local restaurant’s restroom.
“That was my idea,” said Carol Taylor, who with her husband, Mark, owns The Cake Box Eatery and Bakery in Starkville, where a Mullen-autographed poster that once held prominence in the dining area now hangs in isolation above the toilet. “It seemed like the right place.”
On Saturday, Mullen will return to Starkville as head coach of the Florida Gators where he will meet his former team, Mississippi State.
Bulldog fans marked the date — Sept. 29 — on the calendar, and while it’s been 10 months since Mullen’s abrupt decision to leave the Bulldogs, the emotions are still raw among fans.
“It’s gonna be bad,” said one MSU student as he ate lunch with six classmates at the Cake Box. “You should see some of the buttons floating around. Nasty stuff.”
The Taylors opened their restaurant in 2008, a year before Mullen left his job as offensive coordinator at Florida to become the Bulldogs head coach. The Taylors met Mullen when his wife, Megan, stopped to order a birthday cake for their son, Canon. In the years that followed, Mark and Carol regularly catered for the Mullens and for the MSU athletics department, including a regular Friday morning delivery of “Dan-wich” cookies to the football team.
“We had an unusual relationship with Coach Mullen,” Mark said. “We did a lot of stuff for them — all the kids’ birthday cakes. We even named a cookie after him. We were pretty invested.”
The Taylors are trying to be philosophical about Mullen’s decision to leave — and not always succeeding.
“We were pretty bonded with his family,” Carol said. “But I’m good. If you want to go, I don’t want you to be here. Mark, it’s a little harder for him.”
Good business, good humor
Even so, Mark appreciates what Mullen accomplished in his nine seasons at State.
“The fact of the matter is we would not be where we are today without his leadership,” Mark said.
The facts bear that out.
In his nine seasons at MSU, Mullen is second in both wins and winning percentage on the school’s all-time coaching list. Since his second season, he led the Bulldogs to eight consecutive bowl games. The program had been to just 13 bowl games in the previous 105 years.
In 2014, MSU was ranked No. 1 in the nation for five weeks, the only time the Bulldogs have appeared at the top of the polls.
But Mullen’s decision to leave Starkville appears to have created a jilted lover sentiment among a lot of Bulldog fans.
“Ninety percent of the people I’ve talked to are mad,” Mark said. “There was something on Facebook that said people should clap for Coach Mullen (on Saturday). Man, that lit the fire. People lost their freakin’ minds.”
In a Twitter poll that attracted 1,273 responses, 48 percent of fans said they intend to boo Mullen when he steps onto the field at Davis Wade Stadium while 13 percent said they would applaud. Interestingly, 39 percent responded as being indifferent.
“I think the Kentucky game (last week’s 28-7 upset loss), everybody was talking about Mullen,” Mark said. “Now, they are talking about Joe Moorhead. It’s a fickle fan base.”
Mullen’s success at MSU is not measured only in wins/losses, but in other ways.
“No matter what you think, he won a lot of games and that sold a lot of merchandise,” said Lauren Ferguson, manager at Maroon & Co., a Starkville apparel store that focuses on MSU products. “He was good for business.”
Maroon & Co. special orders T-shirts for big games each year. That was true for Saturday’s game.
The store ordered three different specialty game-day T-shirts for the Florida game.
The runaway best-seller was a simple white T-shirt with maroon block lettering that spells out “Dan Who?”
Maroon and Co. sold the last of those T-shirts Thursday, just 10 days after they arrived.
“Honestly, we had mixed feeling about the T-shirts,” Ferguson said. “Dan left sort of like a thief in the night and some people felt kind of betrayed. But for us, it’s all in good fun.”
The Taylors, too, seem to have channeled their disappointment over Mullen’s departure into humor.
“We had Coach Mullen’s poster up on wall in our old location with a spotlight on it,” Mark said. “But when we moved into this location in February, I told Carol I didn’t know what to do with it. It was her idea to put it in the restroom.”
Mark said he understands that Mullen’s decision to leave was a “business decision,” but it’s the circumstances surrounding the coach’s departure that still rankles.
“The way he left was not right,” Mark said. “On Wednesday, he’s not going anywhere. He’s here forever. He told his players he wasn’t leaving. Then on Sunday’s he’s gone. Just like that. It’s like not being a man of his word. He was just looking out for himself.”
Ferguson said she expects Mullen to be booed when he steps onto the field, but it might not have much to do with his history with MSU.
“He’s on the other side now,” Ferguson said. “We boo the other side. There’s no exception for you, Dan. Sorry.”
Carol Taylor said Mullen’s departure still stings.
“Starkville is a small town and in a small town you feel like you know everybody,” she said. “It’s like family. I can see why people are upset.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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