Breaking up is hard to do, as Neil Sedaka long ago reminded us.
So when first reported Sunday afternoon that Mississippi State head football coach Dan Mullen was leaving to become coach at the University of Florida after nine seasons in Starkville, emotions of the fan base fell along the predictable range. From clutching Mullen’s photo while weeping softly or tearing up all his love letters in a fit of pique to amicably accepting the parting of ways as inevitable, MSU fans are still sorting out their feelings.
It’s understandable that MSU fans are sorry to see Mullen go.
Mullen leaves with the second longest tenure and second most wins (69) of any Bulldog coach at a time when Mississippi State made enormous improvements in its facilities and became a nationally relevant football program for the first time in history, occupying the No. 1 ranking in the first College Football Bowl rankings in 2014, a spot it held for five weeks.
By any measurable standard, the Mullen era marks the most successful since the school fielded its first football team in 1895.
What Mullen achieved in Starkville was an affirmative answer to a question that had lingered at MSU throughout its history: Can the Bulldogs be a consistent winner in the toughest conference in the nation?
There were more than a few doubts about that in December 2008 when Mullen, then the offensive coordinator at Florida, accepted the offer to come to MSU as its head coach. The results speak for themselves. After a losing season in his first year, Mullen guided state to eight consecutive bowl games. The longest previous run of bowl games was three in a row.
But if credit is given where it’s due, Bulldog fans can take solace that the success the program has enjoyed over the past nine years was not the work of Mullen alone.
Perhaps most important, Mississippi State benefited from the football equivalent of winning the lottery through its affiliation with the Southeastern Conference. When ESPN and Disney launched the SEC Network three years ago, the money came flowing in. Last year, every school in the 14-member conference earned an average of $40 million just from that TV deal alone, which MSU translated into a building campaign for its entire athletics program.
For the Bulldogs, that steady flow of cash has secured them a spot among the nation’s top tier of athletics programs. The Bulldogs have enlarged and renovated Davis Wade Stadium, which has transformed from a generic venue to one of the most exciting atmospheres in college football, and has added a lavish new football complex. Across the board, MSU’s facilities compare favorably with those anywhere in the nation.
Mississippi State’s budget ($94 million) ranks 35th in the entire country, but in context, MSU is like owning the smallest yacht on the Riviera. State’s athletics budget ranks last among the 13 public schools in the SEC (Vanderbilt, a private school does not release that information).
Even so, a yacht is still a yacht and Mississippi State fans need not despair over Mullen’s departure.
In Monday’s introductory press conference at Florida, Mullen struck the right tone in acknowledging his time at MSU.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “I do want to thank everybody at Mississippi State University for the opportunity they gave me there. There was a great administration, a great athletic director, a great president and great people there, a great community that embraced and believed in me. And moving forward I hope they continue to have the success that has been built up over the past several years and they continue to build the program in the right direction.”
Mullen had said throughout his stay at MSU his goal was to win SEC and national championships, but in nine seasons, he finished higher than fourth in the seven-team SEC West just once. At Florida, he’ll have a better chance to do that than at MSU, something even the most passionate Bulldog fan must acknowledge.
But all is not lost. Of the 32 coaches in MSU history, Mullen is just the second to leave of his own volition (Darrell Royal left in 1955 for the University of Texas). Until he arrived, the average tenure of a MSU coach was 3-1/2 years. In almost every case, those relationships ended quickly and not on good terms.
That’s not the case this time.
So, even as Bulldog fans regret Mullen’s departure, they can take solace in the knowledge that Mississippi State has never been more attractive to would-be suitors. Whoever gets the job will inherit what may well be the most talented roster in school history.
So, yes, breaking up is hard to do.
But the Bulldogs will undoubtedly learn to love again.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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