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November 9, 2010

Q-and-A: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen

There are several coaches in their second seasons in a job who are excelling in 2010. There's Oregon's Chip Kelly, Auburn's Gene Chizik, Syracuse's Doug Marrone, San Diego State's Brady Hoke, Toledo's Tim Beckman and Army's Rich Ellerson, among others.

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen has been as impressive in his own way as all of those coaches. In just his second season in Starkville, Mullen already has the program on track to earn just its second bowl bid since 2000. Mullen debuted with a 5-7 mark in 2009, but he has the Bulldogs off to a 7-2 start this season that has included victories over Georgia and Florida. Mississippi State takes a six-game winning streak to Alabama on Saturday, looking to build on its already-impressive resume.

A tight end at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., in 1992 and '93, Mullen, 38, began his career as receivers coach at Wagner College in 1994. From there, he went on to work at Columbia, Syracuse and Notre Dame. It was at Notre Dame where Mullen first hooked up with Urban Meyer. When Meyer got the Bowling Green job in 2001, Mullen followed and stayed by his side at Utah (2003-04) and then Florida (2005-08).

It was in Gainesville where Mullen, a Manchester, N.H., native, became an offensive coordinator for the first time, overseeing quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow while helping the Gators win BCS titles in 2006 and '08 before taking the Mississippi State job.

Rivals.com recently spoke to Mullen about numerous topics, though Mullen did decline to comment on the recent stories about the recruitment of Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton.

How difficult has it been on you and the team with last Tuesday's death from cancer of defensive end Nick Bell?

"It's a trying time for all of us. It's just unbelievably sad. I am trying to be father, mentor, coach, role model to all of our young people. He was a special young man who will be missed by many people."

What were you able to work on during the off-week?

"We concentrated on ourselves during the off-week, things we need to clean up or get rid of and make sure we aren't making the same mistakes again. This affords us time to review where we are.

"We need to be better throwing the football. We are averaging over 200 yards a game rushing [221.6 ypg] and I would like to average over 200 yards passing [164.6 ypg], to be very balanced. That's our biggest thing offensively.

"Our kicking game has been solid, but we need to get some guys healthy to help. Our punting has been good. We have a senior [K Sean Brauchle] and a junior [P Heath Hutchins] with a lot of experience.

"Defensively, we need to get healthy. Because of that, we have been getting a lot of reps for our '2s' on defense. We aren't very deep on defense. We go from seniors to freshmen in a hurry."

You hired Manny Diaz from Middle Tennessee State to be defensive coordinator in the offseason. What has he brought to that unit that ranks sixth in the SEC (336.8 ypg)?

"He brings a great attitude on the field, and he's also a very knowledgeable football coach. He's not afraid to think outside the box and try some new things and try to cause offenses some issues. Within the system, our guys have really bought into what Manny has brought as well as the attitude he brings for us to play with."

Not many coaches have consistently won at Mississippi State. Knowing that, was there any hesitancy on your part to take this job?

"There was. One of the main things I looked at was recruiting, really not where the program was but where it could be. Coach [Jackie] Sherrill was here in the '90s and had a lot of success and won a lot of games. I also did some research on the state of Mississippi. There aren't kids growing up all around the country saying, 'Boy, I want to play for Mississippi State.' But there are kids in Mississippi growing up that way.

"I did some research and there are a lot of talented players in the state and local area. If you put a dot on Starkville and draw a five-hour radius around it, there is enough talent for us to win a national championship. And those are kids who grew up with similar values in the south and a work ethic they were brought up with and had instilled in them. And there's also the opportunity for their families to come watch them play.

"When I saw the talent base here and in that area, I thought we could get players to come play for us. If we can get players here, we will be good enough coaches to coach 'em up on the field that we'll be successful."

'If we win out and finish 10-2 and get to a great bowl game, maybe we would be ahead of schedule.'
- Dan Mullen,
MSU coach
You are in just your second season, and you have this team 7-2 and headed to a bowl. Are you ahead of schedule?

"I don't know. Maybe ahead of schedule for this season. But our goal this year was to compete for the SEC West championship. Mathematically, we are still in the hunt. We may not get there this season, but we wanted to improve off of last year. We have done that by two games at least, but there still is a lot of football to be played. If we win out and finish 10-2 and get to a great bowl game, maybe we would be ahead of schedule.

"We have seven wins so far. The ultimate goal to improve on last year, so we're slightly improved and maybe right where we thought we would be."

What was the talent level when you walked in the door?

"It had a ways to go. Our senior class on defense -- we have four senior starters and two that we have recruited since I have been here and one is a former walk-on. Offensively, coming into the season, we had four senior starters; one we recruited, one was a former walk-on and two that were here."

How many of the players that you inherited could have played at Florida?

"I don't know. Sean Ferguson starts at defensive end; he was here. Fletcher Cox, Josh Boyd and Pernell McPhee we recruited on the defensive line. [Linebacker] K.J. Wright was here; he would have started at Florida. [Linebacker] Chris White we recruited. In the secondary, Corey Broomfield, our starting corner, he was here when I got here. Charles Mitchell was here when I got here. Everybody else we recruited.

"On offense, we recruited all the receivers. [Vick] Ballard and [LaDarius] Perkins, our two top running backs, we recruited. Chris Relf, our starting quarterback, was here. We recruited just one starter on the offensive line; everyone else was already here.

"Coach [Sylvester] Croom did a really good job of recruiting character here. Jackie won an awful lot of football games. Jackie had a rough go of it near the end and recruited some junior college players. I think one year he signed 15 junior college players. ... You are all or nothing [with JC transfers]. And I don't think it worked out the way he thought it would.

"So when Coach Croom got here, I think there were some issues he had to clean up. When you have a lot of junior college players, when that's the foundation of it, it can get rough. Coach Croom recruited some character kids, cleaned up the program. A lot of those kids have set down values for our players. Fortunately for our staff, I think we have recruited some very good talent. That was part of me wanting to come here, that talent that was here for us to work with."

Mississippi State always has had a history of recruiting junior college players. What is your philosophy on recruiting JCs?

"We take JC players we think can come in and play right away for us, that will have a role and fit a need for the team. That is why we do it. We don't take JCs just to take them. Since we have been here, Chris White is a JC player who starts at middle linebacker for us. Pernell McPhee starts at defensive end. Jeff Howie and James Carmon are two JCs who rotate on the defensive line for us. Our starting kicker and punter are JC transfers. Leon Berry was a JC transfer and was a starting receiver until he got injured. Vick Ballard is a JC transfer and the starting tailback. I think our staff has done a good job of not just evaluating talent but also our needs and how the players fit in the program. Almost every JC transfer we have signed has come in and played for us."

Earlier this season, you went to Florida and won 10-7. What did it mean to win in Gainesville?

"It was great. There were two different parts to it. One was for our kids and our program, for them to win a big-time game like that, a close game, on the road, in a hard environment, to really push them over the top in their belief that not only can they compete with all of these teams, but they can beat the best teams in the SEC. That meant a lot for this program and it meant a lot for me to see our players achieve those things.

"Secondly, that's a place I have a lot of memories of, a place that I've had a lot of great games there. You know the players, you know the coaches. It almost makes it more competitive for you. And we always compete to win. For me, to be competitive against all those people I have known for so long, to get a win, was awesome."

How often do you talk to Urban Meyer?

"More in the offseason than during the season. With them rolling off the schedule [next season], we'll probably talk a little more football. The last two years, we have had to play each other."

Why do you think Florida has struggled on offense this season?

"I don't know. I just think they are adjusting to where they are. They still control their own destiny. We need help. They are in a better position than we are. I just think they are adjusting to their personnel, and there always will be tweaks and changes. You look at the staff turnover the last two years. Staff turnover is hard. That is one of the things I fear most as a head coach, not just because you lose good assistant coaches but also the development of a staff. Every time you have new coaches, you have to teach them the way you do things. You are spending so much time teaching the coaches. I think it's always a tough deal."

Have you spoken to Tim Tebow recently?

"I haven't talked to him in a while. I am sure we will talk after the season to see how everything went."

Were you shocked that he was a first-round pick?

"No. Not at all. He's a winner."

Is he an NFL quarterback?

"He's a winner. When winning becomes not important, then maybe, maybe, I would be shocked. But, me, I want a winner at quarterback. As a football coach, no matter what the level of football it is, give me winners. And it's my job as a football coach to put them in position to be successful. Instead of, 'Hey, I'm only going to draft somebody who fits my perfect system,' you give me a team full of talented football players and I'll go play someone that has a good system. And I'll take my talented football players that I put in position to win, and I like my chances there. You build with winners, I think. It's something you always want to do.

"Winners are winners. It's the coaches' job to take winners -- you tweak your system around what your winners do well. We are going to recruit winners in our program. There are enough players in this area we can recruit who are winners."

Talk about your connection to Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

"We are both New Hampshire guys. Chip helped me get my first coaching job at Wagner College [in Staten Island, N.Y.]. He's a couple years older. We went to different high schools, but you know the names of the other players in the area. When you are from a small hometown, you know everybody. We are Manchester High School football legacies. There are just four high schools in the city. You went to a party on Friday night, players from all four high schools were there.

"I was graduating college and Chip was coaching at Johns Hopkins and had been at Columbia. We played them, and I saw him after the game and told him I'd like to get into coaching. He made some calls to Wagner and got me an interview up there."

How long do you think you'll coach at Mississippi State?

"As of right now, they like me a lot, so they may keep me here for a while. I don't know. Hopefully, I can make it through the 12-year gauntlet that seems to be about the lifespan of a coach. Someone told me you have a two-year grace period, and every year after that, you kind of upset about 10 percent of the alums. And you never win them back. I am two years in, so in 10 years, I will have annoyed 100 percent of the people here and they will be ready to get rid of me.

"I can tell you I won't be here as long as Joe Paterno has been at Penn State."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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