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July 20, 2011
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen.
COACH MULLEN: We're very excited to get this season going. We've had a lot of great things happen at Mississippi State. Came in last year finishing the year on a high note, ranked 15th nationally, winning a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in a long time. Coming into this season with season tickets selling out the earliest in the history of the school.
For us, coming in off of I think 10 consecutive sellouts, the atmosphere our fan base has created is up. We're going to start a new football facility this fall to help us develop our facilities to get them to the level we want them to be at, a level where I feel we can have the top facilities in the Southeastern Conference, and continue our goal to relentlessly pursue an SEC championship.
That's what the goal of our program every single year is going to be. It will be no different for us this year as we get ready for this season, is to find a way to win the SEC West. That is something we can control. That is something we will continue to pursue, find a way to get to Atlanta. Mississippi State has been there before. We need to get there again and find a way to win in Atlanta and get that SEC title for the people of Mississippi.
Can't wait to get this season going. It's great to be here today. This is kind of a reminder that the season's right around the corner. Really kind of kicks off every season. The training camp is about to start. The intensity of what the Southeastern Conference is all about. Just even Media Days, the excitement around it, it's what makes this the best conference in all of college football.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach. We'll take questions.
Q. Earlier today the commissioner outlined some proposals to toughen up the eligibility for high school prospects. I assume by now you're familiar with that. What are your thoughts on that proposal?
COACH MULLEN: You know, I always think it's good. I think one of our goals is obviously to educate young people, make sure they leave with a degree. That's why we coach in college. I think if you look at the percentages of guys that go on to the NFL, to the guys you recruit, every school in the country that percentage is low.
We're into developing champions in life. I think one of the things we're trying to do is make sure we stay out in front of the college football world here in the Southeastern Conference. I know Commissioner Slive does a great job of leading us to keep us as the top conference in the country.
The biggest challenge in doing those things is making sure that we are doing enough for these young people to help them meet those challenges on the backside as well.
One of the things I notice a lot with players that we recruit is the jump in GPA and their grades during their senior year while we're recruiting them. One of the big things that we stress is academics. I think a lot of times the hardest thing you see with these young guys getting qualified with some of the standards is their freshman year. All of a sudden this young guy walks out of a small town high school, he's a star, he's a freshman, I'm going right to the NFL, I'm this great football star, and school is an afterthought for this young man.
All of a sudden, you know, he remained eligible through high school, but the high school standards have nothing to do with the NCAA standards of qualifying. So this young guy, all of a sudden he's midway through his junior year, he realizes, I'm getting all this attention from these coaches, and every single one of them is talking about my grades and my GPA. Now I have to really step it up my senior year to make it.
When you do up all those standards, it's not just about upping the standards, it's making sure we reach out to high school coaches, counselors, keep them as the main people involved, along with the family in the recruiting process, and not all these outside sources that are third parties that might have other objectives. To keep them focused on what's important, getting those grades, and getting that information to them early on in their career.
I bet if you did a study, you would see an unbelievable increase in a student-athlete's GPA their senior year in high school when they're being recruited when they understand how important those academics are.
I'm all for increasing the standards. We just want to make sure there's a plan in place, that we don't just increase the standards but don't have a plan to raise the standards of these young people while they're in high school, as well.
Q. Dan, when Vick came to State without a whole lot of fanfare, what did you see in Vick that maybe others might have missed? What kind of role do you foresee his final season with the Bulldogs?
COACH MULLEN: I mean, we expect a lot of him this year. When we were recruiting Vick, you know, obviously Gulf Coast Community College, one of the top junior college programs in the nation, amazing, they have a ton of talent. The coaches, we look at all those talented guys on the roster. All these guys being recruited. They would always talk about Vick Ballard, their coaching staff would, that he's the one that makes it go.
That is something that catches my attention, something that when you turn on the film and you watch, he's not the fastest player out there, he's not the most dynamic move, he's not a monster big back, he's just a great football player.
But when the coaches come out, and his junior college coaches say, He's the one that makes us go, that's something that really draws your attention as a coach.
I think Vick plays with a chip on his shoulder, that he wants to go out there and prove everybody wrong, that I should have been recruited out of high school, I should have been more heavily recruited out of junior college. You could see that day one when he walked on our campus, that he had that 'it' factor about it, that whatever he's going to do, he's going to be successful.
Q. You mentioned the process of winning the west and eventually the SEC. How far off do you think you are from winning the SEC and the SEC West? When you first took the job, did you have a timetable for that?
COACH MULLEN: You know, I really don't have a timetable. That's our goal going into each year. What happens each year is kind of its own year. This year's team is going to have its own personality.
For us, that is our goal going into the season. You look at the schedule, the games we have to win. We have some tough games we have to win at home. I've always believed you have to win your home games if you want to win in the Southeastern Conference. If we can win all our home games this year, find a way to win a couple tough road games, you're going to find yourself in Atlanta.
I think we have the talent to do it. The question is, Are we that team that this year is going to come together, that is going to gel, work a little bit harder, believe in themselves, believe in each other a little bit more than everybody else out there and reach our potential to be the best that we can be?
That's our job as coaches is to try to develop that so we are that team this year.
When you look back on a season, you can always look back to the teams that win that championship. Going in, you don't know how they're going to win it or why they're going to win it. But looking back upon it, you say, Look at how that team gelled, look at the leadership, look at games, how they came together and found a way to win games during the season that defined that football team, and that's why they were a championship team.
We have to be ready for those moments and we have to continually develop our guys this year to do those things.
Q. With all the scrutiny these recruiting services have been getting lately, have you looked more closely to make sure everyone is legitimate?
COACH MULLEN: Yeah, we do. I'm not huge into recruiting services. We don't base everything on that. I love the old school part of recruiting where coaches go out and find prospects. Go out to the high school, talk to the coach, dig them up. That's my favorite way still of doing it.
There are still services out there. Just the manpower and days, you can't get into every high school around the country so you have to use those really to me as information gatherers. I trust our coaching staff's evaluation more than a third-party evaluation to tell me about a certain player.
But, again, I think as it expands, obviously recruiting services, all the different websites, all that is big business, big money. That is big money out there. The hardest thing is there's no regulation over it. I mean, I know there's a certain regulation over us as coaches. There's certainly a regulation over high school coaches, their amount of contact, what they can do, involvement with the kids.
But I think a lot of the scrutiny comes from these third parties in different systems, the tournaments they have, all the different websites, all those different things, recruiting services that have minimal regulations on them. It's hard to hold somebody accountable that they don't have to report to anybody. They don't have any rules they have to follow.
I know we go sit down, I'm held accountable to our athletic director, our university president, the university board, Mississippi State fans everywhere. We get into meetings, we're held accountable to Commissioner Slive, how we uphold and represent this conference nationally.
So it's a pretty easy chain of command to follow. When you have a lot of these third parties that there is no accountability to them, that is where some of the issues come.
Pretty easy to regulate high school athletics. The state board does that, what the high school coaches can and can't do. Really hard to regulate a seven-on-seven random team, a pickup team, that nobody has any rules over.
Q. Dan, with Blaine and James, left tackle, either one of those guys, a lot of inexperience at that position. You'll know more once pre-season starts. How much of a concern is that right now, how much would that hold back the offense from progressing if that position doesn't take shape?
COACH MULLEN: I don't think it will hold back because we're going to build our offense around the players that we have. The worst thing you can do as a coach is say, You're going to step in and replace Derek Sherrod, who is a first-round draft pick in the NFL. I wish I had 85 first-round draft picks on my team. But, you know, no team has that.
So what you have to do is really look at those players' strengths. The inexperience is the question. We have to find out what their strengths are going to be in the 29 practices, training camp, really early on in the season. We're going to need both those guys to play for us. One of them is going to be the starting left tackle, the next is going to be the next tackle in the game on either side. We need both of them to be ready to play for us. That's the focus.
Us as a coaching staff to see what their strengths are, for them as players to continually improve their game, and our expectations of them to be reasonable in what they can do, not sit there and say, We're going to be a different team. We have different players this year. Not look and say, Boy, you messed up. You couldn't do what Derek Sherrod did, so we're not going to be as good. No, we need to build around the strengths of what this team's strengths are and really understand those two players.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the development of Chris Relf, how good you think he can be his senior season?
COACH MULLEN: Chris is really continually taking steps forward and really impressed me. When I first got hired and went into meetings and watching Chris, I had a lot of doubts whether he could play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. Chris played his first year, relied on some of his natural ability, ran the ball well, made some good throws, but was very inconsistent.
Coming into that off-season, you know, I think he gained a little confidence the end of my first year here, into last year's off-season, I think he understood he had to take a bigger role, really started to understand the offense better, started to play with a little bit of confidence at the end of the season. That continued to grow throughout the season.
What impresses me with Chris is the maturity he's taken at the position, the extra things, the extra time, the extra investment that he puts in. He's really grasped the offense. He's done a great job of managing the game while he's out there, improving himself as a consistent passer. If it's not there, he'll check it down, throw the ball away. He makes better and better decisions every single day.
Even just talking to him. When you look at the summertime when we're not allowed to be around the players, huge development. Probably the only sport in the country where really in the three to four months leading up to the season, coaches aren't allowed to be around their players, then they got to go and perform. A lot is put on them.
Chris has matured to really work this summer. He's told me what he's done. He said, you know, I mean, Coach, I'm invested, I'm all in, I've never worked this hard in my life, to be a football player, not just running sprints, but to be as good a football as he can be. That is the maturity you need to become a great quarterback in this conference.
Q. Coach, when you were the offensive coordinator at Florida and you realized you had an opportunity to come to Mississippi State and be the head coach, what sorts of advantages attracted you there and have those things lived up to your expectations coming in?
COACH MULLEN: You know what, one of the first things I did is look at recruiting, looked at the talent in the recruiting class that was in Mississippi. You always start recruiting in your home state. That's where you're going to start at.
There was a solid group of players. There's some guys that were committed that knew they would have to come in and fight to keep their commitment there. In looking at it, hey, there's going to be some talent there for us to recruit.
I really hit it off. Greg Byrne was the athletic director at the time. He and I really hit it off, had a great vision of the future. Scott Stricklin was involved in the interview, was right onboard with the vision of what we thought we needed to do to win at Mississippi State. Just seeing that, having the administration, everybody on the same page was critical for us to have success.
Unfortunately, I'd never been there at that point. I'm trying to think now. Very few schools hadn't been in the league. Florida came to Starkville to play. I'd never seen the stadium, seen the facilities, never spent any time there before. Fortunately, I called my wife in the middle of the night after interviewing. I said, I think I'm going to be offered this job. The problem is, we don't know anything about Starkville.
She covered a U.S. mid-amateur at Old Waverly Golf Club when she worked for The Golf Channel in West Point, Mississippi. She likes college towns, so she drove over and had dinner in Starkville, toured the town a little bit. You haven't been there, but I've been there when I covered this golf event. It's a really neat place, there's great people there. So I'm happy moving there, raising a family in Starkville. She said, You'll like it. So I just trusted her.
Q. Yesterday driving up from Baton Rouge when we crossed into Mississippi, there was a billboard with your face on it that said, Welcome to our state.
COACH MULLEN: Did you enjoy your time there (smiling)?
Q. Absolutely. Talk about that campaign. There's a couple of other schools in the state that you play from time to time.
COACH MULLEN: Yeah. Well, we got Southern Miss coming on the schedule soon in a couple years. Larry will probably get upset with the sign.
For us, it was something our PR department worked on. They showed it to me after they were about to put it up. I said, It sounds great.
To me, we are the state university for Mississippi. We're the people's university. It's really important for us and for me to get out there and make sure that we show that. We represent the people of the state well.
I'd love nothing more than to win a championship for the people of Mississippi. They deserve to be champions. We will relentlessly pursue that championship and keep the excitement going that's around our program right now and keep everybody in the state of Mississippi excited about Bulldog football.
Q. As you build toward the process of having a championship team in year three, is it more about the players picking up on the execution and how you want them to execute or is it more about now that you have the players with the individual matchups on game day against the opponent, trying to game plan and get the victories?
COACH MULLEN: Yeah, in this league it's a little bit about everything. When you look at in just the SEC West last year, five teams finished in the top 15 in the country. That's the most elite conference and division in all the college football.
So, you know, it's everything. Your players better believe that they're going to make the plays. You better work harder and train harder than all these other talented teams that are there. You know, the amazing one is in that work ethic, in that discipline, coaches have to do a good job of putting them in the position to make those plays, and when they get in position, they need to make the plays.
You never know what play is going to turn the tide of the game. You never know which one it's going to be. There's going to be one, might be multiple ones. The worst thing you can do, coach put you in the position to make that play, you have the talent to make that play, and you weren't prepared yourself to do it. That might have been the one that turned the tide of the game.
That is critical for us. As we continue to develop, there's a lot of confidence in making that play at that time that goes along with it. You need all of those things to win a championship.
Q. When you first came to Mississippi State from Florida, a lot of people's expectations, maybe yours as well, you would try to install the offense you had at Florida. Obviously the talent level when you got there, they had a number of down years, there wasn't the talent base in place to do that. How far along do you think in your effort to produce that kind of offense, how much progress do you think you've made toward that point or is that what you've been working toward?
COACH MULLEN: Everywhere I've coached in offense, the offense that I ran at Utah with Alex Smith, the guys, players I had there, was very different than the offense run at Florida with Chris Leak. The one I ran with Tim Tebow was different than the one I ran with Chris Leak.
We try to build around the strengths of our players. It's taking the talent. I don't need Chris Relf to be an Alex Smith or a Tim Tebow. I need Chris Relf to be a Chris Relf and do it the best he can. As a coach, I need to put him in a position to do those things.
To me, that is the biggest challenge that always faces us year in and year out. We go out, recruit the best players to fit what we want to do, not just offensively or defensively, but also the character within our program that we look for for young men when we go recruit, and then we build and tweak our system around that.
Our offense last year was the offense we wanted it to be. This year it will be different because we have different personnel. But that will be the offense that we want it to be.
There's not one set offense that I would say, This is exactly what I want to run. Our offensive playbook is pretty vast. We're going to use about 60% of it each year because only 60% of it applies to that given year's team. There will be 40% of it put on the shelf. Maybe it will make a comeback in a couple years when we have different personnel.
Q. At the spring meetings the presidents voted to limit each signing class to 25. Were you in favor of that and what are your thoughts on that?
COACH MULLEN: I wasn't in favor of it only because, you know, we're in a state where we have a junior college system. We've signed some guys that we knew were going to go to junior college. Hopefully it's a motivation for them to succeed in junior college. We haven't gone way over with what we've done. The guys that we knew that were not going to make it academically, hopefully that was a motivating factor in that.
But to say I was strongly on one side or the other, not really. I mean, we have not had an oversigning problem. I don't plan on having an oversigning problem anytime in the future. We weren't doing it or it wasn't going to be a competitive advantage for us. I don't believe in it. So I didn't feel that it was necessary.
But if we did have a year where we had 25 spots open, there were two kids that we want to try to encourage to go on to junior college, I'd love to have the opportunity to do that for those two young men. That's the only limitations that we'll have in our program.
Q. Steve Spurrier earlier said Mississippi State has all kinds of money because you have a jet airplane now.
COACH MULLEN: But I've never played Augusta National, so I can't be on his level (smiling). He's probably a member there; we just don't know.
Q. You have some restrictions with your budget. One of the bottom two or three in the SEC. How does that affect some of the things you try to do in recruiting and other things you try to do on the periphery?
COACH MULLEN: I don't know. I don't really look at it that way. I think every year since I've been there we've actually come in under budget for football, even though we have a lower budget. Other focus has always been on what we can do, not on what we can't do.
I think I've been fortunate enough to coach from small schools when I started, Wagner College, on Fridays I'd be out there lining the field as a grad assistant before you would coach the receivers at practice, to schools like Florida with huge budgets, and a lot of different places in between.
I think you just kind of apply what your program is, what your beliefs of your program are, have the plan for your school. I think our administration, our staff, we have a great plan for what it takes for Mississippi State to be successful, and we follow it and focus on what we can do, not worry about, you know, having all this enormous excess budget.
Q. You talked a little earlier about selling out season tickets earlier than the school has ever done before, the success you've had. What kind of atmosphere has that built around your team?
COACH MULLEN: When you talk about the expectations in our team to win, the fans certainly have a lot to do with that. When you come running out every single week to a sold-out stadium, you get off the bus for our Dog Walk, there's fans lined up either side going crazy, they give you a home-field advantage, which is critical in the Southeastern Conference. Just having the excitement and feeding off the energy of the crowd. I think that's huge.
For our fans, when I got hired, they were saying, Boy, if we start winning games, you'll sell out the stadium and things will be great. It actually works in the reverse. You sell out the stadium, you create this game day environment, you're going to start winning football games. Our fans really bought into it. They bought into their role and their responsibility in making our team successful.
I think I give our athletic department a lot of credit. They've made our game day not just a game. They've made it an event. If you come to Starkville on a Saturday, it is an event. It's the place to be in Mississippi. There is so much going on for everybody in the family, whether it be out in the parking lot, in the tailgating, in the kids' area outside the stadium, to actually all the excitement of the game itself. They have all bought in, and our fans have done that.
We've done a great job of promoting it. I think everybody, when they walk out, they leave Starkville on a Saturday, they're looking forward to coming back. They're looking forward to the event that it was, not just for one person but for an entire family. That's made all the difference.
I thank our fans for buying in and doing those things.
Q. You talk about the goal being not just winning your division, but winning an SEC championship. How do you start to make some headway to do that? Do you need some of the more traditional powers to have down years to make progress in that direction?
COACH MULLEN: If other teams have a down year, that certainly helps your cause. But you can't worry about that. You have to worry about your program playing to the best of their ability. You have to do it week in and week out in the SEC. When you look at the balance of this conference, I don't think there's one team that can stand up and say, Circle this game, that's the game. We win that game, we're going to find a way to win a conference championship.
All of a sudden you play that game, you look at who you have to play the next game, you say, Whoa, that team is really good, too. It is such a process in this league of you have to have that mental toughness as a team to play week in and week out. Top to bottom, you have got to play your A-game in this league if you want to win. You can't just roll the ball out there and say, We're going to get by this week. That doesn't work that way in the SEC.
Q. SEC winning five straight national championships, what's the difference between the SEC and the other leagues out there?
COACH MULLEN: I think when it gets to the championship level, sometimes it's the preparation the teams have. You have to play the type of schedule that teams have to play in this league, you're ready for those big championship games. Like I said, you played one big game, you play in a lot of big games in the SEC, That really prepares you for that championship level.
But the neat thing in this conference, I think it just shows you the balance of power in the conference, is winning all these national championships, it's not one team that's done it, it's multiple teams that are spread out and done it. It just shows you the depth conference has.
The fan base certainly has a lot to do with it. The passion of the people here. The recruiting area of the great athletes that are in the south for all of our schools to recruit. And the belief in the administrations to put you in a position to be successful, to hire great coaches, to have great facilities, and to really have all these things that help you develop young men into being champions.
Q. You hail from the northeast. When Mississippi State hired you from Florida, they made quite a splash. When you had the success you had, there were all kinds of Internet reports connecting you to Miami, Florida, Havana, I don't know. How do you deal with all that? How do you deal with the perception, reality thing? Is there any control of it at all?
COACH MULLEN: Well, no. I mean, I live in the real world. The reality was maybe that was my wife looking up vacation spots for us this year. The perception is I'm leaving to go be sighted all around the country at different spots in a given day.
I think that's just part of it. It's part of college football, how it is. It's kind of that silly time in December where there's rumors flying in every direction of who's going to do what.
The reality of the situation is my wife and I are very happy at Mississippi State. I love the people of Mississippi. I love the character of the young men we're able to recruit in Mississippi. How much the fan base has embraced what we're trying to build there, and the support where you have an administration where everybody is on the same page.
I think in today's world, everybody thinks the grass is always going to be greener somewhere else. Fortunately in my career I got to coach at a lot of different schools and see a lot of different situations. The situation we have with the great recruiting base in the state of Mississippi and locally within a five-hour radius of us, having an administration where everybody is pointed in the same direction with the same goals, a fan base that's really bought into what you're trying to do, and a great group of young men to coach, I have a great situation. We're very, very happy there.
Everything that I'd read about the rumors, I'd kind of laugh because none of that was even a conversation for me and my family.
Q. Dan, would you talk about how you've been able to turn Starkville into an advantage. It's not exactly in most minds the garden spot of the Southeastern Conference, but you turned it into a place people want to be.
COACH MULLEN: I think one of the biggest challenges we had was people coming to Starkville. I've had very, very few people, and I grew up in the northeast, I've had family and friends come down to visit. The first thing you hear out of their mouth is, Wow, I didn't know this was such a beautiful place. What a beautiful place to live, great community, friendly people, you have all these amazing things.
I think you got to be going to Starkville to get to Starkville. You just don't pass it by. It's a hidden gem. Everybody that comes to visit us, that's the challenge we've had. Once they come on campus, whether it be recruits, parents, even fans, they say, Wow, I didn't know what a beautiful place this is, what a great place to live, what a great community Starkville, Mississippi is.
That's within our challenge. What we've been able to do is get people to come. Sold out games, they're coming back. We have recruits show up on campus, What a neat place this is. And families and parents show up with their kids and say, Wow, this is a great college town where my son or daughter gets to come and live the college experience, be around students in a town where everything revolves around the university. That's what's been special there for us.
I see us continuing to build more and more success as more and more people have the opportunity to come to see what a great place Starkville is.
Q. If you could go back in time and talk to Dan when he took the job, what lessons that you've learned would you tell that person? What have you learned in your time on the job that you did not know going in?
COACH MULLEN: You know, I don't know. I think the lessons that you learn are what makes you who you are today. So, you know, I couldn't be who I am today, I couldn't improve the way I was improved unless I actually lived those lessons. I'm a big believer in that.
You're going to make mistakes in life. I've made a ton of mistakes since I've been at Mississippi State in every aspect of the program. But if I hadn't made those mistakes, I don't know if I'd be as good a coach as I am today. If someone just told me about it, you don't get as much, you know, reading about it or being told about it as you get in the experience of physically doing it. That is what has been important.
I don't know if I'd change a thing because I think I needed making all the mistakes and making the good decisions that I've made. I've needed those to help develop me to become a better football coach.
Hopefully the mistakes I make this season will help me be a better coach next year, and the following year after that and in the future. That's it.
You know, too many people want to just get to the top of the mountain to see the view, but they don't understand the journey of that hike and climb to the top of the mountain, that's the life experience of what it's all about. It's not just about seeing the quick view.
If you just want to see the view, you can open the book and see the picture of a view from the top of a mountain. You can turn on Everest, watch on TV. That's what it looks like from the peak of Mt. Everest. I can tell you what, the people that climbed the mountain, the journey along the way, that's what makes your life and develops and defines who you are as a person. It's not the arrival spot, it's the journey.
I don't know if I'd change a thing because it wouldn't make me who I am today.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach for joining us.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports