Despite the speculation he’s eventually destined to be someplace else, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen continues the same refrain that Starkville is for him.
It’s just the opinions of others that he’s trying to change about one of the smallest towns and programs in the Southeastern Conference.
“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,” Mullen said. “It's a hidden gem.”
Before he signed a new four-year contract worth $10.6 million with Mississippi State days before the 2011 Gator Bowl victory over Michigan, reports had Mullen’s name connected with the openings at Minnesota, Miami and Florida.
“I live in the real world,” Mullen said with a smile. “I think that's just part of it. It's part of college football and 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.”
Months later the Mullen family remains with the Bulldogs program and the MSU head coach’s face can be seen boldly in the middle of an “Our State” billboard as one enters the Magnolia State.
“To me, we are the state university for Mississippi," Mullen said. "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.”
A year after winning the first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1941 and bringing the Egg Bowl trophy back to Starkville for a second straight year as a part of a nine-win season, Mullen has built an atmosphere around Davis Wade Stadium where season tickets were sold out months before the season opener at Memphis.
“When I got hired, they were saying, 'Boy, if we start winning games, you'll sell out the stadium and things will be great,'" Mullen said. "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.”
On Wednesday at the 2011 SEC Media Days, the Bulldogs head coach got introduced to a line of questioning from reporters not understanding why the person named 2011 Man of the Year by the Starkville Daily News enjoys his time in Oktibbeha County so much.
“I grew up in the northeast, I've had family and friends come down to visit,” Mullen said. “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.' (You have) great community, friendly people, you have all these amazing things.”
In 2011, Mullen is not squarely focused on a goal that no longer sounds as laughable as when he said it one year ago – get to the Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta.
"That is something we can control,” Mullen said. “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."
Now Mullen returns nine offensive starters and the kicker from an offense that scored a combined 90 points on Ole Miss and Michigan in the final two games of the 2010 campaign that ended with a No. 15 national ranking.
Mullen agreed this is the historical make-or-break season for the program to remain consistently winning in the highly competitive Western Division with national champion contenders Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
"I think we have the talent to do it," Mullen said. "The question is, are we that team that this year is going to come together, that is going to gel, work a little harder, believe in themselves and believe in each other a little more than everybody else?”
Even South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who has been in the league 21 years at Florida and USC, is noticing a difference in the perception of the Bulldogs football program.
“We operate pretty cheaply around there for some reason,” Spurrier said. “I saw Dan Mullen (and) Mississippi State has a jet airplane out there. We pulled our little KingAir up next to it. They've got a lot of money at Mississippi State.”
For everybody else outside the Starkville area, it’s a different song and dance now that Mullen prepares the MSU program for year three of his tenure.
“They actually have a chance to (win and SEC title) but I think everybody understands how hard the SEC West is, so the task this year is not going to be any easier for us than it was last year to get to Atlanta," Mullen said.