Dan Mullen beat LSU, and he's the coaching carousel heartthrob once again
Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State trounced LSU 37-7 in Week 3. The game’s lasting impression, beyond the manhandling of higher-rated Tiger players, was that the Bulldogs had the better head coach, a coach LSU could have considered when the school was in the market last offseason. Instead, they opted to give Ed Orgeron a huge promotion.
Mullen inherited perhaps the SEC’s most uphill job at Mississippi State. Kentucky or Vanderbilt might be worse in a vacuum, but competing in the SEC East is easier. It’s hard not to admire what Mullen has achieved. The list of SEC schools that have been to seven consecutive bowl games and have had a team ranked No. 1 in an AP Poll during that span contains Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State.
Mullen produced two Top 15 teams. His protege Dak Prescott starts for the Dallas Cowboys. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Cam Newton had followed his former OC to Starkville instead of Auburn.
The marvel is Mullen, who might be the SEC’s second-best head coach, remains at Mississippi State. He has been the oft-preferred coaching carousel discussion since he dropped 52 on Michigan in a bowl game after 2010. He built on that success. He’s still a young man at 45. Still, jobs have come and gone.
Mullen’s former employer, Florida, has hired a head coach twice during the interim. Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas made new hires as well. Major jobs outside the SEC and attractive for a native northerner such as Penn State, Texas, Oregon, USC, Michigan and Miami have come open. None of those came to fruition. Miami, if Mark Richt had not returned, seemed like the most likely Mullen destination.
Personality is a reported issue for Mullen. He has been mooted to be cocky, arrogant, and egotistical. What major college football coach isn’t? There was a conflict with former Florida AD Jeremy Foley, which precluded Mullen being the no-brainer hire after Urban Meyer left and again after Florida let Will Muschamp go.
More significant might be the money. Mississippi State might not be a college football power, but they pay Mullen as if they are one. He’s among the top 20 coaches in salary already, making $4.5 million per year. Jumping Mullen from $3 million to $4.5 million for a “big job” would be a different prospect than jumping him from $4.5 to Jimbo Fisher/Urban Meyer territory at $5-$6 million.
Timing is also critical. Mullen is an easier sell for a top job during the flows Mullen has had vs. the five or six-win rebuilding ebbs.
Mullen, whenever asked, will say he’s happy at Mississippi State. Every college football coach is happy until he stops answering phone calls and leaves for the next job. But perhaps he has hit the ceiling in Starkville. The prospect of going farther somewhere with more resources must be tempting.
Mullen’s name will be making the discussion rounds again this offseason. Tennessee is one “major” job that looks like it may be coming available. Butch Jones has done less with more. Why not try the guy who has done more with less? Texas A&M and Auburn could be hiring new coaches too. All three programs have money to throw at a coach. One may have the good sense to opt for proven success within the conference.
Maybe the third time could be the charm with Florida? Mississippi State’s Scott Stricklin replaced Foley as Florida’s athletic director. Something egregious would have to happen for McElwain to depart this season. But, right now, he seems to be nearer the Muschamp/Zook end of the performance spectrum than the Meyer/Spurrier end.
There’s also Notre Dame. Mullen was a graduate assistant with the Irish. Brian Kelly’s tenure does not look poised for a triumphant second act. That seems like a reasonable fit. That said, it might be a hard sell for Notre Dame to pay big bucks to fire a coach for winning 8-10 games and occasionally putting forward a Top 20 team when that is Mullen’s selling point.
Perhaps a wild card emerges. Things aren’t looking great for Todd Graham at Arizona State. That’s a program in an opposite situation to Mississippi State. It has all the raw material. It’s just waiting for the right coach to put the pieces together. The recruits are close by in Los Angeles, and it’s much easier to compete in the Pac 12. Also worth noting: Phoenix is a lot less humid.
Mullen is the coaching carousel heartthrob now. It’s hard not to be after such an emphatic win over LSU. Of course, things could look different in a couple of weeks after back-to-back road trips to Georgia and Auburn.