'They Want to See Dan Go Down': Mullen's Return to Starkville Is Charged With History, Hostility

Many members of the Mississippi State community are in conflict about Dan Mullen's return to Starkville with his first Florida team. Others know exactly how they're going to feel.
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STARKVILLE, Miss. — In the spring of 2014, the Bop’s frozen custard shop announced a new item with a flyer taped to its front window. The Mullen was a vanilla concrete topped with chocolate syrup, caramel, chocolate chips and M&Ms. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen frequented Bop’s so often and ordered the same off-menu item that employees began advertising the concoction to all customers.  

Turns out, The Mullen was only seasonal. “It’s now called The Lateral Move,” says owner Kay Holland, a dig at the coach for his decision in November to join SEC rival Florida after nine years at the helm of the Bulldogs.

For so many Mississippi State fans, with that decision Mullen went from friend to foe, hero to hated, legend to traitor. Their dissatisfaction over his departure and their disdain for a personality they consider haughty has resulted in one Starkville-based company selling T-shirts this week emblazoned with two words: DAN WHO? Those who once paraded around in DAN THE MAN apparel have turned against their program’s former leader, and many are prepared to welcome him back in the rudest of fashions Saturday night when Mississippi State and new head coach Joe Moorhead host Florida and you-know-who. “Ten to 15 years from now, we’ll applaud him. Saturday night, I’ll boo him,” says Stephen Agostinelli, a lifelong Mississippi State fan who lives in Jackson and runs the popular fan message board SixPackSpeak.com. “I’m in a group text with some others. They’re like, ‘I’m not going to boo him. I appreciate him.’ Well, I’m appreciative of what he did too, but he left us.”

The Lateral Move, from Bop's Frozen Custard in Starkville.

The Lateral Move, from Bop's Frozen Custard in Starkville.

The legion of Bulldogs is split. Some want to celebrate a coach who ranks second in program history in wins, led his team to a school-record eight straight bowls and helped shape the current cowbell-clanging atmosphere at Davis Wade Stadium. Others are torn ahead of a game that Mullen himself in May described as potentially the biggest in the state of Mississippi—a laughable line to some, but not to others. “If State loses this game, it will be one of the most devastating losses on the fan base ever,” says Gregg Ellis, who worked in media relations at Mississippi State for 10 years before leaving the school this summer. “They want to see Dan go down.”

It’s not all about Dan. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin came from Mississippi State, stunning the fan base of his alma mater two years ago by accepting the same job with the Gators and then enraging it by hiring away Mullen. This could be the first time in major college football history that a head coach and an athletic director, both at the same school, return to face their former employer. Longtime high-ranking officials at each of the five power conferences in college football say they’ve never heard of that happening in at least the last 30 years. “That’s pretty unique,” says Mullen himself.

It’ll be quite a sight: Mullen and Stricklin donning enemy colors while surrounded by the dozens of imprints they made on Starkville—from facility improvements to bowl game commemorations, from the program’s “Hail State” rally cry to the rattling cowbells that were legalized during Stricklin’s reign. “Everywhere I look on campus, there’s a memory,” Stricklin says in an interview Monday. “I’m looking forward to saying hi to the people who want to say hi. It’s not a lot of fun going in there as an opponent. That place means a lot to me.”

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Each morning on his drive to the office, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen calls one of two people: Stricklin, whom he calls a “mentor”, or Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, another former Mississippi State AD who hired Cohen to coach the Bulldogs’ baseball team in 2008. The three men are still close from their time in Starkville—Byrne as AD, Stricklin as associate AD and Cohen as a successful baseball coach with an itch to be an administrator.

In November, Cohen found himself on the phone with Stricklin, not discussing the good old days but a more serious matter: Stricklin was pursuing Cohen’s football coach. “Scott and I shared information, but he’s not going to tell me everything,” Cohen says. “If you’re asking if Dan is an option, yes Dan is an option,” Cohen remembers Stricklin telling him. Mullen became the option for Stricklin after Florida lost out to Nebraska in the race for Scott Frost and to UCLA in the pursuit of Chip Kelly.

Mississippi State players gathered in the football facility for a previously scheduled afternoon meeting on the Sunday after the Bulldogs’ 31–28 Thanksgiving night loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. As they waited for coaches to arrive, the news, through social media, had already reached them. It was hard to believe, because Mullen had earlier that month told his team, “Guys, I’m not going anywhere,” according to quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.

Mullen walked into the meeting, gave a brief goodbye and walked out. Fitzgerald, on crutches after a gruesome leg injury against the Rebels, found his coach afterward outside of his office. “He kind of gave me a hug and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be fine. Be strong and be the leader.’ That’s everything that’s been said since,” Fitzgerald says. He plans to talk with the coach who recruited him on Saturday, and he still frequently trades text messages with Megan Mullen, Dan’s wife. The two have been close since they met during Fitzgerald’s first visit to Starkville, and the quarterback calls her his “biggest supporter.”

For Cohen, Mullen’s departure was not a surprise. He knew the coach planned to leave the Bulldogs about two months before he actually did. “A series of events unfolded that really led me to believe that Dan wouldn’t be here after that year,” Cohen said this week, though he declined to reveal those events. Oscar Miskelly, a Jackson-based furniture store owner and Mississippi State booster as part of the Bulldog Club, supplies one: “They had discussions and Dan was like, ‘I think I’ve done everything I can here.’ I do think he was distracted in the Egg Bowl.”

Cohen spent a decade preparing for the moment he would have to make his first head football coach hire. In the fall of 2008, he joined Byrne and Stricklin on the search to replace the fired Sylvester Croom. “I still have all my notes from those interviews during that search,” Cohen says. “We met people in Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas. Dan was in Atlanta and was the most passionate person we spoke to.”

Nine years later, Cohen’s search to replace Mullen was one of the shortest you’ll ever see. Two days after Mullen’s departure, he hired a replacement in Moorhead with several similarities to his last coach: a Pennsylvania native with a successful spread scheme and a history of mentoring quarterbacks. He also hired someone that contrasts with Mullen in social settings. “Joe’s different,” says Matt Wyatt, a former Mississippi State quarterback who has been part of the school’s radio broadcast since Mullen’s first season in 2009. “When he walks down the hallway headed to his office every morning, he speaks to everyone and asks how their morning is going. He’s a warm personality.”

At times, Mullen’s personality was off-putting and cold, according to multiple people interviewed for this story. Even the coach himself is not oblivious to it. He told the Tampa Bay Times over the summer that he began his tenure at Mississippi State “paranoid.” In one meeting with athletic department officials at Mississippi State, Mullen once acknowledged his personality flaws, saying “that’s why I married my wife—she’s the nice one.” The coach was known for throwing barbs at opponents—namely rival Ole Miss, fanning the flames of a nasty century-old feud between schools separated by 90 miles. Then after the 2014 season, when his defensive coordinator Geoff Collins left for the same job at Florida, Mullen referred to it as a “lateral move,” the derivation of Bop’s latest item name change.  

“It’s not his natural way to be warm and fuzzy,” Wyatt says. “He’s very Nick Saban-esque. He’s focused. He is laser-beamed focus. I think a lot of times when he was joking around, it was just a show. In his real heart of hearts, he’s thinking ‘how can I win the next football game?!’”

Because of Mullen’s distant personality, one Bulldog Club member described the loss of such a successful coach as bittersweet: “It’s like your mother-in-law going over a cliff in your new Mercedes.” A Mississippi State athletic department official admits that Mullen “rubbed people the wrong way,” but everyone here—boosters, media members, athletic department figures and fans—agrees on one thing: Mullen won. “Everybody talks about that clause after your name in a New York Times obituary,” says Rick Cleveland, a columnist in the state for more than 30 years. “For Dan Mullen, it could easily be, ‘Dan Mullen, as head coach at Mississippi State had the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the nation for five weeks, died yesterday.’ That’s a hell of an accomplishment.”

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Dan Mullen and Scott Stricklin (right) were reunited in Gainesville last winter after working together in Starkville for nine years.

Dan Mullen and Scott Stricklin (right) were reunited in Gainesville last winter after working together in Starkville for nine years.

The committee was not on the books—unlisted and unofficial. Its members numbered from eight to 12, and they met, usually, on Tuesday afternoons to do one thing: brainstorm ideas to put Mississippi State athletics on the map. “Nothing was too crazy of an idea,” says Chad Thomas, a 36-year-old who served as Mississippi State’s associate AD for marketing under Byrne and Stricklin before leaving the university in 2013.

Stricklin was heavily involved in the meetings, often pushing the team to think outside of the box and elevate the Bulldogs’ branding. The gatherings produced many things familiar to Mississippi State fans today: the “This is Our State” billboards the erected at every major state line crossing in Mississippi; the “Spread the fun” campaign the school began upon Mullen’s offensive overhaul of Croom’s pro-style offense; and the hashtag the program painted in its end zones in 2011. “The end zones were a blank canvas, and we were going to use them,” says Joe Galbraith, now an administrator at Clemson, who was also part of the committee.

But none of the concepts took off quite like two words. “You know how Florida says, ‘Go Gators’?” Thomas says. “We wanted that. We thought ‘Hail State’ is going to be our ‘Go Gators’. Sure enough, it is.”

Stricklin’s mark on Mississippi State is deep. He hired both current basketball coaches, Ben Howland and Vic Schaefer. Schaefer has taken the women’s team to back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, and most believe Howland’s team is poised for a breakout season. Stricklin led expansions to the football, softball and baseball stadiums, and he fought the SEC to preserve one of the school’s most cherished and unique traditions: ringing cowbells during non-action in games. Brian Hadad, a 42-year-old Mississippi State alum and who now covers the team as a radio personality, says some of Stricklin’s achievements are “marred” because of his hiring of Mullen. “This feels like he betrayed his alma mater,” Hadad says.

Stricklin says the only decision more difficult than leaving his alma mater for Florida was taking its football coach, and he’s paid what he terms a “personal price” for it. “Friends sent their displeasure through text and email,” he says. Florida hiring away Mississippi State head coaches is nothing new. In two decades as athletic director in Starkville, Larry Templeton had a baseball coach (Pat McMahon) and tennis coach (Andy Jackson) hired by Florida AD Jeremy Foley. “Ain’t the first time I’ve dealt with those Gators,” says Templeton, now a consultant for the SEC. “I used to tell Jeremy Foley, ‘Am I getting two linebackers and a free safety in return?’”

Many in and around Mississippi State figured Stricklin for a “lifer” here, says Ellis, but those close to the athletic director were not shocked by his departure. The move wasn’t necessarily as much about the money (Stricklin’s salary more than doubled at Florida, to $1.1 million) as it was about a 48-year old who aspires to something grander, some here say—like a conference commissioner title. Thomas says the move doesn’t change this fact about Stricklin: “Scott bleeds Maroon and White.”

Stricklin, a Jackson native, still holds Mississippi State season tickets, which are used now by family members. His parents, sister and brother are Bulldogs, and so is his father-in-law Bailey Howell, a six-time NBA All-Star in the 1960s who still holds a bevy of school basketball records and resides in Starkville. Reached on the phone earlier this week, the 81-year-old Howell says with a chuckle, “We’ll be rooting for Mississippi State of course.”

Mullen suggests that he and Stricklin will likely get different receptions here. One is a northern-born coach who ran the team for nine years, the other a lifelong Bulldog from this state whose wife’s family is Maroon royalty. “The fan base’s perception and the people of Starkville’s perception of Scott might be different,” Mullen says. “I’m sure the university administrative perception of Scott and I are very different.”

Stricklin will fly in on the team plane Friday and stay at the team hotel in Tupelo, not venturing to Starkville any earlier than a normal road trip. On Saturday night, he’ll find himself for the first time watching a game in the visiting athletic director’s suite at Davis Wade Stadium. The suite isn’t refurbished like the one in which Cohen will sit, and it is completely closed with no ability to open the windows, constructed so visiting administrators would not be subject to cowbell noise. “Now that I think of it,” Stricklin laughs, “we should have renovated that suite.”

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The sleepover is Friday night in Starkville at a friend’s home. That’s where Megan Mullen, son Canon and daughter Breelyn will stay on the eve of the big game. There’s no staying at the Mullens’ old place. The $1.35 million, five-bedroom home is in the closing stages of being sold, Megan says. Plus, the kids want to catch up with friends, and so does she. “It just so happens we’ve got to go to this game afterward Saturday and watch it from different seats,” she says. The only thing she knows about the visiting coach’s suite is that it’s on the opposite side of the stadium from her usual perch above Scott Field.

At times during a 20-minute phone call, Megan grows emotional. She’s been dreading this day for nearly 10 months, since her husband ended a phone call in November, walked outside to the backyard and stared at her with a look she’d never seen before. That’s when she knew he’d gotten the call. She doesn’t understand the animosity that awaits her husband in Starkville. “It’s such a shame. Listen, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you for nine years that [another school] called every year,” she says. “I 100% believe that that’s the only call that would have taken him away from there. I hate that anybody could feel upset or mad. I think that was a dream job since he was a kid.” It’s never been made clear how many coaching jobs Dan Mullen was officially offered during his time in Starkville, but most here believe that he got the closest with Miami twice, when the Hurricanes hired Al Golden in 2011 and then Mark Richt in ’17.

For Megan, the return to Starkville is “crazy dumb luck.” Mississippi State and Florida have played just twice in the previous 12 years and won’t play again until 2025. “Since the day we got this job, everybody was mentioning, ‘You get to come back for the game!’” she says. “And it’s probably a double whammy because I think we left them one of the best teams we’ve had since we were there, too.” The new coaches took over a program that they agree was ready to win, talent-wise. Moorhead lauds the job Mullen did here, describing the foundation he left as “strong” and says his goal is only to elevate it to a level in which Mississippi State competes for SEC championships and College Football Playoff spots.

In Mullen’s tenure, that really only happened once, the 2014 Dak Prescott-led Bulldogs who started 9–0, rose to No. 1 and then lost three of their final four games. Mississippi State hasn’t beaten Alabama since two years before Mullen arrived. Moorhead’s title-winning plan got at least temporarily derailed last week with a 28–7 loss at Kentucky, a defeat in which the Bulldogs showed a lack of discipline that he takes the blame for. “A little part of you dies with every loss,” Moorhead says.

Mississippi State and Florida each enter 3–1, having both romped to big road wins (over Kansas State and Tennessee, respectively) and losses to Kentucky. The offenses of Moorhead and Mullen combined to score 23 points in eight quarters against the Wildcats. Moorhead says he may tweak his personnel because of Mullen’s knowledge of the players, and Mullen has changed his offense’s signals and terminology for this week, but that might not matter. “We know their M.O.,” says Bulldogs linebacker Gerri Green. “We know what they want to do.”

The Mullens, meanwhile, are settling into Gainesville, living about two miles from where they lived when Dan was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida. Megan is even shopping at the same grocery store, and now she’s able to regularly visit a Target. There isn’t one in Starkville, something Dan pointed out to reporters earlier this week, in a playful jab at a town that he once called a “hidden gem” in front of a bunch of smirking reporters at SEC media days. A return to this town won’t make her laser-focused husband emotional, Megan says—not like she will be, at least. She’s wishing against boos. “As the chick, his wife, I’d love … I don’t expect them to cheer for the Florida Gators or anything like that, but it would be nice for them to remember all the great things we did.”

Dan doesn’t expect emotion either. “I don’t know that there’s a whole lot, to me. We’re competing. It’s a game,” he says. “What’s probably different is I have a very close personal relationship with the guys we’re competing against. I don’t know if it’s hard, but it is different.”

Mullen says his first year at Florida has some things in common with his first season here in 2009. He has taken over a program that, although it appeared in consecutive SEC title games in 2015 and ’16, has not won consistently in years. Mississippi State had seven losing seasons in the eight years before he took over. The differences are “subtle.” Florida has a richer winning tradition, which Mullen notes he had to create in Starkville. “When I first got to Mississippi State, if we can get to a bowl game every couple of years, that would be awesome,” he says. “Now a bowl game is a minimum. I remember winning nine games a couple of years ago and people going, ‘Oh boy. That’s O.K. That’s not good here anymore. Nine is O.K.’”

Dan won’t be the only former Mississippi State head coach at Saturday’s game. The school plans on recognizing Jackie Sherrill’s 1998 SEC West championship team. Sherrill, the program’s all-time wins leader, has six more victories than a man named Dan Mullen. “If he had stayed,” Sherrill says earlier this week, “he probably would have surpassed me. Records are made to be broken.”

Maybe that will be Mullen one day, returning to be honored to a roaring crowd at Scott Field, his bowl games and SEC victories celebrated with the banging of cowbells. “Maybe in 25 years from now, people here will have a chance to reflect and they may have a different opinion,” says Mike Nemeth, a longtime former Mississippi State athletic administrator. “But not Saturday night.”