Starting in December and going through the end of the 2011 year, we will feature some of the biggest stories and features from the past in our SEC "Calendar" series. This series is a way to remind our fans of everything that has happened in the conference in the past 365 days.
By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BRISTOL, Conn. – There is much enthusiasm in the air as the van rolls along Interstate 84 in Connecticut headed for ESPN Headquarters on Monday morning.
“It was a lot of fun for everybody,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen passionately says into his BlackBerry from the back seat. “It’s a great way to get everybody involved.”
Mullen, who is speaking to a radio show about that past weekend’s Ladies Football Clinic in Starkville, has been injecting fervor into the Mississippi State fan base ever since he set foot in East Mississippi more than two years ago.
He has rejected the notion that one must first win games to get the fan base engaged. He believes that the environment that has been created around his football program has actually been the reason for his team’s success.
Spending any time around the former Florida offensive coordinator, it is hard not to get excited.
On this day, he is one of 12 Southeastern Conference head football coaches who is participating in the ESPN “Car Wash” over a two-day span. Mullen appeared on Monday along with Gene Chizik of Auburn, Will Muschamp of Florida, Houston Nutt of Ole Miss, Derek Dooley of Tennessee and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina.
Each coach received his schedule, timed to the minute, for each stop along what has been affectionately dubbed the "Car Wash". The meticulous slate of activities allow each coach to make a plethora of interviews all across the ESPN Campus.
“Sally’s Pizza,” Mullen tells the van driver. “We’ve got to have some Sally’s Pizza from New Haven. You just can’t get pizza like that in Starkville.”
Mullen is a native of Manchester, N.H., and a graduate of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. He wouldn’t want to live anywhere else other than Starkville, but he has missed the style of pizza that can only be found in New England. A day trip to the Worldwide Leader In Sports may allow Mullen to get a fix of his favorite kind of pie.
A little before 11 a.m. on Monday, each coach gathers in the lobby of ESPN’s annex. It is one of 13 buildings on the vast campus that houses the network’s many properties. Handshakes and conversations ensue between the six coaches who share so much, despite their different allegiances.
At 11 a.m., Mullen is off to start his rounds, first taping a segment with ESPN Gameday Radio, before moving his way through the halls to appear live on the set of ESPN’s First Take.
“I’m Dave Winfield, nice to meet you.”
With a little extra time before his segment on First Take, ESPN staffers escort Mullen to the green room to relax between interviews. It is there that the Major League Baseball Hall of Famer sits, pouring over his pages of notes to prepare for the analysis he was about to provide.
The two men talk baseball. Mullen is a Red Sox fan. The coach then asks Winfield, a former Minnesota baseball and basketball standout, if he catches much SEC football. Winfield says that he does.
“Do you think the SEC is the most competitive in the land?” Winfield asks.
Mullen wholeheartedly answers in the affirmative, saying it is the fan bases and the sold out stadiums that make all the difference, coupled with the fact that every week is a grind on the gridiron.
The trip to First Take surprisingly reunites Mullen with Nutt, his cross-state coaching rival. The program has put together a golf challenge between the two coaches, centered around an trivia session where each coach must answer tough questions about his respective program’s tradition.
“What was Mississippi State’s nickname before it was the Bulldogs?” Mullen was asked. “The Aggies,” he confidently replied, noting the team’s 1961 name change.
When it came time for the golf portion, Mullen barely misses his practice putt, but sinks the ball when it counted. Nutt also finds the bottom of the hole, as both finish the segment with holes-in-one.
Mullen then films a quick segment with ESPNU before heading over to the Scott Van Pelt radio show.
“The problem is, you can be good in the SEC West, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Mullen makes a point of telling the talent at many of his stops on Monday that the Bulldogs finished fifth in their division last season and still concluded the year ranked 15th in the nation. Just an indicator of how tough the competition is that Mississippi State must face on a weekly basis, and the remarkable turnaround that Mullen has engineered.
Mullen and Van Pelt talk golf and discuss the team’s quarterback Chris Relf. They mention a variety of topics before Mullen admires a life-size cardboard cutout of the radio host. Van Pelt praises the coach for the job he has done in Starkville, and they discuss how Mullen has raised the football bar in his community.
“My expectations are always going to be higher than anybody else’s,” he says confidently.
“This is unbelievable,” Mullen exclaims as he takes a bite of a sample sandwich out of its paper container. “It’s a fanwich.”
In a visit to the ESPN Cafeteria, Mullen was exploring the facility when he was handed a sample of a new sandwich from Ike’s Place, a California-based sandwich company.
A hot roast beef sandwich featuring an onion ring was one of many pleasant surprises that Mullen encountered on Monday. The coach, who handles all of his own social media platforms, pulled out his phone to report about his new finding.
@CoachDanMullen – Just had the fanwich in ESPN caf.
Mullen is stopped by a younger staffer to participate in a TwitVid for ESPN’s social media arm. The two discuss Twitter, as Mullen scrolls through his account on his Blackberry.
“You do it yourself?” the staffer asks in awe.
“Yeah, I do,” Mullen responds. “Here, I’ll do it right now.”
Mullen’s 20,051 followers number more than the school’s current listed enrollment of 20,000 students. It is just another way that the third-year coach is finding a way to connect with his fan base, that has created such a demand for season tickets that the Bulldogs now have a waiting list.
“You look like an SEC football coach over there.”
Mullen quips with radio host Colin Cowherd, who has been mobbed in the hallway by a group of young girls who were visiting the ESPN Campus, all looking to have their picture made with the popular broadcaster.
He makes his way to record a podcast with Ivan Maisel in a nearby studio. Not surprisingly, the question of the role of the cowbell in Mississippi State tradition was asked.
Mullen says the cowbell is a tradition that transcends the football field. He recollects a story about former player Nick Bell, who died late last season of synovial sarcoma.
“It sunk home to me what the cowbell means when we had a young man, Nick Bell, on our team passed away last year after a short six-week fight with cancer,” Mullen recounts. “It was a very, very difficult situation to go through as a team, and more so for their family. We had the team at the funeral and Nick’s mom, Linda, as they’re getting ready to close the casket on her 20-year-old son stood up and rang a cowbell. That really is where it sunk home to me that it’s not a silly game day thing, it is a deep-rooted tradition.
“You look like you haven’t moved today. You’re in the same spot you were last time we were in here.”
Mullen jokes with Winfield as he re-enters the green room. Winfield had appeared on air Monday morning and was back in the lounge preparing for his next on-air appearance later that afternoon.
It was around that time that news of the NFL ending its lockout was beginning to spread around the ESPN Headquarters. But the show would go on for the SEC Car Wash, which had Mullen slated for an appearance on College Football Live.
College football analyst Andre Ware enters the room, and proceeds to hang out with Mullen and Winfield. Ware recollects playing golf at SEC Media Days with current SEC staffer and former Mississippi State athletics director Larry Templeton. Ware is eating a full-size Fanwich that he acquired at the ESPN Cafeteria, quickly devouring it. Mullen appears a little jealous.
Mullen is soon summoned to the set – it is time for his appearance on the afternoon program. He shakes hands with NFL analyst Adam Schefter in the hallway. Schefter is quickly gobbling down a sandwich before what would become a long afternoon and night for the commentator.
“You’d better put that sandwich down,” Mullen kids. “You’re about to be busy.”
Mullen joins Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley on the set of College Football Live with Erin Andrews. The two coaches won’t face each other during the regular season this year, but Mullen says he hopes to see Dooley in Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.
“This is Bulldog Country.”
That is what is hand-written on one of three signs that Mullen hangs in anchor Steve Berthiaume’s cubicle. Mullen and Berthiaume have developed a friendship over the years, evidenced by the Bulldog helmet that sits in Berthiaume’s cubicle in the newsroom.
The ESPN cubicles look exactly like one would think from the This Is SportsCenter commercials. Each cubicle is adorned with memorabilia of each anchor’s favorite teams. The assortment of people walking through ranges from popular anchors, to staffers, to coaches from various sports teams.
With sprinkling rain coming down on the ESPN Campus, there is some question over whether Mullen’s appearance on SportsCenter will take place inside or outside. It was determined that he will do the interview outside and he joined ESPN College Gameday host Chris Fowler on the grass football field that sits in the quad of the main square.
Mullen discusses the usual questions about his team and the upcoming season. And then an inquiry about one of his favorite topics – Twitter.
“We are open to social media with the team,” Mullen said. “We talk to our players about being responsible and doing it the right way.”
Doing things the right way is a way of life for Mullen, who tells Fowler that there are no shortcuts to success. He says the journey is just as meaningful as the end result.
“If we reach the top of the mountain, I want to do it by climbing to the top of the mountain,” he says. “I don’t want to just be dropped off on the top of the mountain.”
Mullen has a few more radio interviews to knock out before his day ends. It seems that all the talk centers around the expectations that have increased with his program. Mullen embraces those expectations.
“I get more worried not about all the expectations, but all the patting on the back,” Mullen tells Doug Gottlieb. He doesn’t want his team to become complacent after a 9-4 season and a 52-14 victory against Michigan in the Gator Bowl last year.
He closes out his schedule by taping an interview with Chuck Wilson for ESPN Game Night.
Mullen wants to stop in and see anchor Cindy Brunson, whom he and his wife Megan have both befriended. The two chat for nearly 20 minutes, catching up on various happenings in each other’s lives. Mullen sends a TwitPic of the two through his Twitter account.
@CoachDanMullen – With my favorite #espn personality @ESPNCindyB.
Brunson also reports the meeting on her Twitter account, expressing her excitement for seeing Mullen.
@ESPNCindyB: Great day at work, had a chance to catch up w/ my favorite #SEC Coach @CoachDanMullen. Need more Cowbell!
“I’ll re-tweet you,” Mullen says.
Mullen returns to the ESPN Cafeteria for a group photo with all of the SEC’s football coaches that attended on Monday before taking to his phone to place a very important order.
Mullen orders two pizzas from Rose’s Family Restaurant near the airport, determined to get his fix. They are waiting for him when he arrives at the airport, at the end of a long but fulfilling day. He will eat part of one pizza and take the remainder home to share with his family.
It has always been about family and community for Mullen, something he values highly, even though he can’t get a slice of his favorite pie in the Magnolia state.
@CoachDanMullen – Great pizza in the northeast yesterday, but great to be home in Starkville.