For all of Dan Mullen's years in the Southeast, he's still a man of Northern bearings -- born in New Hampshire and schooled in Pennsylvania. His first three jobs coaching were at Wagner, Columbia and Syracuse. Folks at Mississippi State would call him a damn Yankee if he weren't their head football coach.
His voice isn't syrupy, it's sharp. His attitude isn't always gentile, it's blunt, bordering on obtuse. He doesn't dance around the edges of things, he tells it like it is. It's off-putting to some and refreshing to others.
But give Mullen this: He understands life in the SEC. He welcomes the idea that football is king and the lifespan of coaches is measured on a year-to-year basis. It's what he signed up for when he became Mississippi State's head coach in December 2008. He'd tell you he's been on the hot seat since Day 1. And today, at 4-6 and in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2009, he knows he's still there.
When Mississippi State fell to No. 1 Alabama this past Saturday, he was upset, frustrated by another close loss. If three plays had gone his way, he said, the outcome would have been different. Instead of answering questions about his future, the focus would have been elsewhere.
"If we had won on Saturday night, [Nick Saban] would be on the hot seat," Mullen said emphatically. "You're about a game away in this league from that situation."
So is Mullen really in danger of being fired? Not if you ask the man in charge of his employment.
"Dan has had as good a first five years at Mississippi State as any coach since World War II," Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin told ESPN. "He's done a really good job, and I think he's got us set up to have even more success the next few years."
Stricklin said that while he wishes the Bulldogs' record was better, he's not letting one year of bad results cloud his judgement. He signed Mullen to a four-year contract extension last December and insists Mullen's tenure is still in its early stages.
"We're still relatively early in that process," Stricklin explained. "Dan's a heck of a coach. ... It just takes time to really be consistently good and take that next step."
Where some programs in the SEC -- Florida comes to mind -- have an itchy trigger finger, Mississippi State is attempting to take the long view. The administration invested $100 million in football over the last 12 months, Stricklin said, pointing out a new football facility and a stadium expansion.
Why commit so much in one direction only to veer off course at the first sign of trouble?
"It's pretty inefficient to hit the recycle button every few years," Stricklin said. "The most successful season in our basketball history was the Final Four in 1996, and it was that head coach's 10th year as our coach. In football you could say our 1998 team that played in the SEC championship is the high point, and that was Jackie Sherrill's eighth year as our head coach. And this past year our baseball team played for the national championship and it was John Cohen's fifth year. But before that our highest finish was third and it was that coach's 10th year.
"My point is you have to have a coach who can survive those first few years to graduate to the long, extended period of tenure. It just seems like that extended period of tenure is where you have those special things happen."
That said, Stricklin insists that no one is content at 4-6. But there's also understanding for the predicament Mullen is in.
Mississippi State is a young team with a brutal schedule. Last weekend's loss saw a third-string freshman quarterback come in and try to win the game. There are just two seniors on the defense's two-deep depth chart.
And the six losses, don't get Mullen started on that. The schedule, a year after being littered with cupcakes, looks more like a road full of landmines.
"We lost to Auburn on the last play of the game, we had an opportunity to beat Alabama, we came right down to the fourth quarter against Texas A&M ... and we play South Carolina and statistically dominate them but we turned the ball over five times," Mullen said.
All Mullen could do was laugh when he explained how his team entered the South Carolina game dominating in the turnover department, yet that was the only thing the Bulldogs didn't do right that day.
"There's a frustration, but with young guys a lot of it is our jobs as coaches is to get them to understand we're not far off from being a great team," he said.
It may sound crazy, Mullen said, but there's still a lot to play for. Backed into a corner, Mississippi State has to win its final two games against Arkansas and Ole Miss to reach a bowl.
"It sounds funny to say we're not that far off," he said. "But if we make one stop against Auburn, the seasons could have been reversed. We might have had the confidence they're having and the great run they're having right now. Our guys look at things and realize we're not as far off as our record may indicate.
"In 100 years or whatever of Mississippi State football, we've never won in the state of Arkansas, so that's a great challenge. We've never been to four consecutive bowl games, so that's a great challenge. So, historically speaking, this team can accomplish a lot. If we finish 6-6 we accomplish a lot, where other teams 6-6 isn't doing all that much. In the big picture of the program, the guys have a lot that they're playing for."
Take his sentiment for what it's worth, but understand that Mullen gets it. He's been in the SEC long enough to know when his seat is heating up. Just don't expect him to get bothered by it. In his fifth year at Mississippi State, he's learned how to deal with the expectations that come with coaching in the Southeast.
"I don't feel pressure more than I would to get to 1-0 in the first game of the season," Mullen said matter of factly. "I don't feel pressure from anybody but myself."