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Thursday, January 15, 2009
Can fast-talking Mullen win quickly?

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

No pressure, Dan Mullen.

Take all the time you need to build a winning program, as long as Mississippi State plays in a bowl game by December 2011.

Honestly, though, January 2012 would be much better.

Dan Mullen
Bulldogs fans hope it doesn't take long for Dan Mullen to turn around the program.
Honeymoons for new coaches used to last one season, sometimes two. Now honeymoons last as long as, well, honeymoons. The new Mississippi State head coach is finishing his up.

Since Mullen left Dolphin Stadium early Friday after calling the plays Florida used to defeat Oklahoma 24-14 for the BCS championship Thursday night, he hasn't stayed in one place long enough to order supper. Mullen has been hiring assistants, speaking to booster clubs from Memphis to Atlanta and setting the table for the last three weeks of recruiting.

Mullen, 36, is used to moving quickly. A decade ago, he left a graduate assistant job at Syracuse for the same gig at Notre Dame, where he worked for wide receivers coach Urban Meyer. In the 2008 book "Urban's Way," by Buddy Martin, Meyer said Mullen was a "pain in the ass" who questioned everything Meyer did. But by the time Mullen decided in December to replace Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State, Mullen had grown from a tack in Meyer's chair into his offensive coordinator and right-hand man.

You can imagine the culture clash for a New Hampshire product who moves to Mississippi. Mullen can rattle off a paragraph in the time it takes a Bulldogs alum to clear his throat.

Mullen said he visited a high school in Mississippi the other day and met with the coaches. As he was leaving, his host said, "You talk real fast. I don't know if we understood what you said. You seem like a real nice guy."

Moving quickly and talking quickly had best lead to winning quickly. Mullen has a lot to do and little time to get it done. Coaches used to have five years to turn around a program. Then came Tyrone Willingham's three-and-out tenure at Notre Dame. Austin Murphy, in his 2007 book "Saturday Rules," quoted Meyer as saying a coach didn't have five years. He had "this many," holding up two fingers.

If three years, or even two, is the new five, how does a coach decide what to do first? Where do you begin to build a program when a school is all too ready to tear down and start over with another coach?

"Recruit, and hire a tremendous strength coach," Meyer said. "Dan knows. … If a guy gets hired and [says] that 'I'm going to hire a strength coach later,' that's a guy that has no clue what's going on, and he'll fail."

Nobody has higher expectations than I do. Nobody wants to win more than I do. No one will work harder than I will. … When you come in, you don't look at the schedule [and] say, 'We're going to lose those games.' You look at it and say, 'We've got to find a way to win.'

-- Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen

That message certainly was passed along to Mullen. Before he interviewed with Mississippi State, Mullen called Virginia strength coach Matt Balis, who had worked with Mullen for Meyer at Utah and Florida.

"I wanted to know if I got offered the job that I had a chance to bring him with me," Mullen said of Balis. "People don't see a strength coach spends as much, if not more, time with your players than any coach. … If I'm not there in the weight room, I need to know the job is getting done. I'd trust Matt with my life. Obviously, I trusted him with my career."

Mullen dismisses the premise that he has two years to win. Or three.

"Nobody has higher expectations than I do. Nobody wants to win more than I do. No one will work harder than I will. … When you come in, you don't look at the schedule [and] say, 'We're going to lose those games.' You look at it and say, 'We've got to find a way to win.'"

How much recruiting can Mullen do in a matter of weeks? The Gators and Texas Longhorns of the world maintain they get their recruiting done in the summer and fall before signing day. The Mississippi States of the world don't live by that calendar. They scrap right until the final dead period. Florida selects. Mississippi State recruits.

But Mullen thinks the idea that Florida finishes its recruiting early is bull. "I'm telling you, recruiting goes until that fax comes in the office [on signing day]. … If I'm not doing it, I know Urban Meyer is."

Mullen already finds himself in that bubble where head coaches live. Asked on Tuesday night when offseason conditioning would begin, Mullen answered, "A week from today."

Metaphor alert: That's Inauguration Day, a new beginning for the country, a new beginning for the Bulldogs. Very shrewd, Coach.

Mullen had no idea Tuesday would be Inauguration Day. "No, it's two weeks and a day before signing day," Mullen said. "In the SEC, that's how we measure things."

By the way, spring ball will begin March 24. That date is exactly seven months before the national champion Gators visit Starkville.

You can bet Mullen is measuring that.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.