Dan Mullen easily could have been treated as stranger, an outsider, when he first arrived in Starkville, Miss., at the start of 2009 to take over Mississippi State’s struggling football program.
He was from Vermont, which could have automatically made some around town suspicious. He was a man with no ties to MSU and the state of Mississippi, no ties to the South, and his accent, or lack of one, stood out. And, well, he was a Yankee, for gosh sakes.
But despite the cultural differences, Starkville didn’t shun Mullen, it embraced him.
“Being a Yankee and all, they were very accepting of me right from the beginning,” Mullen said Monday. “The people of Starkville were great to me and my family. The people in town were fabulous people. It’s a great place to have kids. Both my kids were born there. It’s a great community to live in. The fans are unbelievable.”
Since his very first days there, Mullen has always felt welcome and at home in Starkville.
But things are different now. Starkville might not seem the same.
When he returns to town with the Florida Gators, he’s probably going to be treated as an outsider. Maybe even an unwelcome one.
He might even get booed at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night.
“What do you think?” Mullen said when asked about the possibility of being booed. “I think there will be a lot of passion on Saturday night with people there. But I think the majority of people and everybody that I knew in that fanbase. … When I think of the fans and I think of the former players and the people of the town of Starkville, I think for the most part they were appreciative in what we were able to accomplish in the nine years that we were there.
Up until Mullen took the job at Florida in late November, it would have been unfathomable to think that Mullen one day might actually get booed in Starkville.
For nine years, he was probably the most popular man in town. Because he took a downtrodden MSU football program and turned it into a winner, leading the Bulldogs to an unprecedented eight consecutive bowl games from 2011 to 2017.
And it wasn’t just about the wins. It also was the way Mullen reached out to the town and the fanbase early and the strong bond that formed immediately between coach and community, and only grew stronger over the course of his stay in Starkville.
“It was a place I went to and told them we need you to show up and sell out the stadium, and if you do that we can build a program here,” Mullen said. “And you know what, the fans believed in that. The fans bought into that. Heck, with selling out the stadium, my first year there, we went 2-5 at home and they sold out. You couldn’t get a seat for games.
“Then all of a sudden, they started seeing the results of the effort that all the fans put in. And then the players. You look at the community and the fans, and the players, so many great memories of the players that are there and the special bond that you have throughout the years of the guys that played for me.”
Once beloved, Mullen returns as an outsider Saturday, a coach standing on the opposing sideline who will be trying to beat the same team and the same school that were his for the past nine years.
Davis Wade Stadium certainly isn’t going to feel, or sound, like home to Mullen on Saturday night. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be intense, it’s going to be raucous. And all that negative energy is going to be directed at Mullen and the Gators.
He can only thank himself for the environment he and he is going to have to contend with Saturday.
“I spent nine years creating the atmosphere,” Mullen said. “So I get to see what it is like. I get to go back and see what it’s like to be on the other sideline.”
Mullen isn’t quite sure what the overall response from the fans will be. As for the players he coached last season, he’s anticipating two different kinds of receptions.
“I think it will be different before and during (the game) than it will be afterwards,” he said. “That would be my guess. I’d imagine before and during, the competitive is going to take over anything else and then afterwards it might be different.”
Mullen’s current players know what he’s stepping into Saturday night, but their focus does not seem to be on their coach’s much-anticipated homecoming.
“It would be great to give him a win against Mississippi State, the team he just came from,” junior wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “Just focus on it’s another game. Hopefully, we get a win. Just win.
“I didn’t really know too much about his time up there. I know he did great things there. I was very excited to have him come here.”