September 17, 2011 10:54:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- After the Mississippi State football team fell inches shy of getting a chance to beat the defending national champions in the second week of the 2011 season, head coach Dan Mullen admitted he received a lot of "hate mail" from fans.
The reason that''s different than any other place in America is Mullen said it with a smile. The fact he received that feedback is a good thing to the Bulldogs'' third-year coach.
"There''s a lot of guys on our team, especially Chris (Relf), that are angry with that loss more because of the expectations around here have changed a little bit," Mullen said. "A couple years ago, if we lost a real tough game to a defending national champion, there was some disappointment. Now there are some guys who are angry because they felt we should have won that football game."
Mullen was referring to MSU''s 30-26 loss to No. 7 LSU on Sept. 26, 2009, in Starkville. The loss was particularly painful because quarterback Tyson Lee was stuffed at the goal line.
Nearly two years later, backup safety Ryan Smith''s tackle on Relf at the goal line in final play of MSU''s 41-34 loss at Auburn seemed like a replay of a bad memory.
"Going through two games like that takes years off my life," MSU senior offensive tackle Addison Lawrence said after the Auburn loss.
But no longer are MSU''s games against ranked opponents or the nation''s elite considered automatic losses. In only his third season, Mullen, a former offensive coordinator who played a key role in leading the University of Florida to two national titles, has created a level of excitement about the football program that has seldom been seen in Starkville.
Mullen''s next goal will be to convince Bulldogs fans results will follow the optimism and that they can leave behind their "what will happen next" attitudes.
"I think the nervous energy is going to be there and is there on every campus," MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said. "What I believe we''ve done as a university is go from pessimistic to optimistic, and the next step is confident. We aren''t at fully confident yet."
Following the 19-6 loss to No. 3 LSU on Thursday at Davis Wade Stadium, Mullen used two words in Starkville that seem like a foreign language.
"We will win a championship here at Mississippi State," Mullen said. "We will an SEC (championship) and we will win a national championship here at Mississippi State. It might be this year. Who knows? It might be next year. It might be the following year. It might take us 15 years, but we will win a championship for the people of Mississippi."
Mullen''s thinking is similar to the philosophy of Stricklin, who recently released five-, 10-, and 15-year plans for renovations to Davis Wade Stadium that includes the addition of up to 20,000 more seats.
The 15-year plan that has been discussed is another step in changing the mentality of people who bleed maroon and white. Many MSU fans describe the years of 2001-09, when the program had just one winning season, as bad memories that will take a long time to erase.
"I talk to a lot of State fans that three years ago honestly wouldn''t have shown up or been excited at all about playing the number three ranked team in the country on national television," MSU Student Association President Rhett Hobart said. "As a student body, we feel responsible for changing the attitude in this new generation of fans."
Part of that progression included a Wednesday night pep rally titled
"Cowbell Yell" organized by Hobart and the MSU public relations staff.
An estimated 11,000 fans, mostly students, attended the two-hour session at Davis Wade Stadium, which included speakers like Mullen, radio
color commentator Matt Wyatt, former player Fred Smoot, and MSU professor Whit Waide.
Hobart, who met with Mullen and Stricklin prior to the start of the 2011 season, believes the student body can lead the charge to eliminate the negative energy that was swirling around the football program before most of the current undergraduates stepped on campus.
"I had a member of the ESPN camera crew tell me the student atmosphere Wednesday night was the best he''s seen in the 25 years he''s been shooting for them," Hobart said. "I feel like we''re building a foundation of enthusiasm that will play off on the field after we all graduate."
While Mullen sees a shift in the expectations of a fan base that has seen MSU go 41-70 in the past 10 seasons, the attitude while watching the games may take more than a single New Year''s Day bowl win to change.
"I think the nervous energy is going to be there and is there on every campus," Stricklin said. "What I believe we''ve done as a university is go from pessimistic to optimistic, and the next step is confident. We aren''t at fully confident yet."
According to the 2009 United States census numbers and a report two
weeks ago by the Sports Business Journal, MSU operates an athletic
department in the poorest state in America and one that has one of the smallest budgets in the Southeastern Conference ($40.1 million). Due to those limitations, Stricklin admits developing that aura of confidence in the fan base is a process.
"It''s not just our university, but sports are something the people of Mississippi take a lot of pride in," Stricklin said. "It doesn''t happen overnight and it''s my hope our fans understand that fact. We understand our football program has to win bowl games routinely, if not every year, to permanently change that attitude."
Stricklin, who has been associated with a pair of Bowl Championship Series programs -- Baylor University and the University of Kentucky -- trying to transform football programs, said it''s a two-step process that MSU has just started.
"You need two things, and the first is leadership, and we all believe Dan has that quality," Stricklin said. "What we''re starting to believe is how the environment created by everyone not on the field will affect the 85 players on it very soon."
For the first time since 2006, MSU, which was ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll, entered the game against defending national champion Auburn as a road favorite. Even though MSU was the only ranked team in the matchup, many MSU fans took to Twitter to express their discontent with the loss in a "I knew this would happen" attitude.
The hiring of Mullen prior to the 2009 season was just as much about finding a more appropriate public relations figure as it was hiring a game strategist. Under Mullen, MSU has sold out 11 straight home games and has received more national recognition despite the fact it has been out of the Western Division race in every season before October.
"We talk about creating great experiences for our student-athletes in all sports, and I think we''re doing a better job of that than we were doing five years ago," Stricklin said.
After a 15-13 start to his head coaching career, which includes a 2-10 record against SEC Western Division teams, the second step is finding results against high-caliber programs.
In a season filled with high expectations, MSU likely will have two more games in Starkville against ranked opponents (South Carolina and Alabama). Victories in both or one would go a long way to helping fans forget about a start to the year that could have been so much promising.
"That''s something we''re going to continue to grind to do until we can get to that next level," Mullen said. "That next step in the SEC is probably a national championship for us. In this league, if you win the SEC West you''re the best team in the country."
The question remains how long another season like 2010, which included its first consecutive victories in the Egg Bowl since 1999, a drubbing of the University of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, and a nine-win season, the most in a season since ''99, will help in the transformation of the long-term perspective of MSU fans.
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