It has officially started. The search for Tennessee’s head coach for 2018 is here.
The Vols fired Butch Jones on Sunday after losing to the Missouri Tigers 50-17 and dropping to 0-6 in SEC play on the season. Jones was able to bring the Vols back to relevancy, but he wasn’t able to keep them relevant.
Now, the University of Tennessee and Vol Nation have their eyes set on who will be next up to lead the Vols through the Power T in Neyland on Saturdays.
We will be doing a variety of profiles attributing potential hires and detailing both the good and bad side of the candidate as well as how they would fit in on Rocky Top.
Up first is current Mississppi State head coach Dan Mullen.
Let’s start out with the obvious reasons as to why Mullen should become the next head coach at Tennessee.
Mississippi St. is not your typical storied, tradition-filled, program. They’ve only had one undefeated season in school history - in 1940 - and one SEC championship game appearance almost two decades ago.
State’s longest tenured coach before Mullen was Jackie Sherrill, who coached there for 13 seasons. The Bulldogs had a lot of success under Sherrill, reaching the SEC Championship game in 1998 and making six bowl appearances in 13 seasons. They made just seven bowl appearances during their previous 96 years of existence.
Flash forward to 2009 and Mullen is the new head coach after major success as Florida’s offensive coordinator. In nine seasons Mullen has 68 wins and is on pace to surpass Sherrill’s all-time win mark of 75 in just his tenth season - beating Sherrill by almost two and a half seasons.
When Mullen came on board, State had won a total of 21 games in five seasons under Sylvester Croom from 2004-2008 and won their only bowl appearance in 2007.
Mullen missed out on a bowl game after finishing 5-7 in his first season but ended on a strong note with a huge upset victory over rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Ole Miss was ranked #20 at the time. He also became the first coach to beat Ole Miss in their first three seasons since 1941.
Mullen would then take Mississippi State to a bowl game in four straight seasons after 2009 - winning three - before giving the program arguably their best season in school history in 2014.
Behind quarterback Dak Prescott, Mullen and the Bulldogs beat three top-ten opponents (#7 LSU Tigers, #6 Texas A&M Aggies, and #2 Auburn Tigers) and were ranked #1 in the first official College Football Playoff rankings. After five short weeks they became the fastest team in AP history to reach the number one ranking after beginning the season unranked.
Even though the Bulldogs couldn’t sustain the momentum, they still made it to the Orange Bowl and finished the season ranked #11 with a 10-3 mark.
The Bulldogs have made a bowl game in every single season since 2010 under Mullen for a total of seven appearances in seven years after a total of just 13 appearances in 109 years. He has five of the program’s 12 bowl wins.
What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Mississippi State hasn’t finished higher than 16th in recruiting during Mullen’s tenure. This is a nod to his ability to develop players and win big in the SEC.
Mullen has a track record of winning, but he is also a very good offensive mind and as previously mentioned, has a knack for devloping players - especially quarterbacks. Some of the quarterbacks that have played under Mullen have had major success in college and some - namely Prescott and Alex Smith - have gone on to have major success in the pros too.
Other quarterbacks that Mullen has worked with include Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, the aforementioned Prescott and Smith, and current quarterback and future NFL draft pick Nick Fitzgerald.
He has also sent 22 players to the NFL during his time in Starkville, including two first-round picks in 2011 and 2012.
Mullen has a championship pedigree from his time as Florida’s offensive cooridnator, making him the total package. At $4.5 million a year, Tennessee can definitely make an enticing offer to Mullen - as they should.
After coaching in the SEC for over a decade, Mullen knows the landscape of the conference better than any other mid-major or Division II coach, which is something that John Currie has to take into consideration when making this hire.
Mullen’s availabilty is a big factor in whether or not he can - or wants - to come to Tennessee. He has shown a propensity over the years to float his name out whenever a big job opens up, so one would think he is up for a change if it is for the better.
However, Mullen signed a four-year extension with the Bulldogs in February of 2017 and the definition of success is a stark contrast - pun intended - in Knoxville compared to Starkville.
As it currently stands, Mullen can finish with an 8-4 or 9-3 record at Mississippi State and he wouldn’t lose any faith amongst the fan base. That wouldn’t - and shouldn’t - be the case with Tennessee. The Vols have far more pride and tradition than the Bulldogs. Just ask Butch Jones how far a nine-win season will get you in Knoxville.
Mullen has to wonder if he gets off to a slow start or if he faulters at any point as Tenneessee’s head coach how the fan base would react. By no means did Butch not deserve the criticism he received, but there were plenty of times where the criticism was over-the-top and crossed lines.
His lack of recruiting prowess is a concern as well. I made mention of how his ability to win with less talent is a big plus, but he has never finished higher than 16th in the country in recruiting. As a matter of fact, Mullen has had a top-25 class just one other time than 2016.
A lot of this is because he is in Starkville. Not only is it hard enough to sell teenagers on coming to freakin’ Mississippi of all places, but the resources there are no where near what UT has to offer.
Still, one has to wonder if Mullen would be able to step his game up when it comes to recruiting in Tennessee. Tennessee is becoming a fertile recruiting ground more and more each year and the SEC East is still in transition and available to capitalize on. Getting the right - and best - players would be a huge step in getting the Vols back to the glory days. But can he do it?
And despite Mullen’s success in Starkville, he has only had one double-digit winning season with no SEC Championship appearances. A lot of that can be blamed on Alabama, but it still raises a red flag that Mullen hasn’t sustained high levels of success.
Dan Mullen Fits In Well At Tennessee Because...
There are plenty of reasons why Mullen fits in at Tennessee. He has a ton of SEC coaching experience, he develops players, and he has been apart of championship programs.
Other than offensive line, the Vols have several good-caliber players at each position that can help them win a lot of games in 2018, especially two young quarterbacks in Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride for Mullen to mold. The roster is in much better shape than it was four seasons ago.
He also runs an NFL-style offense and that style of offense wins in the SEC. Gus Malzahn may have made a splash with the spread offense in his first year, but the way to win in the SEC goes through the running game, play-action, and three-step drops.
Mullen is a fan-favorite and knows how to work the stands very well. He is adored in Starkville and there is no reason to believe that things would be different in Knoxville.
He wouldn’t cost the Vols an arm and a leg to hire him and he would be able to naviagte his teams much more efficiently in the weaker SEC East.
Should he make the transition to Rocky Top, he will be welcomed by thousands of open arms.