STARKVILLE, Miss. - The first time his father made the trip for a spring football game, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen warned him about the drive, that it would be a rural one from the airport in Jackson up to Starkville. Mullen told him it would be like traveling in the hills of Pennsylvania "past the Main Line."
The 42-year-old coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the improbable top-ranked college football team in the nation - after the fastest rise to the top in the history of the sport, from unranked to No. 1 in six games - is a Drexel Hill native and Ursinus College graduate. Offering his local credentials, Mullen immediately touts personal cheesesteak-grilling expertise (except he can't get the right bread in Mississippi) and summers in Sea Isle and Avalon, including a teenage summer working on the Sea Isle City beach patrol.
Mullen's family moved from Drexel Hill to New Hampshire when he was 4 years old, and even that resulted in a tie back to Philadelphia.
When Mullen was looking for his first coaching job, he asked for and received a recommendation from a young assistant coach at the University of New Hampshire - a guy by the name of Chip Kelly. That landed Mullen an interview with Wagner College, where he began his own coaching ascent.
At that point, Mullen said, he hadn't met the now-Eagles coach, but they were both from Manchester, N.H., "where everybody kind of knows of everybody." Kelly, nine years older, had coached at Johns Hopkins for a season while Mullen played tight end at Centennial Conference rival Ursinus.
"My friend's older brother played with him and all that, so I got in touch with him," Mullen said Tuesday after a Mississippi State practice.
Mullen's own father is a 1966 Penn State graduate - "he's got blue and white sheets on his bed," Mullen said.
When Bill O'Brien got the job as Nittany Lions head coach, Mullen had been rumored as a candidate. ESPN even reported at one point in 2011 that he was Penn State's top target.
"I was kind of hoping Penn State would call him," Bob Mullen said of his son. "He said, 'Dad, it's really going to be bad.' "
He was referring to possible sanctions against Penn State, and those words proved prophetic. For his part, Bob Mullen remains a diehard. He wants all the facts to come out in the Jerry Sandusky scandal but makes it clear that he is still a Joe Paterno fan. He has a T-shirt that says, "Thanks Coach for all you did."
A booster at Mississippi State, realizing the father's Penn State background, once told Bob Mullen, "We want Dan to be our Joe Pa." Mullen added, "Maybe he will."
Of his son, Bob Mullen said, "He's a good guy, and he's a basically happy guy. He's upbeat, very positive."
Northerner in the South
A former Florida offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen can have a needling side that took some getting used to in SEC country, even in Starkville. In addition to winning games, he aims to win news conferences.
"He's a Northerner in the South," said Larry Johnson, who runs the Touch of Love Barber and Beauty Salon just down Highway 182 from Mississippi State's campus. "It's a clash of cultures. I keep it real. I feel like he's arrogant."
Is that a bad thing for a football coach in the toughest division of the sport's most hypercompetitive conference?
"It's a good thing," Johnson said, but added, "You've got to win."
There is excitement right now, of course. Sitting in the barbershop, Eric "Big E" Williams wore a new Bulldogs shirt, tag still attached. It was a gift, he said, from his girlfriend, a Mississippi State student. He had moved up from Meridian to be with her. "My girl, she's a Bulldog to the heart," Williams said.
Get outside Starkville and life gets authentically rural quickly. Heading toward Mississippi State from a northeast direction, from Muscle Shoals, Ala., a cotton field ignores the state line. Across the street a rusted iron sign in front of an old barn announces that Mississippi Welcomes You. Farther on, two dogs separately lie on the two-lane road. A gas station offers a boiled-peanuts special and the package store next door suggests you buy Wild Turkey and honey. If there's one store in town, it may be a Dollar General.
Starkville is a typical-enough college town, though, and Mississippi State's campus has every one of the big state school bells and whistles. Its athletic complex competes toe-for-toe with the big boys, fueled by the television money that has flowed into the SEC. Just past a man-made pond, the Phillies would envy the Palmeiro Center baseball complex. The right comparison for the football practice facility next door is the NovaCare Complex.
This top ranking means the most, Mullen said, probably to the people of Mississippi. (Mullen did not point out that Ole Miss also is undefeated, already has beaten Alabama, and is ranked No. 3.)
"I think there are a lot of rankings and polls," Mullen said, referring to other areas of life. "For the people of Mississippi to say we're No. 1 in something that's really, really important to us, football - I think that's really neat and that's really special."
In addition to all the exposure, last week's Sports Illustrated cover and guest spots on shows like ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, success brings pressure. Mullen needed late-season nail-biters against Arkansas and Ole Miss in 2013 to ensure a 7-6 season and his own job security. The father of two admits that it seems as if he's always either being mentioned as a candidate for perceived bigger jobs or in danger of losing his own.
Nobody in the barbershop or anywhere else saw this season coming. "No. . . . No . . . No," they said. The rise was fueled by three straight victories over top-10 opponents - at No. 8 LSU, then home wins over No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 2 Auburn. Quarterback Dak Prescott, a Louisiana native attracted to Mississippi State by Mullen's work at Florida with Prescott idol Tim Tebow, is considered the Heisman Trophy favorite.
"That was big," Prescott said last week after a practice, referring to Mullen recruiting him. "I wanted to play like Tebow. I looked up to him and his playing style."
Mullen's task now that he's on top, he joked, is "to make sure it's not the fastest fall." The Bulldogs still have trips to No. 7 Alabama and No. 3 Ole Miss, and traps before then against Kentucky and Arkansas.
"When we need things to happen, they happen," Mullen said, summing up the season so far.
Mullen looks his part, coming in from practice wearing his shorts, sweatshirt and visor, a whistle and Sharpie hanging from his neck. He refers to their Four Steps in the Plan to Win, which sounds like something out of the Urban Meyer handbook.
Always sunny at Ursinus
But Mullen also still can remember his 18-year-old self, how a 65-degree day in February in Collegeville was key in his decision to go to Ursinus. He also was recruited by Ithaca College, he said, but it snowed on his trip to Upstate New York. "In my mind, it was always sunny and beautiful at Ursinus College," Mullen said.
On his recruiting visit, the high school quarterback was shown around by a lineman not much bigger than him, he said. He told himself that meant he could play there.
"That was a dumb thought," Mullen said. "I should have thought, 'I'm probably going to get killed.' "
At Trinity High School in New Hampshire, his team had won the 1988 state title, but Mullen said, "I wasn't highly recruited. I made up for my slow speed with my weak arm."
What he was really good at was handing off. An important skill since Trinity ran the T formation. "He was a magician," his father said. "He was so good at handing off the ball, you didn't know who had it."
At Ursinus, Mullen was converted to tight end and started his last two seasons. He may now be coaching the top-ranked team, making over $3 million a year, but his father still points out that Mullen made first team all-Centennial Conference as a senior.
Bob Mullen grew up in Drexel Hill, on the 700 block of Windermere Avenue. After graduating from Penn State and a stint in the Air Force, he got married and bought a house on the 300 block of Windermere Avenue, on the other side of the cemetery, just down from Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High Schools. Dan Mullen was born at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. Relatives lived in Aston and Glen Mills.
Bob Mullen worked as a color-separation process salesman for a company out of Chester. The family moved to Manchester when he took a job for a company headquartered there. His line of work was made obsolete, he said, by digital cameras.
Although the Chip Kelly tie was just a simple favor for another local guy, "Chip came to see me at Florida when he left UNH for Oregon. When he took over [as head coach] at Oregon, I wanted to go out there and see how he was running practice."
Mullen had hitched his own wagon to Urban Meyer. After stints at Wagner, Columbia, and Syracuse, Mullen worked as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, where Meyer was on the staff. When Meyer got the Bowling Green head job, he hired Mullen, who followed him to Utah and Florida.
Back to the Chip Kelly tie: None other than Nike head (and Oregon main booster) Phil Knight once said an Oregon assistant was sent to study Meyer's offense at Florida. ". . . and the offensive coordinator for Florida was Dan Mullen . . . Anyway, [Mullen's] from New Hampshire. And he says, 'The guy who really knows this stuff is Chip Kelly up at the University of New Hampshire.' So [Oregon offensive coordinator Gary] Crowton, when he came back he had some rough edges to the spread and he started calling Chip Kelly on Sundays saying, 'This came up and I didn't quite know what to do with it.' And Chip always had an answer. So, when LSU came and picked up Crowton, [Mike] Bellotti knew he'd been talking to Chip Kelly, so he went to get Chip Kelly."
It's a good tale, and maybe parts of it are even true, but for his part, Mullen denies that he had even an indirect role in Kelly's ending up at Oregon, that Crowton had worked at UNH and knew Kelly independently.
Did Kelly text him when he hit the top spot in the rankings?
"He doesn't text much," Mullen said. "Usually I get calls from Chip around the draft, around the combine. Very much like me. I guess I'm bad that way. If I need something or you need something, I'm there for you."
Mullen did point out that Paul Guenther, now defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, was an Ursinus teammate and lived right across the hall from him at their fraternity house. And Mississippi State tight ends coach Scott Sallach also was Class of '94 at Ursinus playing for Steve Gilbert. Sallach had never worked with Mullen before he was hired by him in 2009 after stints at Dartmouth and Princeton.
There was no master plan for any of this back at the frat house in Collegeville.
"A couple of guys were able to get into coaching right afterwards and we didn't even know what you could do with that," Mullen said.
He added, "As it turns out, we were able to do a lot."