The Cases of Dan Mullen and Tom O’Brien
By Jacob Shoor
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If a coach wishes to build a major winner, he had better avoid coaching at a definite number two school and program in a state.
Rather embarrassing home losses Saturday by both Mississippi State and North Carolina State - respectively, 38-13 to Texas A&M and 33-6 to Virginia - led me to think about something I realized not long after Nick Saban left Michigan State for LSU. At the time, LSU was a major underachiever in football, muddling along around the .500 mark, and was no threat to win the SEC. In fact, many saw Saban's move as almost a step down.
Based on something I had read Saban say about how tough it was to build a program in the shadow of one of the most prestigious programs in college football history, I formulated that if a coach wishes to build a major winner capable of elevating itself significantly in the national picture, he had better avoid coaching at a definite number two school and program in a state.
Exceptions prove rules, and the exceptions of multiple national championships by three schools in a state as saturated with talent as Florida, or even the exception of Auburn's fluke recent national title, should not delude any rising coach on the market about how to pick his next gig. Nor should it delude a fan base about what is probably the ceiling for its program.
Of SEC schools, only Vanderbilt has no more football history than Mississippi State, which is a decided number two school and program in its state to Ole Miss. That means that even though I felt that Dan Mullen was the kind of coordinator who could become a first rate head coach, I have never expected the Bully Boys to become even a faint approximation of the next LSU of the SEC West. College football history says that Ole Miss, for all its up and down floundering, can recapture its Johnny Vaught glory days at least twice before Mississippi State ever becomes a real power.
That means two things. The first is that Mississippi State should do everything it can to sign Mullen to a long-term contract, even if it loses out this year to LSU, Arkansas, and Ole Miss, because Mullen is the best that the Mississippi State Bulldogs can land and hope to keep in Starkville longer than three or four years.
The second is that Mullen, if he wishes for a realistic chance to win at the top level, needs to land a job at a school which is the number one school and program in its state. That does not mean he has to become head coach of a program as unquestionably big time nationally and number one in its state as Texas or LSU. He can follow the Oregon path: taking a number one school in its state and elevating it into a conference and national power.
Mullen grew up in New Hampshire and went to college in Pennsylvania, giving him northeastern credentials. He has been a brilliant offensive coordinator at Florida and now has overachieved as Mississippi State's head coach. Put the two together, the northeast and the southeast with the SEC street credibility, and you have the makings of the kind of coach who could build a major long-term winner at a school like BC or Syracuse.
The case of Tom O'Brien and NC State mark well the perilous nature of coaching at the number two school in a state. O'Brien had defeated North Carolina his first five years in Raleigh, and as soon as Gio Bernard's punt return sealed his first loss to the Tar Heels, O'Brien faced internet calls for his head so furious and numerous that a sane fan would assume that O'Brien had never won against UNC.
Those calls to fire O'Brien have increased in number and volume with the loss to the previously hapless Cavaliers. The weight of facing the number one school in the state when you are the definite number two school is perhaps best seen in the fact that O'Brien now is only 1-4 in games the week after playing UNC. Beating the state's indisputable number one school and athletics program is so all-consuming a passion that there may be little energy left to effect much else.
Why would any coach want to try to carry such weight unless he is either an alum or has no choice?
Mississippi State was Dan Mullen's choice to prove he was not just Urban Meyer's helper by being head coach in a major conference. Now Mullen needs to find his version of Oregon before Mike Bellotti made it a household name in football. As Chip Kelly is a fellow New Hampshire native, you know Mullen is gnawing at the bit to match Kelly.
As for NC State, the possibilities are three: keep O'Brien, who is a competent coach and is not going to get the school on probation; try to find the next Dan Mullen who needs an opportunity to be a first time head coach; beg alumnus Bill Cowher to be the school's all time home run hire in any sport.
As the job search following the resignation of hated Wolfpack basketball coach Herb Sendek shows, unless NCSU AD Debbie Yow has Cowher and/or a nearly can't-miss first time head coach all but signed in blood on the dotted line, she would be wise to keep O'Brien another year.