Five games remaining: at South Carolina, at Texas A&M, vs. Alabama, at Arkansas, vs. Ole Miss. Dan Mullen has those final 5 SEC games to prove whether or not he should continue to be the head football coach at Mississippi State.
I've said many times that I support Dan Mullen, and think he's the right guy for the job at MSU. He has come to Starkville and transformed us from a program that can't even win all our games against Conference USA teams to a program that goes to bowls every year. He's demanded better facilities, he's sold out the stadium every game which has led to the current expansion. He's built a roster full of solid players, developed them and has had limited attrition and off-the-field problems. For all that I believe he has absolutely earned his paycheck.
Think of a football program like a flight of stairs from the basement to the banquet hall. When Sylvester Croom took over this program in 2004 it was in the depths of despair....lying on the basement floor with blood all over the place. He took an incredibly long, drawn-out approach to changing the culture, but he did eventually do that despite his inability to win football games - he stood us back up and we walked up a couple of stairs. Dan Mullen has taken us from there and gotten us to the middle of the staircase, but we're stuck. Our legs are asleep; we can't move them to go up or down the stairs. We need a big win to get the blood flowing again so we can take the next few steps up the stairs.
I honestly believe that Mullen has not reached his ceiling as a coach. He is still a young guy, and is continuing to grow. I also understand that we aren't paying him $2.5+ million to learn and grow in what would be his 6th year at MSU if he were retained. So while I may believe he will get there eventually, I also know this is the SEC and with the kind of money that's out there, you don't hire a coach to earn his stripes in this conference - you hire a coach that already has his stripes.
That said, my biggest concern about the potential of firing Mullen is bringing in a coach that is not the right fit, or is just not a good coach, and he destroys the program. We are not a rock solid program like some others. A bad hire could set us back for a while assuming he's here for 3-4 years. And I don't necessarily trust Stricklin to find a coach that is better than Mullen. He may be able to do that, but I wouldn't place my money on it. Sorry, Strick, you're a good A.D., but I don't think hiring folks is your strong suit.
So why am I writing this? Well, there's a catch to my waffling on Mullen, and it's Mark Hudspeth. Most of you know Hud is from Louisville, Mississippi, he played for Delta State and coached under Mullen in 2009 & '10. He is the clear choice for Mississippi State should it not work out with Mullen.
Hudspeth is currently the head coach at Louisiana Lafayette. He's taken a program that was 47-92 from 1999-2010 to a record of 23-10 in his three years there. At 5-2, the Ragin' Cajuns are on pace to go to their 3rd straight bowl game - they had never been to a bowl game in the history of the program prior to Hud's arrival. He won 9 games in each of his first two seasons in Lafayette and it looks like he will turn the hat trick on that feat in 2013. ULALA beat two-time defending Sun Belt champ Arkansas State last week putting them in the driver's seat for the conference championship.
That last paragraph wasn't so you'd know why he's qualified to be the head coach at MSU. It's to take notice that those are not just run-of-the-mill accomplishments. Mark Hudspeth is likely to be moving on to bigger and better things this winter, so the time to get on the Hud train is now.
I'm not one to say the grass is greener on the other side. I recognize that Hudspeth could come to State and do no better than Mullen has. But here's what I know: he's a quality coach, and a Mississippian to boot. Dan Mullen is a quality coach as well, but given ample chance he has yet to prove he can get this program to the level where we are competing for a win week in and week out.
Dan's got five games. If MSU flames out then there's no need for a coaching search - it's got to be Hud.
I hope it's Dan. I want to see him finish was he started. But in the next five weeks it's put up or shut up time.