Back when Dan Mullen was Mississippi State’s head coach, he remembers meeting an Ole Miss fan on his way into a high school. I pray for you every day, the woman told him.
I pray somebody comes, hires you and gets you the heck out of this state as soon as possible.
“I left,” Mullen said Monday, “so maybe they like me a little bit.”
Maybe. But probably not.
Although his first game at Ole Miss in four years won’t have the intensity of the “Dan Who?” T-shirts and “Lateral Move” jabs that surrounded his return to Mississippi State in 2018, Mullen and his No. 5 Gators shouldn’t expect a warm welcome Saturday at Vaught–Hemingway Stadium.
Not with the way Mullen egged the Rebels on during his nine years coaching the rival Bulldogs. His tenure was full of subtle and brazen shots to Oxford, starting with the fact that he refused to refer to the program by its proper name, “Ole Miss.”
“I did not give them credit for that,” Mullen said. “We were the state university of Mississippi. And, you know, there was Southern Miss. I didn’t call them Northern Miss.”
Mullen settled on “the school up north.” That’s the same phrase Mullen’s former boss, Urban Meyer, used at Ohio State to describe arch-rival Michigan and a variation of “the school out west,” which Meyer called Florida State during his Gators tenure.
Some of Mullen’s barbs were even more direct. During SEC media days in 2016, he told Paul Finebaum, “There’s not much I like about the school up north at all, as a whole.” He clarified that his feelings weren’t personal — just professional beef between two rival institutions.
In 2009, then-Rebels coach Houston Nutt suggested Mullen’s Bulldogs were doing some negative recruiting against his team. It wouldn’t help them, Nutt said then, because there’s “one program in the state that’s getting very strong.”
Mullen remembered that line six days later, as he celebrated an upset of No. 20 Ole Miss in his first Egg Bowl.
“I know one thing,” Mullen told his home crowd. “There’s certainly one program in this state that’s definitely on the rise, going in the right direction!”
Some of Mullen’s best digs were much less obvious. Before the Gators' 2019 spring game, he admitted that his Bulldogs fudged spring game attendance figures —"maybe the attendance matches the score of a certain game or something like that in the season."
After that program-on-the-rise, 41-27 victory in 2009, Mississippi State announced its spring game attendance as 34,127 and called the exhibition crowd “the largest in Mississippi history.”
The announced crowd for the 2014 spring game, five months after the Bulldogs' 17-10 overtime win: 21,710.
“To be honest with you, it sparks the rivalry,” Mullen said. “It was always just little things we would do to make that game different and feel different and kind of stand alone in a uniqueness and being a big game in our rivalry.”
The coach on the other sideline Saturday knows something about spicing up games, too. Few people in the sport troll as masterfully as the Rebels' first-year coach, Lane Kiffin.
During his introductory news conference at Tennessee before the 2009 season, Kiffin infamously said that he looked forward to “singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year.” His Volunteers lost 23-13 to the defending national champions.
“I think Lane’s a good coach, brings a lot of energy, brings confidence, and kind of a swagger to a team,” Mullen said. “I think that’s something that will be really good for Ole Miss, to have a guy like that at the helm and to help give that confidence.”
Maybe enough to get the school up north going in the right direction.
No. 5 Florida at Ole Miss
Noon, Oxford, Miss.