STARKVILLE, Miss. - As a reporter, it’s necessary for me to have a good rapport with the coaches I cover. As I write stories about and affecting their programs, understanding each other is of the utmost importance.
As the Mississippi State jet prepared for takeoff to SEC Media Days last Wednesday, Dan Mullen turned to me and asked my lunch preferences. I’m a nervous flier, so admittedly, I hadn’t really been paying attention and thought he was talking about the food court in the mall where we ate after last year’s event.
Mullen: “You like pizza?”
Bob: “I kind of like the China Wok place.”
Mullen: [blank stare]
“What are you talking about?”
Bob: [mumbles a little bit]
Mullen: [more blank staring]
“We’re getting pizza.”
Bob: “Oh. Um, yeah, I guess cheese is good.”
Mullen: “You like mushrooms?”
Bob: “Not really.”
Mullen: “Alright, one without mushrooms for Bob.”
Turns out, we weren’t going to the food court this year.
But pizza, as fate would have it, remained a big topic throughout the day as I followed Mullen and his players around at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, for the unofficial kickoff to college football.
I won’t share many of the on-camera quotes from MSU’s contingent as you’ve likely seen those from every possible outlet already; rather I’ll try to share the experience of a day in front of 1,200 members of the media from the eyes of Mullen, senior quarterback Tyler Russell, sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney and junior defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls.
9 a.m., Bryan Field, Starkville:
Given the overwhelming amount of responsibilities of an SEC football coach, Mullen rarely has time to spare. Per his usual habits, he made use of the time on the plane to finish a few hand-written letters to recruits. After finishing one, he looked up at Tyler Russell, who was sitting right in front of him, their seats facing each other.
Mullen: “Do you guys even read these?”
Russell: “At first you do, you’re so excited about everything, but after a while you kind of stop.”
Mullen: “When did you stop? Senior year?”
Russell: “Yeah, around that time, plus I was committed by then.”
Talk on the plane turned to what questions they should expect to receive as media relations guru Joe Galbraith searched twitter to find out what the hot topics were and what unusual things might be asked.
“There’s one going around about your favorite Halloween costume,” he noted, “so be prepared for that one.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t find the one where a TV reporter asked everyone to fill out their Match.com online dating profile.
Somewhere in the conversation, the realization hit that between two Thursday night games and two off weeks this season, MSU will have four Saturdays where they get to “watch college football and be normal people.”
“Man, I’m goin’ huntin’,” Russell exclaimed with a big smile on his face.
Naturally, as players chosen to represent MSU at SEC Media Days, the three Bulldogs are also leaders.
Despite being a sophomore, it applies to McKinney, as well. In summer workouts, many of the veterans have taken incoming freshmen under their wings.
Mullen: “Who have you been taking care of?”
McKinney: “Chris Jones.”
Mullen: “Good, how is he.”
McKinney: “He’s been great. He’s already starting to become vocal. He’s gonna be a leader for us.”
Mullen: “He’s a massive human being. Make sure he works hard. Tell him to do whatever [strength and conditioning coach] Balis tells him to and he’ll be great.”
10:15 a.m., van from airport to hotel
We dropped off an extra passenger at another location on the way, but still made it to sweet, solid Birmingham ground a little early.
On the way to the hotel, Mullen called his wife Megan. Again, being the good reporter I am, I wasn’t paying a ton of attention.
Until Mullen started singing. And continued to sing.
“Should I start today with an opening number,” he asked his wife.
Presumably, she steered him in a different direction.
On the ride, I told Tyler Russell I was impressed with how nicely he dressed himself, including the matching lavender socks and shirt.
“Actually, my mom dressed me,” he conceded.
Upon arrival, we – and by “we” I mean everyone but me and Joe – signed autographs and took pictures with the horde of fans waiting in the lobby, then made it up to the holding suite on the 14th floor where we met up with Eulls.
Why’d we meet him there?
“I hate planes, man,” he stated simply.
Yes, the 6’3”, 300-plus pound defensive lineman who bowls over other 300-pound linemen and once saved a bus full of children from someone with a gun is scared of flying.
And I totally get it. While passing time, Eulls and I talked about the perils of plane travel.
“You’re 30,000 feet above the ground with nothing between you and Earth but air.”
It’s a scary thought. To us, at least, in the one time I’ll be in the same category as a behemoth SEC lineman.
11 a.m., SEC Media Days tour begins
I followed Russell to start the day, partly because he’s the quarterback, but also because he had no other cameras with him and I know how QBs like having a little attention.
One of the first stops – ESPNU – actually didn’t even ask Russell any questions. It was a lone cameraman and gray-granite backdrop.
Cameraman: “All pictures, no talking.”
Russell: “I can handle that.”
Cameraman: “It’ll be some GQ stuff … Alright, now mean mug for me.”
100 or so pictures later, he moved on.
In the College Gameday room, Russell was asked a series of more interesting questions, pertaining less to Xs and Os and more to the fun and pageantry of the game.
Gameday: “What sounds remind you of college football?”
Shortly after, he was asked to sing the fight song. A warble of something like chainsaws rubbing against each other underwater came from Russell’s mouth, after which he said,
“I didn’t sing the whole thing; I just wanted to give you a quick idea.”
Later offered the same opportunity, Eulls declined to flex his musical muscles.
Smart choice, Kaleb. People you know may see that.
Gameday: “What was your favorite Halloween costume as a kid?”
Russell: “I was the red Power Ranger once. That was pretty awesome.”
Somewhere along the way, I lost Russell and began following Eulls, as each player spent the day separately with their own SEC-provided guide.
At some point, Eulls was asked about his coach’s wife, Megan Mullen.
“She’s always around,” he replied. “Mrs. Megan is a great person. You can talk to her about anything. She takes care of us and watches out for us and always makes sure we’re OK.”
Along the tour, Eulls ended up in the ESPN.com room, where SEC blogger Chris Low was impressed with his suit.
“I think you’re the first guy we’ve seen in teal,” Low remarked while taking a closer look at the bright shirt beneath the black suit. “I like it.”
As Eulls left the room, Mullen entered. Assuming it was SEC-driven fate, I stayed behind to trail the head coach for a bit as the day finished up and the other players continued their four-hour rotation.
Possibly the most interesting thing I heard all day happened to come next, when one of the ESPN writers asked Mullen about the college football postseason and the transition from BCS to playoffs.
I won’t try to quote him because I wouldn’t do his words justice, but it was the first I’d heard Mullen speak on the topic and he delivered a pretty eloquent opinion.
To start, Mullen saw little problem with the BCS as it was, though he understood the transition to the playoff. His concern was not with a “fair” process of deciding a champion, but the repercussions on the regular season, particularly if the playoff were to expand from its initial format of four teams.
Mullen’s worry is the possible NFL-ization of college football, where regular season games could potentially be less important, possibly even to the point where coaches concerned with being healthy for the playoffs could rest their players in late-season games.
He used the Iron Bowl as an example.
“Let’s pretend Alabama has already locked up a spot in the playoffs,” Mullen said. “Is Nick still going to play all of his starters the whole game like he usually would, or is he going to play it safe and be concerned with winning a national championship?”
We don’t know the answer, of course, but judging by “huh-that’s-a-good-point” look on the faces of those in the room, it’s not a situation they had considered.
It wasn’t all serious, however, as that conversation was preceded by about five minutes of golf talk, where Mullen bemoaned the state of his short game.
Having already done the print room, which is the largest stage in front of close to 1,000 writers, the rest of Mullen’s road was small rooms with network reporters and camera people.
CBSSports.com was the final stop, and a very fun one.
After sitting down across from the reporter and in front of the camera, Mullen asked her about who she was, where she was from and some general pleasantries. Turns out, she’s from New York City.
He’d talked about food some previously, so perhaps it was just on his mind, but I tend to think the eight-hour gap since his last meal and the impending prospect of pepperoni had lunch on his mind.
“Oh, man,” Mullen groaned. “You’ve got some great pizza up there.”
The conversation continued in that vein for some time, as Mullen revealed he’s such a pizza enthusiast he even makes his own. From scratch.
“I toss my own pies at home,” Mullen revealed, acting out the motion of throwing the dough into the air and correcting my poor form when I attempted to replicate it.
Other things learned in the room: Mullen was Charlie Brown for Halloween last year, Megan makes all of the family’s costumes herself every year and all of the coaches are given Halloween night off each season.
“They’ve all got families,” Mullen explained. “I want them to have those memories.”
Also: Mullen’s favorite band is U2 and his preferred superpower on gameday if he could choose one would be telepathy.
Finally, the marathon was over. Pizza was delivered, we boarded the plane and chowed down on the quick ride back to Starkville, as conversations about types of pizza, different crusts and preferred toppings filled the time between bites.
Two of the pizzas were meat lovers, the other two had Mullen’s favorite: mushrooms.