Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen leads the Florida Gators out on the field during the game between the Colorado State Rams and the Florida Gators on September 15, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field in Gainesville.

STARKVILLE — This will be a first for me: an audience participation column.

You may have heard that Dan Mullen, who used to live here, returns to Mississippi State Saturday as head coach of the Florida Gators. Media people, from Sports Illustrated to Florida newspapers, have called my phone this week asking how Dan Mullen will be received at Scott Field.

“Not with open arms, but that’s just a guess,” is how I’ve replied.

Thursday night, while speaking to the Starkville Quarterback Club, I decided to do some research. There were nearly 200 people there. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent were wearing maroon and white, including one lady in a white T-shirt with maroon lettering that said: “Dan Who?”

How many of you, I asked, knew Dan Mullen personally from his nine years here? About 20 people raised their hands.

Rick Cleveland

How many of you thought he was a good football coach? About twice that many raised their hands.

How many of you liked him?  Three people, two somewhat haltingly, raised their hands.

How many of you considered him a friend? Two of the same three raised those hands back up. Remember, these are some of the most maroon-bleeding people on the planet.

Now then, you, as I, might wonder how different that poll would have been prior to the 2017 Egg Bowl. My guess: considerably.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen had  much to ponder as the 2017 season neared an end.

Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that State fans, despite all Mullen’s considerable success, never really fell deeply in love with him. State fans didn’t exactly “cotton” to him, as we sometimes say in Mississippi.

Maybe it was the “Yankee” in Mullen. He was born in Pennsylvania, went to high school in New Hampshire, played college football at Ursinus (Pa.) College. Mississippians mostly speak slowly. Mullen talks fast. Natives down here are often back-slapping friendly. Mullen can be, shall we say, abrupt.

True story: This was December of 2008, the night Dan Mullen was introduced to a Mississippi State basketball crowd as the school’s football coach. Then-athletic director Greg Byrne arranged for me to meet Mullen for a one-on-one interview in the Babe McCarthy room just before Mullen was introduced to the crowd. I thought about how I should, as we say, break the ice.

I had just watched strong-armed State quarterback recruit Tyler Russell of Meridian courageously defeat South Panola in the State 6A championship game. A month earlier I had heard Russell address the Jackson Touchdown Club as the high school player of the week. Russell spoke to the big crowd as if he was 17 going on 30. He was, in a word, impressive. So I decided to begin the conversation with Mullen by telling him what I knew about State’s prized quarterback recruit.

Mullen, stone-faced, replied: “We didn’t even recruit him at Florida.”

So much for breaking the ice.

But that was – is – Dan Mullen. He doesn’t play the nice guy. That’s not how he’s wired and he will tell you so himself. “…that’s why I married my wife (Megan) – she’s the nice one,” he once told associates here.

Early in his tenure, a veteran assistant coach left Mullen’s staff making, at best, a lateral move. “Why?” I asked the assistant coach.

“Because my name is not sonuvabitch and I got tired of being called that by my boss,” he answered.

I thought Mullen mellowed a good bit during his time here, and many of his assistants and associates have said the same. Maybe some of Mississippi rubbed off on him.

Bottom line: Nice or not, Dan Mullen won. He won as precious few have won as Mississippi State’s head coach. For five weeks in 2014, he had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the USA. He won because, no matter what else you think of him, he is one helluva football coach. My take: He will win at Florida, too.

So now, Mississippi State has another head coach from Pennsylvania, Joe Moorhead, a guy decidedly more engaging and friendly than his predecessor and a guy with similar offensive credentials to those Mullen brought nine years ago.

State fans really do seem to “cotton” to Moorhead. If he wins as Mullen did, they’ll probably build him a statue at Scott Field.

Meanwhile, as time goes by, maybe a decade or two from now, Mullen probably will be received warmly at Mississippi State.

That won’t happen Saturday night. And that’s not a guess.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.