Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

In college athletics, greener pastures don’t always turn out nearly so green. A case in point follows:

In 2016, Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State football lost to South Alabama to begin the season and then finished the season with a 6-7 record. Nevertheless, at season’s end, Mullen’s contract was extended back to the maximum four years allowed by Mississippi law.

In 2017, Mullen and State finished 9-4, and Mullen subsequently left the Bulldogs after nine years in Starkville to become the coach at Florida.

Rick Cleveland

State athletic director John Cohen no doubt would have matched Florida’s financial offer, but it never reached that point. There was no negotiating. Mullen wanted out. He wanted to coach at one of country’s elite football schools. He wanted to be in the middle of all those Florida recruits. He wanted a better chance to win a national championship where his former boss, Urban Meyer, had won two.

Now, four years later, the Gators have a 5-6 record and Mullen has been fired.

At State, 6-7 got him an extension. At Florida, 5-6 got him fired. So it goes.

Greener pastures?

Look around. The season has not year-ended, but among the many jobs already open are Florida, LSU and Southern Cal, surely three of the most coveted jobs in college football. All have storied histories with multiple national championships. All are located in fertile recruiting territory. All pay a king’s ransom.

Yes, and all come with this caveat: Just win, baby. No hiccups allowed. 

Care to guess how many winning seasons (SEC games only) Mullen had at State?

One. That’s how many. One.

He had four break-even, 4-4 seasons. He had four losing seasons. He had one winning season, the 6-2 season of 2014. Mullen left State with a 69-46 overall record, but a 33-39 record in the SEC.

This is not to say Mullen isn’t a splendid football coach. He is. In 2014, he had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in the land for five weeks, a remarkable accomplishment. As I have written before, he could have that on his tombstone.

At Florida, that’s expected. A losing season — or anything close — is not.

We’ve seen this happen before in Mississippi athletics. Basketball coach Bob Weltlich became at Ole Miss cult hero in six seasons at the school, including one in which he won the SEC Tournament. He could flat out coach. He often beat SEC teams that had superior talent. His overall record was 83-88. In the SEC, his teams were 20 games under .500.

But when Texas called in 1982, Weltlich answered. He lasted six seasons there with a similar record to what he had at Ole Miss. 

We’ll never know what might have happened had Weltlich stayed at Ole Miss. He might have raised expectations to a point where he eventually would have been fired. Or, who knows, there might now be a statue of him outside the new arena. We do know that the same type record that got him raises at Ole Miss got him fired at Texas.

Curley Hallman guided Southern Miss football to a 23-13 record over three seasons at Southern Miss. It helped to have Brett Favre as his quarterback. After an 8-4 record in 1990 (including victories over both Alabama and Auburn), Hallman left for LSU. He lasted four seasons in Baton Rouge and never had a winning team.

Greener pastures?

Moving vans will be especially busy during this off-season. Seven Power Five jobs are already open. More will open in the next three weeks. Lane Kiffin’s name already is mentioned in connection withe openings at Southern Cal (where he has been before), Florida and LSU.

Chances are, he’ll have a decision to make.

Greener pastures?

We’ll see. 

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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.