LITTLE ROCK, AR - NOVEMBER 19: Head Coach Dan Mullen of the Mississippi State Bulldogs talks into his headset during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at War Memorial Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Bulldogs 44-17. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Spencer Hall spent a day embedded with the Mississippi State football program, and was with the coaching staff when Bobby Petrino was fired. It would have been a big deal if anyone had the time to notice.
7:05 a.m. Dan Mullen sits at his computer, surrounded by the habitat of an SEC head coach: wraparound desk, computers, phones, and bric-a-brac emblazoned with school iconography. Bulldogs pop out from every corner of his office. Balls from the past three Egg Bowls and the 52-14 nullification of Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl sit encased in glass. A Diet Coke is open on the table.
There are Diet Cokes on every working coaching surface in the facility. Football coaches' offices are designed to make everything an arm's length affair. If Miss State were cut off from the world, Mullen could do almost all of his job without interruption, and much of it without moving more than a hundred feet from his desk. Phones for calling recruits are within the snap of an arm. A couch doubles as impromptu bed for late nights. A spacious bathroom adjoins the office, complete with large shower, toilet, and bathroom reading for the indisposed. (Because you want to know: It's a compilation of John Wooden quotes.)
In the neighboring closet is a doomsday prepper-sized stash of Diet Coke and bottled water. Hanging on the rack is every piece of clothing for the coaching action figure: press conference suit, casual golf shirt, rain gear, track suit, and workout clothes. The building is ready for the duration, even though it is April 10th, and there are 140 days until the 2012 football season begins.
Twelve men sit in the conference room waiting, quietly downing caffeine and noting things on tiny gridded printouts. A small mini-fridge sits in the corner, loaded with Diet Coke. Linebackers coach Geoff Collins, notes in hand, glances through the glass door and pauses.
"There's pie in the fridge," he says.
Mullen breezes through his bunker and into the war room next door in no more than 15 steps. At arm's length: film of 30 possible Mississippi State recruits, his staff, and just in case of emergency, pie in the fridge.
8:15 a.m. The inner wall of the Mississippi State conference room is a sliding, multilayered whiteboard with movable panels covered in neatly arranged matrices of information.
Offensive and defensive play scripts fill two panels by themselves. Two graduate assistants are tasked with arranging today's formations, concepts, personnel groupings, and protections into order. The combinations get baroque in a hurry: by moving one tight end around in one formation combined with alignments, Miss State can run the same play out of 20 different possible combinations of just one formation, and that is before anyone shifts or goes in motion.
The board is currently configured for another vital data set: recruiting. The morning's work is watching recruiting film. Mullen sits at the back of the room, his running shoes on the table. A laser pointer in his hand sometimes wiggles to highlight a player's footwork, a missed assignment, or in one case a referee falling facefirst into the turf like he'd been shot by a very powerful hunting rifle.
"Now THAT's officiating," he says, rewinding the tape as the referee reverses, resets, and then faceplants dead into the turf again. The room laughs.
Assistant Recruiting Coordinator Niel Stopczynski sits to Mullen's right. Stopczynski bears a passing resemblance to a thinner Steve Bartman, something Mullen points out frequently. The resemblance is less than clear in the darkened conference room. Stopczynski is little more than a pair of blue lenses behind a laptop, reading out names, and tracking any one of the 800 to 1000 recruits currently in play for D-1 football scholarships within Miss State's regional recruiting footprint.
"What's this guy, Niel?"
"We don't have a 40 on him. This says he's 5'11."
Mullen pauses. "I'm taking him at 5'9 and a half."
Bemused muttering ripples around the room. Stopczynski, like every coach and recruiting coordinator in college football, worries most about data confidence. Until a recruit is in your camp---with your eyes watching, running a 40 on your turf with your stopwatch and your coaches gauging him---there are no guarantees on your recruit's numbers. Recruits and coaches manipulate them; parents happily play along to boost their child's stock.
And those variables do not end. Assistant coach Tony Hughes, a Mississippi recruiting institution, chimes in on recruits and their family situations, coaching reports, and personality type. Tight ends coach Scott Sallach times in-game speed with a stop watch on long runs, often with less-than-flattering results for recruits with lower reported times. (Everyone with a 4.5, it seems, is really around a 4.6)
Offensive line coach John Hevesy and wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando take turns testing their internal GPS, figuring out precisely where opposing teams are on the map, and whether the competition the recruits are shown slicing and dicing is really any good. Track numbers--triple jump, 100 meter times, long jump--are all weighed against film to judge athleticism. It's a collaborative process of putting each prospect's film in full context, and then eyeballing just how good that 50 yard run really might have been.
Stopczynski has to compile and verify as best as possible the height, weight, and likely true speed of recruits for the staff, as well as other offers a recruit may have, possible interest, position, likely future position in college. Throw in notes on family, personality, and reports from other sources, and Stopczynski is working on organizing and verifying no less than 8,000 different pieces of information at any given time on all recruits in the database.
The eyeball test, while simpler, is its own data. Mullen grimaces at one recruit's clip. "I like him. I think he's a good football player."
"He's going to be a great player in the Sun Belt, probably. I mean that. He's going to do something great for one of those teams."
He says that like a compliment, and it is. It is also the last we see of him, because the magnet with his name has been moved down the board, and the coaches are already on to the next name floating somewhere in the tiny, mysterious archipelago of names on the recruiting board. Mississippi State plays in the most brutal division in college football, the SEC West. He is not looking for Sun Belt players.
10:15 a.m. Twenty or so recruits in, the staff takes a break. Break is a subjective term. Some coaches make quick notes of their own on recruits. Some rush to grab coffee. Les Koenning, offensive coordinator, walks downstairs and gets a refill. He's from Texas, and full of interesting Texas facts. Darrell Royal and Willie Nelson were at one point close friends. Your world may never be the same knowing this.
He will watch somewhere around 35 hours of film this week alone, a French work week all by itself.
"You want some coffee?" he asks. "The cups are right there."
Sixteen-ounce styrofoam cups, the stomach-scorching jumbo size, line the counter. There are none smaller.
11:15 a.m. The coaching staff plows into practice scripts.
Mullen could be barking out artillery telemetry: locations, personnel groupings, drills, times, coaching points and new concepts for the day. Recruiting conversations were convivial, engaged, and collaborative, with coaches working like consultants. In the span of 20 minutes they are now officers, and Mullen is rat-a-tat-ing through bullet points with serious velocity like a major dispensing marching orders.
"Defensive line is over here with technique drills."
"Kickers on the far end in the grass."
"Got it, coach."
"O-line, you're set?"
"That's PAT on 2-North. Kickoff, turf drill, be sure to get that on camera. Ringo Flex and Hash Check. There you go."
There are somewhere around 80 players at all levels of the depth chart to coordinate for the practice. Nine football coaches not including Mullen will arrange over those players over 15 practice periods before they run a single full-squad play. Cameras must be set up at all angles of two practice fields going at once. Pass skeleton must snap 36 plays in its limited window of time. Before anything like scrimmage play happens, 1,200 individual phased separate assignments unfold on the field.
The whole depth chart will then run through five or six basic concepts in variation, each in full pass rush simulation with limited contact. (Yes, even the third-stringers.) This will all be evaluated and graded, thousands of details arranged, quantified and qualified. Mullen will review tape with offense and defense before the next day's work. Each player is graded at every practice by the staff. Nothing is wasted, and everything counts.
The simple part is the detail, though. This is set, routine, and order. The staff clicks through practice scripting like pilots working a manifest, calmly snapping through the day's plan. Dinner is the hard part: they will order in, and have no idea what to get.
"Man, I'm tired of pizza."
As strange as "Starkville sushi" may sound, Mullen and other members of the staff swear by it. Practice scripting takes 10, maybe 15 minutes of intense, streamlined discussion for basic workflow. It moves like clockwork.
Dinner, however is three minutes of involved, passionate debate. "Wings" was the final choice, but audibling to pizza is kept as a hot read.
11:54 a.m. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox rumbles into the conference room. The coaches have split off to eat lunch, work out, and work on their own practice script and notes. Cox looks sadly in the fridge.
"Aw, I thought you had something for me here."
"There was pie," mutters an assistant.
Cox is a 305-pound physical freak who met with an NFL team that morning to prepare for the draft, and will be a millionaire in a matter of weeks. There is not, however, any pie for him in the conference room.
1:35 p.m. Dan Mullen's iPhone goes off. "Spencer Hall?" He turns toward Director of Football Operations Jon Clark. "Am I supposed to be there? Where is--"
Jon points to me. "That's Spencer Hall."
"I thought it was a dorm or a lecture hall, and I was supposed to be there," he says, laughing and hopping down the stairs to a waiting golf cart. He turns the wrong way, does a U-turn without looking behind him, and speeds off towards someplace on campus not named "Spencer Hall."
Just down the road, there is a dorm of sorts going up. The new $25 million home of Miss State football stands in skeletal form across from their indoor practice facility. A "GO BULLDOGS" spray-painted on one rooftop beam is its only decorating, but the basics are already in place. The shape of the two-story weight room is obvious, as are the concrete shapes of the empty hot and cold tubs of the future training room.
"This... is going to be the entrance." He waves to a hypothetical hallway, his eyes trying to fill in the blueprints.
This is not a tour. It is a review with a reporter in tow. Mullen vacillates from excited to persnickety. The office will be great, but this hallway... what's going to be here? And this wall: what does it do? This door is too small, and will have to be bigger. Is this load-bearing? Can it be moved? Jon takes notes as fast as he can, stepping around welding torches and bits of aluminum framing as he goes, while Mullen pauses only to sign a hard hat for a construction worker as he paces the place.
The player's lounge is a particular source of concern. Video games? How many? Is there a pool table here? Do they need two or four video game stations? This is vital to the business: at every angle, the design is not just about utility. This is as much about visuals as it is about properly placed equipment lockers and bulletin boards. Mississippi State, like everyone else in the SEC, is building something that blends recruiting pitch, state-of-the-art athletic facility, and a personally branded Dave and Buster's arcade/entertainment complex.
He looks hard at the frames where walls will stand in a few months.
"Four videogame stations. Let's go with four here."
Architect and interior design consultant are added to the resume. Another thousand options are added to Dan Mullen's work orders.
2:50 p.m Matt Balis, like all strength coaches, completed his training by gargling kerosene for an hour straight and earning a raspy, perpetually hoarse voice. His bookshelves are lined with the most masculine arrangement of titles imaginable: obscure weightlifting manuals, books about Navy SEALS, and three-ring binders loaded with data and pictures.
One of those three-ring binders holds photos of some of Balis' prize projects. He opens to Fletcher Cox, the likely NFL draft pick at defensive end rumbling around the football offices earlier in the day. He rasps away.
"Fletcher came in at 250. He gained 30 pounds his first year. Normally we would be concerned about that, but he kept his body mass and put his numbers through the roof. He's at 305 right now. Just look at that."
All the strength numbers are there: the 400-plus bench, the 500-pound squat you would expect. Approximately 60 heavy reps go into one lifting session. State runs two sessions a week for each player. Sixteen weeks total in the year are spent lifting hard, meaning thousands and thousands of pounds a week are moved by very strong young men in the high-ceilinged weight room. Huge numbers should be the norm, and should not surprise.
One boggling number leaps off the page, however: 25. At 305 pounds, Fletcher Cox can rep out 25 bodyweight pull-ups. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, focusing only on strength and aesthetics, could pull around 15 at 270 ripped pounds. Cox is the size of a Kodiak bear, can run like a buffalo, and has the proportional upper body strength of a rock climber.
3:15 p.m. Justin Gremillion, head football trainer, works roughly the same hours the football staff does. (I.e., all of them.) Players come in for treatment, and the cold tub, and more tape, and still more tape throughout the day. For Miss State's first bowl game under Mullen, Gremillion had to estimate how much tape they would need. The answer was five cases a day during practice and games, or roughly 2,400 yards of athletic tape a day. Entire seasons of passing offense cover the bodies of the football team every day.
"All that for 13 games a season if you're lucky," he smiles.
He got his first job at Florida Atlantic, working for Howard Schnellenberger.
"He's a big family guy. Loves kids. He'd put his fist out to kids at the airport, all covered with championship rings, and just let 'em stare at it while going, 'How d'ya like that, kid?'"
In the quiet moment before the chaos of practice and in between player treatments, he laughs.
"He is AWESOME."
4:45 p.m. This is faculty appreciation day, and Chris Wilson, defensive coordinator and d-line coach, promised to try and tone down his language for the visiting professors. This initiative is not going well, especially once Wilson switches gears completely from jovial recruiter to hardass when the horn sounds. The switch is immediate, terrifying, and hilarious since Wilson, a big man, is screaming at even bigger men in prime physical condition.
(Jedi mind tricks are a defensive line coach's first job requirement. The second: stainless steel vocal cords.)
Other coaches transform completely. Mullen is just a louder, more intense Mullen on the field. By contrast, Melvin Smith, folksy and avuncular off the field, runs by me at a full sprint screaming when his secondary gives up a long pass in situationals, on fire with rage at some slight, almost imperceptible lapse in technique.
The practice script takes life. Between airhorns, players flow from one drill to the next. A big hit in second down situations gets an oooooooh from the second team defense on the sideline; a leaping sideline catch on a Tyler Russell bomb silences them a few plays later.
Everyone, players and coaches alike, becomes lost in their work. High rain clouds skirt the horizon to the east, and the fading sun diving towards the horizon illuminates a thunderhead too far off to do any harm. Student assistants on the towers stand watch in silhouette, silently recording the evening's programming for the staff.
It smells like wet grass, and sounds like one very organized, intense, and profane two-and-a-half-hour long family holiday argument. It is spring football. The third-string quarterback unleashes a shockingly good throw, and Mullen extends a fist for a congratulatory pound. The third-stringer seems stunned, and stares at Mullen's fist for a moment before returning it slowly like some kind of trap had been set for him all along. He was right: a few plays later, he is picked on a deflection.
6:30 p.m. Then the surreal happened. Reporters checking their phones may have been first, hitting refresh buttons on their BlackBerries, Androids, and iPhones long before the coaches even heard it. Division rival Arkansas had imploded, and head coach Bobby Petrino had been fired by his athletic director Jeff Long following a sordid scandal in Fayetteville.
Practice cranked on until 7:30 p.m. Mullen issued a short statement afterwards as his team walked to the locker room and his staff sat down to dinner and film review.
"Really? How about that. That's a shame. (pause) That's just. I always thought Bobby was a heck of a football coach - a really, really good football coach. I have tremendous respect ... One of the great offensive minds in college football. It's a shame. ... Part of the life we live, the spotlight we're in as coaches, you're held to an extremely high standard. It's just a shame for him because not only is it something that can devastate a family, which obviously to me is a much bigger concern, but also a career and a dream that he was obviously living: being a football coach in the SEC. To have all of that taken away from you is a rough deal."
That was it. Down the hallways of the football offices, assistant coaches and GAs all sat down in their offices or conference rooms and turned on their flatscreens to ... game film.
Chris Wilson sat in a conference room with his assistant grading out reps for the defensive line. ESPN was on in the background with no one paying attention. Wilson kept a whole conversation up while nailing his d-line's faults to the wall.
"That's an S for him, good job, and a minus for him, and his feet are under him, and where are you from? Oh, I like Atlanta a lot. It's a city. I'm from Oklahoma City, which is more of a big town, and that's a missed assignment, and he went with his outside hand there so that's a minus for him, and do you have kids oh man that's great give him a minus minus for that footwork--"
In mountaineering books, the lore of the Everest dead is well-documented. Due to the heights, bodies of climbers who died in an attempt cannot be recovered. You have to walk right past them on the way up. They even have nicknames, like "Green Boots," or "The Red Jacket Guy." There is a certain respect for them, but that respect is limited by time and task. There are thousands of steps to getting up the mountain, and lingering is not an option.
Lingering did not seem to be an option for the coaches, either. In the main conference room, the offense was getting broken down to its individual pieces by Mullen. On the other side of the wall, Wilson pointed to a defensive end's outstanding rush during second-down work, and marked it a sack. Grades were becoming data to be evaluated, weighed, and then re-evaluated again.
Petrino's battered face flickered on the screen opposite me, and I realized who he was to rival coaches now. He was Red Jacket Guy, frozen and lost in a place too harsh to allow for much reflection. Poor Red Jacket Guy, they'd think, checking their watch, and minding the ticking seconds on the clock before moving on with the long work of taking one more hard step upward.
The staff left the office Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m., 139 days before the start of the 2012 football season.