I am getting just a little tired of reading in the Union Leader about Manchester’s own Dan Mullen. Here’s a little 30 year old history. But first, I do want to say that I never tire of reading about Coach Mullen and his Mississippi State Bulldogs football team who, by the way, are the number one ranked football team in the nation after 6 weeks of football. Who have beaten, in consecutive weeks, three top ten teams at the time in LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. And who still has Alabama and Ole Miss yet to play in a brutal schedule. While this is somewhere Mississippi State has never been in its’ long football history, or anywhere close to it, this is nothing new for Coach Mullen. The 42 year old coach spent several years with Urban Meyer as they fashioned an undefeated season at Utah where Dan coached Alex Smith to Heisman contention before he was drafted into the NFL. And then off to Florida for a couple of National Championships, the coaching of Tim Tebow to a Heisman as the quarterback coach, and a potent offense as the offensive coordinator before moving into the head job at Mississippi State 6 years ago.
I can remember reading about that hiring and thinking to myself, ‘Here’s a kid from the heart of the North going to coach in the heart of the South, where football is a religion and the team he’s taking hasn’t been good for years.’ But I knew they were getting a good coach. And he was successful right away. The team has had a winning record, although often one or two games over .500. But good enough to play in bowl games, which Miss. St. had not been in for awhile. Last year they blew out Rice in a Bowl game and you could see what might be this year. It hasn’t been easy, either. Being a State school, and having to recruit players who are being pursued by the Alabama’s, Auburns and LSU’s of the division has not been easy. I watched several of Dan’s early press conferences and he talked some about that, but he basically said there is a lot of talent available, it is what you do with that talent that makes the difference. If you go to the Miss. St. site you can view the press conferences and they are fun. He is personable, forthright and entertaining. And they love this guy down there. And now for the story behind the story, as Paul Harvey often said.
Before Dan got to Utah he coached at Bowling Green and was an assistant at Notre Dame. Before that an assistant at the small college in Pennsylvania that he attended where he played some college ball. Every once in a while I would run into his Dad who would give me the recent news. “Hey, Dan made the team. Hey, Dan is starting this week. Dan had a good game Saturday. Hey, they asked Dan to help Coach the d-backs next year. Dan was just put on the staff at Notre Dame. Can you believe it?” I can remember thinking ‘Wow, Notre Dame. Unbelievable!’
Now before Dan got to that small college in Pennsylvania he played some football at Trinity High School in Manchester. Back when Trinity was in Division 1 with Pinkerton, Concord, Nashua, Central and the big schools in the state. Dan played quarterback. In 1989 Dan was selected as the Player of the Year and in 1990, his senior year, he led Trinity to a State Division 1 Title.
But before Dan Mullen got to Trinity he played his football right here in Londonderry in the old Londonderry Flag Football league. Back then the LFFA was over 200 kids on 13 teams in three age brackets. 11 on 11 on a regulation size field with helmets and uniforms. The tackle program, Pop Warner, had weight restrictions, which Flag did not, so we had some big boys and some rough games.
I got involved in 1982 with the Broncos in the 6 and 7 year old group with my oldest son. By 1985 I was running the league taking over for Oscar Greene who had done a great job growing the league. That year I was going to be coaching the Broncos with my youngest son and the Eagles with my oldest son in the 8-9-10 Division. The Redskins in the 11-12-13 Division had an opening and I got a friend of mine to take the team confident he would do a great job and I knew the kids would have fun with him.
The first day of practice after the draft and my friend called and said he would not be able to coach the team. So I went down to South School where we practiced and played our games. I got the Eagles going and was very fortunate to have Jack Mortimer as my assistant and he ran the practice, and I went over to the Redskins and explained what had happened. I told them not to worry, that we would find them a coach. Then I got the boys to run some suicides and do some stuff. Most of them took it in stride. No big deal. But I noticed one boy was very upset. After a few minutes he came over to me and with tears in his eyes he said, “Mr. Napolitano, we didn’t win a game last year. I can’t go thru that again.”
I said the things an adult would say to a kid, don’t worry. it’ll be okay. It’ll all work out. It’ll be fine. But I will tell you that that boy, 13 year old Dan Mullen, changed everything for me that night with those words. For three years I had coached baseball and football and it was all about having fun and feeling good and ice cream after the game. Most people didn’t take it too serious and certainly most kids didn’t. They dug holes in the outfield and ran the wrong way with the ball so no one would pull their flag. But now the kids were older, and while some just did it for something to do, or Dad wanted them too, or just for fun, there were some kids who, like I was when I was in my teens, played because it was important. It mattered. It was damn near life and death.
After the practice ended I called the Redskins over and told them I would coach them. And I promised them we would win. It meant for the next couple of months I would be at South School every night and all day Saturday, and often with two teams at the same time, but we managed. Having Jack Mortimer with the Eagles was key. But often I would leave Dan Mullen to run the practice for the Redskins. He was the quarterback. He was one of my 3 thirteen year olds and he was our leader. Sean Hogan and Bill Breen were the other 13 year olds and you couldn’t ask for better young men. We ended up co-champions that year with Doug DeCosta’s Cowboys and even though we were a talented team, it was Mullen’s intensity that carried us in a few games. I coached the Redskins the next 7 years as my two boys went through the program and sometimes tempering the coaching of 8 year olds and 13 year olds got a little mixed up, over-all it went okay. I always kept in mind that 13 year old boy who so much wanted to win. From those Redskin teams came at least 8 future captains for the Lancers, over a dozen All-State players for LHS football and two Players of the Year in football in Mullen and Ryan Minzner from the 1996 undefeated team who played quarterback, tightend and linebacker for my final 3 years. John Mortimer also won Player of the Year in Cross-country at LHS.
20 plus years go by and in 2007 I am coaching basketball my first year back at the Middle School. We are a second team playing a schedule of first teams, and we are getting beat up pretty good each game. We were 0-7 and coming back from the Christmas break. That first day back I had the boys take a seat and I told them about 12 year old Dan Mullen. I told them that that night they would hear his name mentioned during the championship game that Florida was playing in and that they would say he was from Manchester, N.H. And I told them that when he was 12 years old, just like most of them were, he played on the same fields and he was winless, too. And then I told them about 13 year old Dan Mullen, and then what happened during the next 20 years. And then I read an e-mail to them that I had received that morning from Coach Mullen. I had sent a quick e-mail to the athletic department at Florida never really expecting it would get thru to Dan, wishing him luck in the game and congratulating him for all his successes. It was the first time in almost 20 years that I had conversed with him. I mentioned my basketball season in passing and how I was trying to keep their spirits up. On the morning of the biggest day in college football and the biggest day of Coach Mullens career, I received his response. That he would take the time to answer my e-mail, at that particular time, with everything he must have been going through, is something I will never forget. Successful people are not successful by accident.
Every year since I tell my teams this story and I tell them what Coach Mullen said to my 2007 team. If someone had said to me at any time in my life that I would be watching Mississippi State games on TV I would have said they were crazy. GO BULLDOGS!