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by | College Football Insider

Urban disciples: Mullen, Strong fulfilling visions, still learning in top jobs

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They crossed paths in the Florida football office hallways or on their way to the gym -- Dan Mullen worked out in the morning, Charlie Strong in the afternoon -- and never said a word to each other about these big head-coaching plans they had.

Mullen, then Florida's offensive coordinator, kept personal notes in a manila folder about how he would run a program, schedule games, motivate players, perfect his scheme. He had done this ever since he was a graduate assistant under then-Notre Dame assistant Urban Meyer in the late 1990s. By the time Mississippi State hired him as head coach in 2008, two sizable folders had ruffled edges from constant use, a collage of random thoughts furiously scribbled.

Strong, then Florida's defensive coordinator, clung to his head-coaching dreams even as they started to fade. He had been passed up for several jobs before Louisville called in 2009, but he refused to relay his disappointment to his colleagues at Florida, in fear of becoming a distraction.

He thought about it often, planned out the possibilities in his head, talked to his wife about whether it would happen, but never took his problems to work.

"He's the kind of guy who never had a bad day -- always professional, great recruiter and coach," Mullen said. "You never knew if anything like that was hard for him."

It was hard. But it's funny how dreams work. These Meyer disciples have jumpstarted Mississippi State and Louisville into surprise 7-0 contenders. Meyer is undefeated, too, but everyone already knew he could build a winner.

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Now Mullen and Strong have taken challenging, understated paths to stardom. Mississippi State wasn't considered a Southeastern Conference power or a place to chase national titles. Mullen is changing the perception with 28 wins in three-and-a-half years. A win at top-ranked Alabama on Saturday could make the cowbells explode in Starkville.

Louisville has had moderate football success and peaked during the Bobby Petrino era but badly needed a facelift. Strong has guaranteed a third straight bowl appearance and is knocking on the door of a double-digit-win season. The Cardinals face one-loss Cincinnati on Friday night.

The staff at Florida that won a 2008 national title also included offensive line coach Steve Addazio (now 12-7 as Temple's head coach), defensive line coach Dan McCarney (in his second season as North Texas' head coach) and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales (co-offensive coordinator at Illinois). Tight ends/offensive line coach John Hevesy joined Mullen at MSU.

Eager coaching minds coupled with a mess of NFL talent resulted in a righteous wave of success that lasted only a few years before Meyer's health drew him into hiatus. Mullen joked he would have been unemployed had they stayed too long, but he recognizes Meyer's strengthening coaching tree that committed to the spread offense.

"How Urban plans, how he runs things, it works. It's very successful," said Mullen, 40. "People that have worked under him are smart enough to know, they have to run off their personality. We run our program very similar to what we did at Florida and Utah, along with changes that fit our team."

Strong invested in his role at Florida enough that he started to believe he would never leave, never clutch the arms of a head coach's chair.

When Mullen took the MSU job, many around the Florida program thought Strong would be the first to go. That's no knock on Mullen, who was a bright young coordinator, but Strong had been around longer and seemed primed for a big job. Strong wasn't considered by Mississippi State, which was set on hiring an offensive-minded coach after the Bulldogs ranked 114th in total offense in 2008. The Bulldogs targeted Mullen after the SEC title game and hired him a few days later.

Strong said he was genuinely happy for Mullen's ascension, even if he felt at the time his window was passing.

"I was very content being Florida's defensive coordinator, and that was a terrific staff," said the 52-year-old Strong. "Everybody just went to work and really invested everything they had. The results were great. Every assistant wants to be a head coach, but when it didn't happen I thought I was never going to leave."

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich knew better, publicly courting Strong as soon as Steve Kragthorpe was out the door. Like Mullen a year before, Strong took a head-coaching job a few days after the SEC Championship Game.

Once Strong re-entertained the thought of head coaching, he was confident he could pull it off.

Fan Poll

Which former Urban Meyer assistant has the better chance to go undefeated this season?

Dan Mullen at Mississippi State
16%
Charlie Strong at Louisville
84%

Total Votes: 12,643

But there's only so much you can prepare for.

"You just have to stay true to your plan and your vision, because you're always learning and it takes a lot of time and patience," Strong said. "Be true to yourself, your personality and work as hard as you can and good things will happen."

While Mullen felt confident in his move to Starkville four years ago, he sensed skepticism around him -- even from some circles at Florida, which he declined to identify. After all, Mississippi State had been to one bowl game in the previous eight years.

But Mullen believed the fan base would buy in eventually, there was enough untapped Mississippi talent to build a winner and the administration supported the vision.

"I think a lot of people were thinking, 'Why would you go there?'" Mullen said. "That's a decision you really have to look at it and think, 'This is going to be a good situation for me.' And once I decided to do it, I was determined to do my best."

If the move to MSU surprised some, Mullen's head coaching acumen didn't surprise Strong.

For the most part, the Gators assistants had a business relationship and didn't have the time -- or energy -- to hang out much away from football after logging long hours. Mullen and his wife Megan have two kids now but didn't in Gainesville and liked to travel the world in the offseason. Strong, with wife Victoria and two daughters, was known to camp out and just be a normal dad away from the field.

But even from different sides of the ball, Strong could appreciate Mullen's play-calling and candor.

"I was really happy for him," Strong said. "Dan had conviction. He knew what he wanted. That's what you need in a head coach."

And to think Strong and Mullen weren't the most popular choices for Meyer when building programs. Meyer remembers taking some public heat for retaining Strong, a holdover from the Ron Zook era, in 2006. The defense had struggled the year before.

Mullen was an unproven graduate assistant who just finished a season with Syracuse when he latched on as an understudy for Meyer, then Notre Dame's wide receivers coach.

Meyer said he had little doubt he would retain Strong, who worked with Meyer in South Bend.

"I wouldn't say faith [in Strong], it was witness. I saw him coach," Meyer said. "There was a lot of issues on that [2005] team. It wasn't Charlie. It was a whole bunch of things. There wasn't even a question whether I'd ask Charlie to be part of my staff. Dan Mullen was more of a leap of faith. He was my GA at Notre Dame and right away I saw what he was, his intelligence and grasp of college football was phenomenal."

Mullen and Strong spent nearly 15 years combined under the Meyer tree, but now they can start their own.

Mullen encourages his MSU assistants to make notes about how they would run a program, or even share ideas with the rest of the staff. And so the folder grows every year.

If only notes were enough to beat Alabama. Mullen knows he's still learning on the job.

"Nothing prepares you to sit in this chair," Mullen said. "You can see it, make notes about it, imagine what it's going to be like, and every day there's a new issue that comes up."

But neither is surprised at this year's success. This is exactly how Mullen drew it up, exactly how Strong dreamed it.


Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with CBSSports.com. Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.
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