The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 22, 2010

Mullen: I didn’t see this coming

MORGANTOWN — The life of a football coach is, for the most part, a sequestered life with most of their time spent in a darkened room watching tape, in meetings with their players, drawing up plays or game plans.

They live in a fantasy world, but not the Alice in Wonderland kind. It is, instead, a world where their existence is consumed by the challenges of the game they have chosen to make their living.

This makes them better at their profession, to be sure, but in many ways it leaves them blind to the world that is spinning around them. They are insulated from reality, a reality that sometimes is not as nice as they would like it to be.

That is why, on Tuesday, when the West Virginia University football team and coaches finally were turned loose to meet the press and face the music that has gone from a waltz to a rap in this past week with the announcement that Bill Stewart would serve as head coach only one more season as his successor, Dana Holgorsen of Oklahoma State, installs his offense before replacing him.

It meant, too, that coaches Jeff Mullen, the offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach Dave Mullen would be unemployed following the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl meeting with North Carolina State.

So insulated from reality was Mullen, whose offense has been criticized for the past three years, that he would admit the following during interviews:

“I didn’t see this coming,” he said.

It was, in many ways, a stunning admission, for it had been obvious to observers for some time that the offense was the whipping boy of this year’s failure to make a BCS bowl, losing three low-scoring games and turning the ball over too often in the process.

It was equally as obvious through his silence that athletic director Oliver Luck was planning a mass execution, something many felt he was brought in to do in the first place with coach Bill Stewart never having been the most popular choice among many of the university’s top donors from the moment he was named to replace Rich Rodriguez.

For whatever reason, Mullen’s offense never captured the imagination of fans who had been spoiled by the great Rodriguez years of Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Darius Reynard.

Because of that, he really did have to go, but much of what he did as a person got lost in the won-and-lost record.

Mullen understands that he is far more than just a football coach.

“It doesn’t define me. My identity is not a football coach,” he said. “You don’t define me. You write a good article, a bad article, whatever. Those people don’t define you. I’m in the public eye, but no, it doesn’t define me, by any stretch.”

With that in mind, Mullen was asked what does define him.

“Faith, family ... these kids,” he said.

One of those kids is his quarterback Geno Smith, the player with whom he is closest.

Smith, like all of the players, was instructed to speak only of the upcoming bowl game and to leave the politics of the situation alone, and so on most questions regarding the coaching change, true to the quarterback code, all he would say is “Pass.”

But that was an incomplete answer, and you could feel that Smith had much more to say.

“Coach Mullen,” he began, “people don’t see the things he’s done for me. He took me from a kid who came in and didn’t know a lot about college and who made a lot of mistakes, and he molded me into a man with a lot of responsibilities. I’m able to say I can take care of my business because of him.”

It wasn’t just football, either, Smith said. It was more, deeper, more personal.

And so it was that the issue was pressed and Smith faced a blitz of questions from a different direction, asking him to define what Jeff Mullen actually had done for him.

“He teaches me life lessons on a daily basis. He’s not all about Xs and Os,” Smith said. “I appreciate him for that. He was there for me when I was struggling with my foot injury. He really uplifted me.”

And, if Mullen has earned a special place in Geno Smith’s heart, he and the players have done the same with him.

“At the end of the day all you care about is the kids,” he said. “The thing I find somewhat interesting is no one is talking about these kids, and that breaks my heart.”

Mullen admitted that he had had a heart-to-heart talk with Smith.

“I’d like to keep that between him and I, if that’s all right. I’m going to miss him a lot,” he said.

Some wonder how the players will react. Not Mullen.

“That’s the question. That’s all that matters. We as grownups have choices; they don’t. I think for the most part they will be fine. They’re tough kids; they’re resilient kids,” he said.

And Mullen, where does he go from here?

For the first time he had a light moment.

“No idea. I really like that show ‘House Hunters.’ Maybe there’s an opening there,” he said.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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