DGS alum Mullins looks back on first year coaching at SIU
Before the college basketball season began, a panel of Missouri Valley Conference coaches, sports information directors and media members picked Southern Illinois University to finish last in the league out of 10 teams.
That was all the motivation first-year coach Bryan Mullins needed.
Mullins, a 2005 Downers Grove South graduate who played at SIU, surprised many by guiding the Salukis to a fifth-place MVC finish. A .500 overall record was a bit of a disappointment but Mullins is already looking forward to progress in his second season at the helm.
"It's just been unbelievable for me to be back at my alma mater and to be able to represent Southern Illinois again," he said. "I had four of the best years of my life down here."
Mullins was a three-year starter at Downers Grove South, where he led the Mustangs to downstate appearances in 2003 and 2005. His senior year Downers South finished third in the state in Class AA and Mullins was named the Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Boys Basketball Captain.
A two-time academic all-American at SIU, Mullins played on two NCAA tournament teams including a Sweet 16 run in 2007 when the Salukis won a program-record 29 games and finished ranked 11th in the nation.
After playing professionally for four years in France and competing for the Irish national team, Mullins returned to the MVC to be an assistant coach at Loyola under Porter Moser. Mullins was an associate head coach on the Ramblers' 2018 Final Four team.
Thirteen months ago Mullins came full circle by being hired as SIU's 14th head coach.
Coaching always has been in Mullins' blood. His father Mike runs the Illinois Wolves AAU basketball program and his older brother Brendan, now an assistant at SIU, previously coached at Illinois State, UIC, Wright State, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Mercyhurst.
Being at SIU with Brendan is a dream he never could have imagined, and it wasn't difficult to hit the ground running on familiar turf.
"We knew what we were capable of in the locker room," he said. "With three games left in the Valley season we were playing for first place at Northern Iowa, so our guys really got better throughout and completely bought in and believed in what we were doing."
This season was Mullins' 11th participating in the Missouri Valley Conference postseason tournament as either a player or coach, and it felt like so many others. In early March the COVID-19 pandemic still hadn't consumed the nation, and Arch Madness in St. Louis went off without a hitch.
Less than a week later, however, most conference tournaments were canceled and the NCAA tournament soon followed. It was a stunning turn of events to wrap up Mullins' first season.
"Our conference tournament ended and our guys went on spring break, so we haven't seen them since March 5 or 6," said Mullins, a Hall of Fame honoree at Downers South and SIU. "And the recruiting part of it is obviously very interesting as well, not being able to have recruits on campus or have official visits. Everyone is adjusting to a new normal, at least temporarily."
The new normal adds a twist as Mullins approaches his second season back at SIU. Recruiting has been reduced to Zoom conversations, texting and phone calls.
Regardless of where the path leads him, he aims to keep the Salukis headed in the right direction.
At his second home in Carbondale, Mullins couldn't ask for a better challenge.
"Considering where we started off last year to where we're at now and all the work we've put in as a staff, we knew it's not going to be easy and we're going to do it the right way," he said. "We're not going to take any shortcuts. That first year you're always trying to figure out different ways to do things and kind of learning from your mistakes and trying to make it better for year two."