OWATONNA — Owatonna High School graduate Mike Mussman is living the dream.
The music and sports lover co-stars on one of the top county music radio shows in the country. The lifelong Minnesota Vikings fan also hosts his favorite team’s pre-game radio show and, once a week, he shares a microphone with star Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. He has met virtually every country music star of the last 25 years, from the late Johnny Cash to Keith Urban to Carrie Underwood. Garth Brooks, who has sold more than 100 million albums, calls him “Muss” when they see each other. Brad Paisley, CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2010, plays practical jokes on him.
In fact, earlier this year, Mussman, who graduated from OHS in 1991, was positive that Paisley was playing another practical joke on him when he called and told “Muss,” that he, Mussman’s co-host Donna Valentine and producer Patrick Knight, won the biggest award a country music radio personality can win — the County Music Association’s Major Market Radio Personality of the Year.
The CMA win impressed a lot of people, including his older brother Chris Mussman, who, since 2008, is the head football coach at Division I North Dakota. While Chris, who graduated from OHS in 1986, is proud of his personal success, even he doesn’t believe it matches that of his younger brother.
“It was kind of neat to see us move up the ladder together,” Chris said. “His success is a little bit of a bigger deal, working at a major station and winning a CMA award. It’s been so special to watch all of that success. It’s crazy how many people know him. It’s amazing.”
Although Mike has found success in the Twin Cities and Chris in East Grand Forks, N.D., they both still remember their formative years in Steele County.
“My brother and I, we’re Owatonna boys. We played for the Indians,” Mike said. “We grew up on Elm Street, just south of the Knights of Columbus.”
Along with playing sports, the Mussmans, which also include brother Steve and sister Heidi, were active in music and they sang in the school choir. Chris said his mother was a singer and there was always music in the house.
Mike said growing up he was a classic rock fan, but when he started at 103.5-FM, a country music station in Mankato, in the early 1990s, he noticed that he recognized country songs by Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash and Alabama.
“It wasn’t until I started working at the radio station that I realized how much that I loved country music,” he said.
Mike said he feels fortunate. Getting an on-air job at a radio station can be very difficult, and may require radio personalities to live all over the United States as they work their way up from small-town stations to large market gigs — if they’re lucky enough to get to those larger markets.
“My success kind of befuddles me,” he admitted. “I have been able to pick the radio stations I want to work at. That is rare in this business. I wanted to work in Mankato when my brother was there, and I got a job. Then, I wanted to work in a metro market, and what better one than the one near my hometown.”
In the 1990s, Chris and Mike found themselves in Mankato. After playing college football at Iowa State University, Chris got a job coaching the offensive line and tight ends at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Mike attended MSU-Mankato. Chris said he was able to use some of his contacts to get his younger brother a job at 103.5-FM. Mike repaid him by introducing him to country music stars like Brooks and Dunn, Cash and Willie Nelson.
“He started working nights at the country music station,” Chris said. “Eventually, he worked his way to the morning show.”
Realizing a four-year college wasn’t for him, Mike moved north to the Twin Cities to study broadcasting at the Brown Institute. He also got a job as an intern at the 100,000 watt KEEY 102.1-FM before getting his big break. Starting in February 2000, he teamed with Valentine to host the Wakeup Crew. Since the show has been on the air, K102 has been named Major Market Station of the Year by the Country Music Association in 2005 and the Academy Of Country Music in 2010. Then on Nov. 1, the Wakeup Crew was honored by the Country Music Association.
So how was Mike able to earn a prime spot at one of the biggest country music stations in the United States?
Chris said it wasn’t his love of music, but Mike’s passion for comedy. Growing up, the two brothers watched Comedy Central non-stop, memorizing four-minute comedy skits from shows like ‘Saturday Night Live.
“We are both huge comedy fans,” Chris said. “Some people look at Mike and think he’s kind of goofy, but there is a real method to his comedy. He’s a really great comedy writer. People don’t realize that he writes all of his material.”
After two decades in the radio business, Mike got some national recognition and the phone call from Paisley, country music’s biggest prankster.
“I told him, ‘If you are kidding, this is the worst prank ever,’” Mike said. “He explained that he was shocked I won, too.”
Mike gives a lot of credit to the “phenomenal” Valentine and Knight. Mike, Valentine and Knight received the award well before the show, but they still were invited to attend the televised event and watch country music stars on stage and behind the stage.
“I’ll tell you what I love about country music,” Mike said. “You see these beautiful women in these beautiful gowns and they are chugging beers during the show.”
Mike said he stood in line with country music stars Dierks Bentley and Urban and sat behind Grammy-winning group Lady Antebellum at the awards show. Mike said all country music stars go out of their way to thank him for playing their music.
“What’s so interesting about country artists is that they never stop thanking country radio,” Mike said. “They know we are the pathway between them and their fans.”
Chris and the rest of the Mussmans remain Mike’s biggest fans. Chris said listening to his brother is part of his early morning routine. The head coach gets into his office at 6 a.m. every day, pours himself a cup of coffee, logs onto K102.com and listens to the Wakeup Crew. He also listens to his brother on the Vikings Pre-Game Show.
The fact that his younger brother co-hosts a professional football show might surprise Chris, especially after Mike quit football after his sophomore year at OHS.
“That was a big deal at our house. You just didn’t quit football,” Chris said. “He didn’t like getting hit. You can put that in the article. He didn’t like getting hit. (Coach) Jerry (Peterson) wanted him to be QB, and Mike didn’t want that, so he decided football wasn’t for him.”
Chris added that his little brother was an exceptional athlete who excelled at hockey and baseball.
While Chris helped Mike get his start in country radio in the early 1990s, Mike said it was Vikings all-pro defensive end Jared Allen that helped him get started in professional football broadcasting.
When Allen, a country music fan, joined the Vikings in 2008, he told Mike that they should host a show together. Mike thought he was joking, but every time he ran into the Allen at a county music event, he kept bringing the show up.
“He said he wanted to do the show, and he only wanted me to co-host,” Mike said. “People kept asking me if I had pictures on the guy or something because he kept bringing me up.”
The following fall, the Jared Allen show started on K-FAN 1130-AM — it’s now 100.3-FM — with Mike and Allen talking about current events, hunting, fishing, and, of course, football. The show is now “Vikings Country with Chad Greenway” and is on KFAN 100.3-FM on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Previous shows are available on www.vikings.com.
As Mike prepares to turn 40 on Nov. 18, his life continues to take off. The only concern he has is when to find a time to rest. Typically, his day starts at 3 a.m.
“When you can impress a farmer, that’s saying something,” Mike said.
He arrives at the radio station at 4 a.m., and is on the air at 5 a.m. To get eight hours of sleep, he would need to be in bed by 7 p.m., but that is rarely possible with his Vikings jobs, concert appearances and radio requirements. He could quit as host of the Vikings Pre-Game Show and Vikings Country to get a little rest, but that’s not likely to happen.
“Growing up in Owatonna, I loved the Vikings,” Mike said. “My dad would rarely take a day off of work, but he would each summer to take us to Mankato to see training camp.”
Sleep or no sleep, Mike said he can’t believe how much fun he has working at what he calls the “third-most powerful country music station in the U.S.”
“I’ve met Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. I’ve been able to talk to so many artists or maybe just shake their hand. It’s been amazing,” Mike said. “I feel so fortunate to find success. My dad never believed I could make a career in radio.”
Reach reporter Derek Sullivan at 444-2372, or follow him on Twitter @OPPSullivan