STARKVILLE — Scott Stricklin has more than 11 million reasons to hope Vic Schaefer is the right man.
Today, Schaefer will be introduced as Mississippi State University’s new women’s basketball coach. The announcement won’t take place in the Mize Pavilion, the new $11-plus million basketball facility for the MSU men and women. Schaefer, the longtime associate head coach for Gary Blair at the University of Arkansas and currently at defending national champion Texas A&M, will be welcomed into the MSU family in a ceremony at the Bryan Building down the road.
The proceedings just as well might be in Mize Pavilion because the new building is MSU’s latest jewel and it showcases how much support the school has in its quest to have two of the Southeastern Conference’s best basketball programs.
Schaefer’s job is to push the MSU women’s program closer to that goal. There is no denying he has a long road ahead of him. Instead of building on the momentum of the program’s first trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2009-10, the Lady Bulldogs went 13-17 and 14-16 and failed to reach the postseason in the past two seasons. Those records are important because memories are short in college athletics, but Stricklin’s hire will leave a lasting impression if Schaefer helps take MSU to the next level.
Sharon Fanning-Otis, who guided MSU to six NCAA tournaments in 17 seasons at the school, said the next step for the Lady Bulldogs is to reach the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Some might consider those goals too high. They aren’t, and Stricklin has to make sure Schaefer knows it.
At first glance, MSU’s decision to hire Schaefer seems to embrace that goal. He is a veteran coach with experience as a head coach (at Sam Houston State), he has coached in the SEC, he is a proven recruiter, and he has played an integral role in helping his program win a national title.
But will Schaefer be able to sell MSU as a destination school? Will he be able to convince the best players in the state of Mississippi to stay home and to choose MSU?
Schaefer must have liked what he heard from Stricklin to make him believe leaving College Station, Texas, a place where he likely could have stayed for a long time, for Starkville was a good career move. Stricklin must have done a good job selling his vision and his enthusiasm for MSU to convince Schaefer to make that jump.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Stricklin has made it clear he wants to build on the momentum former director of athletics Greg Byrne started. His hire of Vann Stuedeman as MSU’s new softball coach is a perfect indication. Stuedeman is a high-energy coach with a proven background. Her arrival in Starkville is the latest indication MSU wants to set the pace against the University of Mississippi, Southern Mississippi, and other schools that attempt to raid in-state talent.
But Stuedeman’s hire doesn’t compare to Schaefer’s. While the rest of the SEC appeared to be involved in the softball arms race, MSU was near or at the bottom in terms of wins and facilities. It didn’t appear able to win recruiting battles to attract the best players in the region and the nation. That has changed with Stuedeman, but her hire was a win-win for Stricklin. If she succeeds, he can take credit for helping transform a moribund program into one of the SEC’s best. If she doesn’t, he can say the program wasn’t able to make that big of a jump that quickly.
Women’s basketball is different. Not only does the sport have more tradition in the state, it also has greater depth of talent. Too often, the state’s top players — April Sykes, LaSondra Barrett, and Rachel Hollivay, just to name three — have decided to leave the state for other schools. By hiring Schaefer, Stricklin says MSU believes it can reap the benefits from that talent. He also says MSU intends to climb the ladder and be one of the SEC’s best teams.
To do that, MSU has to get behind Schaefer and sell the women’s basketball program — and sell the school. It has to invest in a marketing campaign for basketball that is just as vigorous as the one used for football. It has to assign individuals who are committed to that goal and who are passionate about basketball. It has to find new ways to bring people to Humphrey Coliseum every game to help Schaefer build an atmosphere that will attract recruits.
Schaefer has a key role, too. He has to canvass the state and speak to as many high school and youth basketball coaches in the state as possible. He needs to make MSU women’s basketball a program all of Mississippi can take pride in by recruiting as many players from the state as possible. He has to show them MSU is committed to women’s basketball. He has to do it with assistant coaches who share his dedication, and they all have to do it with the energy of teenagers. Only then will the best players in the state start to believe MSU truly wants to be a women’s basketball power.
Stricklin has helped push MSU to this point. It is up to him to make sure MSU follows through on what appears to be a positive first step. His ability to do that will lay the foundation for millions and millions of more reasons why people will believe MSU is the right place to be.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.