Even though Rick Stansbury hadn’t been a head coach when he was hired to replace Richard Williams as head men’s basketball coach at Mississippi State University, the perception was he was ready to take the next step.
Stansbury had worked as the program’s primary recruiter and was responsible for putting together game plans. You can argue about how much of a fingerprint Stansbury had on the program in the time he worked for Williams, but MSU had some of its best seasons under Williams, including a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 1994-95 and the Final Four in the 1995-96 season.
Williams’ run, though, fizzled out much like Stansbury’s did. A loss to the University of Georgia in the Southeastern Conference tournament ended Williams’ final season at 15-15. When Williams announced his retirement March 12, 1998, he left MSU after 12 seasons as the school’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach.
One day later, MSU Athletic Director Larry Templeton promoted associate head coach Stansbury to head coach. Stansbury arrived in Starkville in 1990 and left his job as head coach last month as the school’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach.
Unlike Stansbury, Rick Ray didn’t talk Monday about fulfilling a “dream” in becoming a head coach in the SEC.
Unlike Stansbury, Ray doesn’t have the connections to Starkville or to Mississippi to call MSU “home.”
Unlike Stansbury, Ray won’t move 36 inches to his left into the chair for the head coach with a “love” of MSU his predecessor built in eight years as an assistant and as an associate head coach and then expanded in 14 years as a head coach.
Those are the perceptions Ray can erase by winning games.
It doesn’t matter if Ray doesn’t bleed Maroon and White or if he wasn’t the pick of deep-pocketed donors who would have preferred MSU went in another direction. Ray was hired to re-energize a program that has seen more than its share of turmoil and inconsistency in the past three years. Unlike in 1998, wholesale changes need to be made. MSU needs to re-dedicate itself to making Starkville the destination for all of the state’s top players. It has to play with an attitude that Ray hopes will show it won’t back down from a fight, and that no team will be tougher.
Ray’s challenge is different from the one Stansbury inherited. Starkville High School boys basketball coach Greg Carter, a former player and assistant coach at MSU, said March 13, 1998, he didn’t anticipate many changes for MSU men’s basketball as it transitioned from Williams to Stansbury.
“I think what we’ve seen from Mississippi State basketball over the last few years will continue to be the same,” said Carter, who was at Humphrey Coliseum on Monday to listen to and to meet Ray. “The number one priority will be defense and rebounding. In that, Rick is the same type of guy as coach Williams.”
If Ray doesn’t make wholesale changes, he won’t last the length of a four-year contract that will pay him $1 million a year before incentives. For all of the talk about football, the state of Mississippi has a wealth of basketball talent. Ray’s challenge will be to prove he is the intelligent, confident, hard-working man he claimed Monday to be. He will have to convince current Bulldogs like Rodney Hood and Jalen Steele, returning players who could be standouts on the 2012-13 team, signees for the 2012-13 season, and future Bulldogs that MSU will remain relevant in the SEC and will get back to the NCAA tournament.
It doesn’t matter if the Bulldogs average 60 or 90 points or how they do it. Ray has to build chemistry and to preach effort and re-establish those things as cornerstones to a program that needs a jolt. He also needs to develop a trust with his players so they take ownership of a program and play with passion to represent the name on the front of their jersey.
Stansbury said when he was promoted in 1998 that he believed MSU could win SEC and national championships. He never shied away from setting the bar that high, and when he announced his retirement, he didn’t apologize for it. In fact, he took credit for pushing MSU to compete with the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida to be the best program (number of wins) in the SEC.
Ray has been a part of programs at Purdue University and Clemson University that tried to the best in the Big Ten Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference, respectively. Purdue reached the NCAA tournament all four years Ray was an assistant on the coaching staff. In his first year at Clemson, the Tigers won 22 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That success has to be the norm at MSU. With an $11-plus million practice facility, an eager fanbase that will get behind a winning program, and the lack of a basketball power in the state, Ray has the tools to succeed.
It’s unthinkable MSU hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2009. But the past two seasons showed that perception can become reality if it is allowed to fester. Ray’s challenge will be to make sure MSU doesn’t become an afterthought and re-captures its place among the nation’s best programs.
To do that, Ray will have the erase the perception MSU could have done better. It could have raised the profile of its men’s basketball program and reached out to an established head coach — much like the University of South Carolina did when it hired Frank Martin away from Kansas State University — or plucked an assistant or associate head coach from a national title contender.
Hiring a coach with more cache may have made it easier for the players to buy into a change in leadership and for the fans to look at Ray as someone MSU settled for after so many others apparently didn’t want the job.
Carter, who will send standout center Gavin Ware to MSU in the fall, knows players — and fans — want to see success before they commit to a man and to a program. He admits it will be a challenge for Ray to accomplish that goal.
“It is tough coming into this situation, him being a name that nobody knows, but I think people need to give him a chance,” Carter said. “He hasn’t coached a game yet, so we have to be patient and give him a chance.
“They’re waiting to see what it is going to be like to watch a game he coaches. That is difficult for guys that you’re trying to keep here and keep in the fold. It is going to be difficult for guys you’re trying to sign early in November.”
That’s a difficult perception to face in your first job as head coach. If not checked and corrected, that perception ultimately could define Ray and leave MSU to face a reality it didn’t want to imagine.
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.