Johnnie Harris admits she’s a shopaholic.
So when she followed Vic Schaefer to the Mississippi State women’s basketball program in 2012, Harris didn’t know what to expect. All she knew was that Starkville didn’t have quite as many retail options as she was used to.
But it didn’t take long. Shopping sprees — or lack thereof — aside, Harris became enamored with Mississippi State in her tenure as the Bulldogs’ associate head coach from 2012 to 2020.
“My time there was amazing,” Harris said. “There were so many other things that I fell in love with while I was there.”
After Nikki McCray-Penson replaced Schaefer as MSU’s new head coach in spring 2020, Harris followed her longtime boss to the University of Texas. Now, when Harris returns to Starkville and the school she once called home, she’ll do so in a new role for a Southeastern Conference rival.
Harris was introduced Monday afternoon as the new head coach at Auburn, marking her first chance to lead a program in her fourth stop in the SEC. She spent 2004 to 2007 at Arkansas and 2007 to 2012 at Texas A&M before coming to Starkville with Schaefer.
“I knew it would come,” Harris said at Monday’s press conference of her premier opportunity to be a head coach. “I wasn’t ever someone who was sitting in my position looking for a head coaching job. I knew it would come, and when it did, I knew I would be ready.”
She will take over for Terri Williams-Flournoy, whose team finished at 5-21 and 0-19 in SEC play in the 2020-21 season. Auburn announced it had fired Williams-Flournoy on March 4, the day after the Tigers lost to Florida in the first round of the SEC tournament.
It didn’t take long for athletic director Allen Greene and the Tigers’ search committee to settle on Harris as the replacement.
“We embarked on a women’s basketball head coaching search about a month ago and went through a very expansive roster of highly talented and capable individuals,” Greene said. “During that process there were several people who were so infatuated with women’s basketball who love to offer their opinions and their wisdom. Johnnie’s name kept on coming up.”
Harris heard from men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl and newly hired football coach Bryan Harsin, who professed their passion for the school. Once she accepted the job, she got right on the phone with her new players, asking them if they had any questions for her.
“The first thing they wanted to know is, ‘When do we get on the floor?’” Harris said. “That told me a lot. They’re ready to go. I’m ready to go.
“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” she added in the direction of her players, present at the press conference on the concourse of Auburn Arena. “We’ll be on the floor, and I’m excited about that.”
She pointed to the Tigers’ historical success — Auburn finished as national runner-up in 1988, 1989 and 1990 — as a sign the program can again reach those heights.
“I definitely see potential in the program,” Harris said. “I really believe that what we are going to do here is special, and I think it will be something the fans will embrace.”
At Mississippi State, Harris experienced similar triumphs. The Bulldogs made it to the Sweet 16 for four straight seasons between 2016 and 2019, reaching the national championship game in 2017 and 2018. Harris said she played a significant role in helping Schaefer build up the Bulldogs’ program from years of ineptitude before he took over in 2012, and she hopes to do the same for the Tigers.
“Vic Schaefer had me right there along with him, and he has put in that blueprint,” Harris said. “I had a big hand in that, and I’m very comfortable doing that.”
She said she expects to have success as soon as Year 1 at Auburn by doing many of the same things she and Schaefer did in Starkville. That means molding her players into tough, hard-nosed competitors who play an aggressive style of basketball as well as integrating the Tigers into the surrounding community, Harris said.
“We’ve made sure that our players are accessible to our fans, to our boosters, to everybody that’s a part of our program, a part of our family,” she said. “Auburn is a family. I can tell that already by everybody that I‘ve met so far today.”
Now, Harris hopes to expand that family. One of the things she said she considers most important is building a fan base at Auburn, just like the one she helped establish in Starkville after Schaefer took over a team that had missed the NCAA tournament for the prior two seasons.
That won’t be easy with a team that struggled like the Tigers did this season, but Harris knows it will be fundamental to building up the program.
“I thought that was one of the big things that we did, and that is important when you are building a program is to have that fan base, so some of the things we did there I would definitely carry over,” she said.
One of Schaefer’s strong points in Starkville was bringing in talented freshmen and transfers, and Harris is well aware succeeding in the ultra-competitive SEC will mean doing the same.
“It’s all about recruiting, having good players,” she said. “You could be the best coach in the world, but you have to have the players that fit your system, so we will definitely be looking at that.”
Harris said she hopes to schedule Schaefer’s Longhorns for a nonconference clash somewhere down the line, and she knows she’ll run into the Bulldogs at least once a year in SEC play.
So whenever she does return to Starkville donning orange and blue, she’ll take a moment to reflect.
Until the game begins.
“It will be special going back, but I’m going back to fight,” Harris said.