STARKVILLE — Stepping off the podium, Chris Jans looked down at the cowbell in his hand.
“These things are loud,” Jans observed.
Jans made it no secret at his introductory press conference Wednesday: He’s new to cowbells. He’s new to Starkville. He’s new to the Southeastern Conference, too.
But Mississippi State’s new head men’s basketball coach is ready to learn.
Officially hired Sunday to replace Ben Howland, Jans will take his next step in a career that has spanned nine states, 12 schools and more than 30 years.
“This is an exciting day for my family and me,” he said. “When I started this, I wanted to be at a place like Mississippi State.”
The Iowa native readily admitted he never grew up yearning to coach the Bulldogs, but a school of MSU’s conference and caliber appealed to him. Previously the head coach for five seasons at New Mexico State, Jans saw an opportunity when Mississippi State expressed interest late in the season.
“I didn’t really have a dream job,” Jans said. “I just wanted to be somewhere where it was important and we were on the biggest stage and we were competing with and against the best players in college basketball and the best coaches in college basketball. … I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to have that opportunity.”
That opportunity comes with a raise of over $2 million for Jans, who will make $2.4 million in base salary — plus up to $650,000 in performance incentives — in each year of a four-year contract at Mississippi State. Jans’ base salary at New Mexico State was just $290,000.
But Jans earned his new deal, according to MSU athletic director John Cohen, by virtue of a successful five-year tenure in Las Cruces. Jans took the Aggies to three NCAA tournaments and would probably have made a fourth if not for the COVID-19 pandemic; he went 122-32 over the course of his tenure.
Jans, who coached at Bowling Green for one season, has won 76.5 percent of his games at the Division I level, fourth among active coaches. The three coaches ahead of him are Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Kansas’ Bill Self and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
“Coach Jans is a proven leader and a proven winner,” Cohen said. “He’s considered by many industry experts to be one of the elite coaches in the entire country.”
Jans comes off a second-round NCAA tournament run with New Mexico State, which upset UConn in the first round before losing to Arkansas on Saturday night. By Sunday morning, Jans was hired.
Cohen said waiting another week had Jans gone on a deeper run “would have been a good problem to have,” but Mississippi State stepped in early to secure its new coach.
The Bulldogs’ athletic director said his staff has “done a lot of homework” over the past two years for various reasons, keeping its options open in case of a change. Cohen even reached out to New Mexico State AD Mario Moccia before the NCAA tournament.
When Howland’s MSU team failed to make the tournament for the fifth time in six chances, Cohen was prepared. He fired Howland on Thursday.
“My hope was that our basketball season was going to turn out differently,” Cohen said. “My hope was that things were going to turn out differently in the SEC tournament or in the NIT or, hopefully, our goal was to be in the NCAA tournament. Not trying to do the Boy Scout thing, but I feel like you always have to be prepared — not just in men’s basketball but in all of our sports. I really feel like when the moment presented itself, we were prepared for this.”
Jans, too, came prepared. Since being announced, he has tried his best to keep a talented but inconsistent Mississippi State roster intact.
Jans met with half the Bulldogs’ players Monday morning and was set to meet the rest Tuesday afternoon before heavy storms forced a one-day postponement. He already sent texts to and traded phone calls with Mississippi State’s incoming freshman class, hoping to keep the Bulldogs’ core in place.
“For me, the most important recruits that I have right now are the ones who are here,” Jans said.
Not everyone will stay, and Jans knows that. Forward Javian Davis entered the transfer portal not long after Howland was fired; top recruit Riley Kugel decommitted from Mississippi State on Tuesday but said the Bulldogs “will still be an option.”
“We’re giving everybody time and space to figure it out,” Jans said. “All I ask of them is, ‘Give me a chance.’”
Mississippi State certainly took a chance on Jans, who despite his winning ways in Las Cruces has never been a head coach at a level higher than the MAC, coaching Bowling Green for one season in 2014-15.
Now Jans steps into a new place, a new conference and a new challenge. He’s not alone: the SEC has three other first-year head coaches set to step in next season.
But with almost eight months left until Jans’ first season in Starkville begins, how he will fare remains to be seen.
“Certainly, there’s some turnover right now, a lot of new coaches in situations like we are,” Jans said. “I don’t know if that helps us or hurts us. Time will tell. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I’m excited to be in this league, I can tell you that.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.