• November 29, 2021

Undeniably impressive: Vic Schaefer’s impact on Starkville

Photo: Kelly Donoho/Mississippi State Athletics.
Photo: Kelly Donoho/Mississippi State Athletics.

STARKVILLE, Miss. – It’s January 27, 2019, minutes away from 2 p.m. tip in the Humphrey Coliseum. It’s Rivalry Day for Mississippi State and Ole Miss women’s basketball and it’s a Mississippi sports affair at its finest.

The coliseum is packed with fans. Mississippians honored their roots with the National Anthem sung by Standing Pine Elementary, a school where the students can trace their lineage to Native American Choctaws in Carthage.

The lights go out. HailState Productions’ Derek Cody’s hype video begins. Destiny’s Child “Survivor” plays while the video showcases MSU’s hard work with program accolades and hustle moments. With 10,337 fans in the venue, it is the fourth largest attendance in program history, and they clap and cheer and as darkness still looms, fire rises 30 feet from a fire cannon while MSU starters run through an inferno aisle. Lights on. Team are set for tip.

MSU’s student section is swag surfing. General admissions fans are on their feet, most cheering on the state school, creating an electric atmosphere, amplifying the Hump’s notorious reputation of being a place where 7,000 sounds like 70,000. Ninety-seven percent of the seats are occupied, and it’s a historic site to see for women’s basketball but wait. This venue wasn’t always this packed, fans weren’t always this pumped, and Mississippi State wasn’t always this good. Then, head coach Vic Schaefer took over.

Schaefer’s coaching impact on MSU exemplifies itself with a slew of wins, graduates who became WNBA draft picks and a talented coaching staff. But his effect on the city of Starkville is something that all can stop and admire.

He entered the coaching scene in 1985 leading Milby High School in Houston. Two calendar years passed, and he became an assistant on the Sam Houston State men’s basketball team in 1990. He made his way to assistant coach under Gary Blair at Arkansas in 1997. Blair moved on from Arkansas to Texas A&M in 2003 with Schaefer on his side.

The duo coached the Aggies to two Big 12 conference titles (2007 and 2010), a national championship in 2011, and one conference title after their move to the SEC from the Big 12 in 2012. MSU’s athletic director at the time, Scott Stricklin, saw the success Blair had with Schaefer as his right-hand man.

On March 13, 2012, Stricklin formally introduced Schaefer as MSU’s head coach with a four-year contract up to the 2016-2017 season. Schaefer also added longtime friend and assistant head coach Johnnie Harris, a top recruiter in the nation with a knack for young bringing in talented bigs. She coached with Schaefer since her arrival to Arkansas in 2004. Schaefer became Sharon Fanning-Otis’ successor. Fanning-Otis finished as the most winningest coach in MSU history with a 281-232, record while bringing the Bulldogs to a Sweet 16 appearance during the 2009-2010 season.

According to an article written by Commercial Dispatch reporter Matt Stevens, Stricklin saw potential and power in his move to hire Schaefer, calling it a “slam dunk effort.”

“He is a great coach who is renowned for the way he teaches and the way his teams play defense,” Stricklin said. “He is lauded for being a nationally ranked recruiter and for being active in his community and for lending time to charities and civic groups.”

One pair of attentive eyes on Schaefer’s start was journalist Adam Minichino, who witnessed Mississippi State’s program before and after Schaefer’s takeover. He covered women’s basketball at his alma mater UConn in 1988 then moved to Starkville’s neighboring town Columbus, where he was sports editor for the Commercial Dispatch in 2008 to 2019.

“The program wasn’t atop the SEC and [Fanning-Otis] had some talented players,” Minichino said. “That could show you can win at a place where, aside from LaToya Thomas and Tan White, they never really had won. It was good to see someone who had invented that much take [Mississippi State] far.”

That mantra of success as never coming overnight didn’t skip Mississippi State’s program. Sophomore center Martha Alwal, who averaged ten points and eight rebounds in her career at MSU, anchored Schaefer’s season-debut team. They finished with a losing record 13-17 (5-11 SEC), tallying a crowd record of 1,420 against Louisiana Tech on November 16, 2012. The biggest foreshadow of the program’s success was their 50-38 Senior Night upset win over No. 11 Georgia 50-38 on February 28, 2013. Alwal tallied 12 points and 14 rebounds, one of the 35 career double-doubles she recorded.

“Beating the then-No. 11 team in the regular season finale showed people that hey, things could work here if he gets his kind of players.” Minichino said.

And Schaefer did. Bulldog by Bulldog, pieces glued together for Mississippi State’s first-ever winning season. The first wave of Schaefer’s players included center Chinwe Okorie and guards Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham and Bre’Ana Richardson. Schaefer’s teams started with a hard nose, suffocating defense. Then came the clean, poised offense to efficiently and frequently score.

Okorie’s height at 6-3 worked for the team, creating a balanced offensive effort with Richardson’s mid range shot and free throw efficiency. Chapel pieced together presence in the backcourt, helping out Richardson from the floor. Dillingham was Schaefer’s first notable defensive player with recognition to trap teams early and often. She took 131 career charges. She led the team with 210 steals, all while being an explosive perimeter defender long before teams solidified offensive sets. Schaefer’s second season ended in the WNIT quarterfinals that year, finishing with a winning record of 22-14.

In his third season, Schaefer nabbed Mississippi Queen Victoria Vivians to don maroon and white. The Carthage native from Scott Central High School was a two-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and scored 5,000 points in high school. She also won two 2A State Championships and averaged 46 points by her senior year while also playing softball. She was on varsity each year, including eighth grade. where she averaged 18 points. Her Starkville arrival marked a pivotal shift in the program, attracting Mississippi natives to the familiar face.

Vivians’ freshman year performances averaged to 14 points with five rebounds. Iron sharpened iron, as the Bulldogs finished 27-7 in the 2013-2014 season. Mississippi State reached their first NCAA appearance with Schaefer falling 64-56 against Duke during the second round. MSU entered the national polls for the first time at the start of the season at No. 25. Dillingham’s aggressive defense and Okorie’s skills below the rim were key to the success and Schaefer’s best season so far.

The 2015-2016 season is where Mississippi State saw more success with experience under their belt. With another program-best record of 26-7, the team climbed the latter, beating Tennessee for the first time in program history in a 65-63 win, and reached back to back NCAA Tournament appearances. Starkville hosted the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history too, where Mississippi State beat Chattanooga and Michigan State to enter the Sweet 16 for the first time under Schaefer.

The program saw a halt, as UConn zoomed over Mississippi State for an embarrassing 98-38 win at Webster Bank Arena in Connecticut, a 60-point margin of loss. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and Huskies Breanna Stewart, forward Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse helped UConn earn a perfect 38-win season and obtain the program’s eighth national championship.  After the summer, as the number 60 hung in the locker room, Mississippi State pushed for another program-best 29-4 season.

Junior guard Morgan William made noise all season, but her 41-point career, NCAA tournament, program high in a gutsy 94-85 overtime win over Baylor in the Elite Eight shifted attention towards her and catapulted MSU to the Final Four rematch against UConn’s dynasty.

“I think we’re a lot deeper team than last year,” Dillingham said. “We’re another year in experience. We have more options to go to. We’re not relying on one player.”

But they did rely on one shot. William hit a mid-range jumper in her favorite spot on top of the right-side key, squeezing out a 66-64 win over UConn as seconds of regulation ticked away. The Bulldogs became internet sensations overnight as they shocked the world. They finished their Cinderella story short one win, dropping the national championship against the Hall of Famer Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks.

South Carolina center A’ja Wilson shined in the game where she earned 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. MSU finished with a program-best 33-4 record. The senior classed amassed a program-best of 111-34 record during their time as Bulldogs. The first wave set the standard for MSU and laid quite the foundation for those to follow as upcoming seniors ushered in Schaefer’s next era.

The second wave of Schaefer’s talent took the world by storm. Junior center Teaira McCowan and senior guards Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer and Morgan William were bona fide winners, attracting Mississippi State’s die hard fans by being what their fans are: Blue-collar people who work toward success with hard work, grit and passion for whatever they do.They spent hours after games signing autographs, taking photos with fans of every age and walk of life and becoming like family to Starkville’s families.

“It’s not just about basketball,” Minichino said. “They get to build friendships. They get to build relationships with fans, kids and be an idol for young kids. They get to build friends with older people. They get to make a difference in someone’s life.”

A notable building block is the Hail State Hoops Luncheon. Since the 2013-2014 season, Schaefer and staff roll out red carpet for nearly 160 attendees. Most are older, retired fans with free time to catch lunch with Schaefer and company. Twenty-one round tables and two black tables morph the Humphrey Coliseum’s Adkerson atrium into a picnic-like program for fans to hear from Schaefer and the Bulldogs. Southern cuisine classics like country fried steak, fried chicken, cheese spaghetti, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cornbread are regular options. The meal is washed down with of course nothing other than sweet tea, lemonade or water.

Whiffs of Southern comfort food whip through the room along with small-talk. Starkville natives enrich lifelong bonds through MSU basketball. Evelyn Johnson devoted 27 years of service to MSU as a faculty member from 1972 to 1998. With time off from retirement, she takes this as a critical opportunity to fall more in love with Mississippi State and the work Schaefer has done in her community. Fans shed the competitive spirit to see the program personalities and the overall presence of the student-athlete.

“It puts in closer contact with the girls,” Johnson explained. “We feel like they’re our daughters. Vic Schaefer has done a tremendous job building a team and fan base by doing these lunches. During Christmas, they sang Christmas Carols and my goodness, was that special.”

Staff and former players like Dillingham and Chapel help raffle off authentic and rare apparel like t-shirts, hats and sweaters for a lucky duo each lunch. As they eat their meals, MSU’s radio play-by-play announcer Jason Crowder is on crowd control with interesting, in-depth facts about the Bulldogs, upcoming events and historical notes for fans to take note of and pride in. Then Schaefer steps in. He enters to cheers and greets the attendees of the sold-out event. He takes a deep breath, asks how they’re doing and rants away at the life of coach maintaining the prestigious program.

“My bad, my bad,” Schaefer will say on his techs and other outlandish acts from the coaching box. Few will chastise Schaefer as he explains, “I just want it for these girls so bad.”

People can ask questions from the floor. Questions range from preparation of the SEC conference slate and his issues of cranking up the speed with a young team or his late dog, Saddie, who he had to bury at 1:30 a.m. before the Kentucky game Feb. 11.Afterward, he returns back to his head coaching position with a follow-up press conference and practice.

“It’s not marketing like putting ads on a board it’s more a human marketing,” Minichino said. “He’s made a personal touch on it. He’s always believed that coaching is not X’s and O’s and the games. It’s about all the other thing about building a program and selling. It’s about making someone trust you and building a friendship or relationship with you and suddenly you’ve got the pew filled.”

That pew is the Humphrey Coliseum. The Ole Miss game wasn’t a surprise to those familiar with the stadium’s reputation. While the five on the floor orchestrate the biggest product of the game, fans enjoy The Hump in its entirety. They jump for joy and scream at the little things. The three ball from sophomore guards Espinoza Hunter or Bre’Amber Scott gets Bulldogs fans loose, but not wild. It’s the defense from senior guard Jazzmun Holmes who hunts down opponents once the ball was in bounded. It’s dives for loose balls. It’s 6-7” senior center McCowan nearly clearing the scorer’s table after chasing a loose ball. It’s McCowan then turning around, blocking shots into the second or third row of stands. Then she participates in trap defense before the ball reaches half court.

A special addition to the Hump’s shenanigans is Ron “Candy Man” Caulfield. A 1975 MSU grad, Caulfield has been around since the program’s inception. He gained his Candy Man persona in 1998, after dishing out a few treats at Texas A&M during a baseball series with MSU. The Aggie fans returned the favor, giving Caulfield three bags of candy to throw out during a game at Dudy Noble Field in 1999. The rest is history.

Twenty years later, Caulfield carries around a clear bag of treats that ranges from Dum Dums, classic strawberry candies, caramels and white mints, his personal favorite. There’s no stranger to Caulfield or the candy bag. You’ll see the Candy Man visits 30 or 40 minutes prior to football games in Davis Wade Stadium, softball games at Nusz Park, renowned Dudy Noble Field, and the shade of AJ Pitts Tennis Court shuffling free candies out. His bag travels up and down the stadiums of Mississippi State like its alive.

Ron “Candy Man” Caulfield enjoys his role at The Hump before the game. (Amber Dodd/Hoopfeed.com)

“The adults are worse than kids now,” Caulfield said. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years so now I know what they want. From baseball to every sport. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a piece of candy.”

Caulfield makes the Hump experience sweeter than just treats. He sits by high energy students, creating the mob-like mentality against visitors with loud chants, screams and his favorite being the classic “Go to hell Ole Miss”. He leads with energy, passion and a wild sense of excitement for Mississippi State. It spreads throughout their fans, whether it was hundreds from the 1975 opening season to its 10,500 sellout crowds now.

Schaefer challenged local loyalty with his second wave of players. If fans could reach a program record 110,000 in season attendance at the Hump, Schaefer would donate $10,000 to the Boys and Girls’ Club of Starkville. Fans achieve the record with ease, tallying 113, 814 of attendees that season. Fans and other community partners poured in donations, bringing it to $46,000.

“I’m proud of the impact our players have had in the community,” Schaefer said. “This makes it worthwhile for me as a coach.”

The program recorded its first-ever undefeated regular season and were SEC regular season champions in 2017-2018. The home court advantage helped the Bulldogs win it all year, sweeping competition for all 18 home games, garnering more than 9,000 fans in the 10,500-occupancy building seven times that season. The Bulldogs fell short of another national championship after a game-winning three from Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale in Columbus, Ohio. Vivians was the eighth overall pick to the Indiana Fever in the WNBA Draft days later.

The 2018-2019 season was Schaefer’s seventh under Mississippi State and his first without stellar veteran guard play. Nearly 60 percent of the points scored left with the senior quartet. Schaefer’s diamond-edge recruiting cut from the transfer portal. Transfer graduate forward Anriel Howard left Texas A&M to utilize her graduate year. He also added sophomore guard and UConn transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter. The Bulldogs transformed into a front court dominant duo with Howard and McCowan. Guard play from senior guards Jordan Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes balanced MSU’s offensive spacing. They were key to defensive efforts, but things were rocky without the familiar guard play.

Missouri halted MSU’s home winning streak at 34 games The Hump, 75-67 on Valentine’s Day. The Bulldogs lost Chloe Bibby to a knee injury Jan. 17, seconds into the South Carolina home game. However, MSU earned a second-straight regular season championship. McCowan was the SEC Defensive Player of theYear and overall Player of the Year for the SEC. The season ended with an 88-84 loss to the Oregon Ducks in the Elite Eight.

McCowan shined all season, earning a program record of 70 career double-doubles. She finished the 240 NCAA tournament rebounds, breaking the 222-record of LSU grad Sylvia Fowles. Holmes led the nation in assist-turnover ratio at 202 to 42 (4.81). Danberry averaged 13 points this season after a mere two points last season. Howard averaged 16.4 points in her only season as a Bulldog.

“I am just really proud of them,” Schaefer said after the season ending loss. “I told them, they’ve impacted a community and a university unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We could all go through life and not have the opportunity nor the impact that these kids have had on a place like Mississippi State. It is a very special place. The impact that these kids have had, like I said, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen.”

Starkville’s love for women’s basketball was a flower that Schaefer and company watered for years. The best part? We don’t know if its bloomed just yet. Next year’s incoming class stands at number six as McDonald’s All American Rickea Jackson headlines the signees. Forward Esmery Martinez will replenish backcourt depth, along with sophomore Jessika Carter. Additionally, Ole Miss transfer center Promise Taylor will be playing for the Bulldogs in 2019-20. Guards Jayla Hemingway, JaMya Young, Aaliyah Matharu will begin their careers and add on to the guard depth chart. It’s a familiar game plan that Schaefer has seen.

“I have a lot of confidence in this group,” Schaefer said on the incoming class. “I’m so excited about their skill set and how hard they play. Those kids remind me of Blair, Morgan and Tori [Vivians]. This group’s got that same mental piece to them. They’re here to play. They’re here to compete and they want to win. And they all have won at the highest level of high school.”

As seniors Holmes, Howard, Danberry and McCowan prepare their collegiate departure, Schaefer leading is a guarantee next year. Athletic Director John Cohen assured it with a contract extension to 2021 in 2017.

“[Schaefer’s] personality, competitive, fire, and recruiting prowess,” said Cohen when listing Schaefer’s personal additions to the program. “He’s a great ambassador for our athletic department. He’s set high expectations for himself and those things are to be commended and rewarded.”

Now, Schaefer has three more seasons to make things work and seeing his Starkville resume, that’s more than enough time. Time to prepare for his upcoming Bulldogs into his beloved blue-collar standard. Time to continue dominating the Southeastern Conference. Time to rewrite the historic tale of Mississippi State’s program. With Schaefer’s perfectionists touch to his fans, team, and family, MSU has the right wielder in the man who rebuilt it from the ground up.

“When you talk about the journey, it’s what we do and it’s not easy,” Schaefer said. “When you get to the point where you are, I (can) look back and say it’s been fun. It’s great to be somewhere where people care. It’s what makes it so special. In coaching, you get these opportunities and that’s what this was. You’ve gotta embrace it.”

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