Call it a Bar Mitzvah, a first date, or whatever type of introduction event you like.
Sure, both have become known in Starkville, but this was the first chance for those across America and, specifically, the southeast, to get to know the newest Bulldogs.
“What kind of offense will you run?”
“How is this team going to be different from last year?”
“What kind of changes have you brought?”
“How would you describe yourself as a coach?”
“Who has stood out from your batch of Bulldogs?”
Basically, what everyone is asking boils down to this: who are you?
Ray is a first-time head coach and this is Schaefer’s first foray as a head coach in a major conference, after spending many years as an assistant at Texas A&M. Few know what a team under either looks like. To make the guesswork tougher for those outside of Starkville, both have rosters chocked full of new players.
MSU has a history of strong basketball, but now there are new faces. In the past, whatever positives or negatives there may have been, most of the basketball-centric media was aware of what happened in Starkville.
Now? ESPN, CBS, whoever, they don’t even know what questions they should be asking. Newness and freshness abound.
Ray went into the event with no specific plan in mind. A few messages and points, but mostly he just wanted to be himself, the same way he is as a coach. He calls his approach conversational.
“If you’re a human, you should be able to talk to people,” he said.
And he’s right. When Ray talks, it seems less like a rigid interview and more like a casual chat, whether it’s 1-on-1, or 1-on-10.
“It’s a huge change,” Ray said.
Again, he’s right.
CBS asked him what his team is going to be like this year with so many new players.
ESPN’s Andy Katz wanted to know he dealt with so much talent leaving from last year’s team.
Ray’s response, paraphrased, “I wasn’t here last year. All I know is this team.”
A team he’s learning about just like everyone else is.
One interrogator questioned, “Rick, you’ve got the group of guys who transitioned from the last staff. Are they able to cope with the new style, and especially, the new players?”
First, Ray quipped, “There are more newcomers than the guys returning, so the newcomers win.”
Second, he said, is implementing a sense of accountability.
“Our guys haven’t fought me on that,” Ray said with a stern smile.
Many asked questions of Ray as if he were a foreign man moving to a new and distant country. Joining the SEC from the ACC, with a Big Ten background, his style may be new, but it’s not as if it’s a different language.
“We’re gonna play physical,” Ray said. “It’s not about trying to bring something new or change the SEC. It’s just what we are.”
Not far away, in an adjoining room, Schaefer addressed the group surrounding his podium, as they asked many of the same questions.
Many of the same first date-type questions. It could have been a sophomore asking, “What’s your major?”
Schaefer’s answers, in the tone and twang of a coach straight off the set of Friday Night Lights, were strong, calculated and honest.
“There will be a day when we’re pre-season No. 1,” Schaefer said, scanning the room full of fellow SEC coaches. “I’ve got a blueprint for that.”
He conceded there is much work to be done.
Both Schaefer and Ray acknowledged their teams need an influx of talent and experience.
But don’t use that dirty word when you refer to their efforts. Both will be honest about where they are, but neither likes the word “re-building.”
And it’s not a lack of honesty.
An hour after chatting loosely with Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy and Tennessee head man Cuonzo Martin, a few short minutes before a hallway run-in with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and a peace sign and smile from Kentucky’s John Calipari, Ray said what many have guessed in reference to MSU’s depth.
“If you’re on the team,” Ray said, “you’re gonna play right now.”
But he’s excited about that. He says freshman guard Fred Thomas is 100 percent. He told CSS he can’t wait to see freshman guard Craig “Chicken” Sword on the floor.
What will be the Bulldogs’ strength, a reporter questioned?
“Our ability to shoot,” Ray said, mentioning Thomas, junior college forward Colin Borchert and junior guard Jalen Steele.
Ray and Schaefer both understand the importance of events like SEC Media Day. Both see the value of having an outlet to fans of their own schools and viewers of basketball across the nation.
But when the jet landed in Starkville, both were happy to get back to the office, back to the court, and continue doing things to help them win games when their seasons start.