No leader can ever lead without someone to believe in them, someone to follow them. No president can govern, no general can command and no team captain can direct without first having those supportive of and dedicated to their cause.
Just the same in basketball, no coach can lead a team to greatness without a staff and roster of those who trust their vision and believe implicitly that they can get it done. For Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer, his appearance in the Sweet Sixteen of the women’s NCAA Tournament this weekend (with plans to advance from there) is dependent upon people like that. The foundation of his program’s success goes back nearly four years, to a period of time when he had not yet coached a game at MSU, but had a vision for what he could do when the time finally came. The first coaches to join his staff and the first players to sign with his program believed in Schaefer and his dreams for Bulldog basketball, even if there was not yet much evidence to prove his plans possible.
Now, however, the evidence is plenty. The promise that Dominiue Dillingham – the junior guard who Schaefer calls the heart and soul of his team – bought into when she signed with Schaefer and MSU over three years ago is on the path to being fulfilled as the Bulldogs travel to Connecticut to play the defending champs, No. 1 UCONN, in the Sweet Sixteen.
“He’s a great coach and he’s won a National Championship [at Texas A&M],” Dillingham said as she looked back on her high school decision, “and that’s what I wanted to do when I came here. It’s just another stepping stone getting to play the best team. It’s gonna be a great opportunity.”
Dillingham was part of that first group of players to believe in the coach who now has them on college basketball’s biggest stage. That group is why MSU had the size to beat Tennessee twice this season. That group is why the Bulldogs had the resilience to come back from Michigan State’s 20-0 run in the second round game and win on their home floor. That group was the first to believe, the first to buy in, setting the foundation for the successes to come.
Without them, MSU doesn’t host the NIT in that group’s first year, doesn’t advance to the second round of the NCAA Tourney in their second and certainly doesn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen in this, their third year. Nor do they set an example for those to follow, as the following year saw the all-time leading scorer in girl’s high school basketball history sign with MSU. Belief, they’ve proven, begets belief. Particularly when Schaefer is delivering on his promises, thanks so much to that group.
“When we were recruiting that first class,” Schaefer recalled, “it was just knowing where we’d been and the success we’d had and believing and trusting in a vision. That’s what we do. Once you bring it to fruition, I think it really gives you credibility and it gives your kids credibility, too.”
“It changed the makeup of our team as far as the physical makeup,” he continued. “Chinwe [Okorie] and Bre [Richardson] with the SEC bodies. Ketara [Chapel]: long, athletic, slender, can run. Dominique: that physical, tough, aggressive kid that you desperately needed to change a culture and bring that toughness to your team that you were really lacking. That competitive fire that you were really lacking. There’s no question that class was critical. We had to sign them before they ever saw us play, because if they saw us play they might not have come.”
However, had it not been for one person, Schaefer wouldn’t be at MSU at all today. When offered the job by athletic director Scott Stricklin, Schaefer was eager, but he had one demand, one qualifier that had to be fulfilled: “I wasn’t coming without Johnnie.”
Johnnie Harris, MSU associate head coach and long-time cohort of Schaefer. There alongside Schaefer and the rest of the staff in College Station when the Aggies won a national title, Harris is one of several behind-the-scenes heroes for MSU. An ace recruiter, an excellent teacher and an expert in Xs and Os preparation, Harris is one of the biggest cogs in the Schaefer system. And she’s been with him since day one, the first of many to come who believed in him and his vision for MSU.
“We’re really fortunate to have Johnnie here at Mississippi State,” Schaefer said. “She brings so much to the table … Her ability in scouting and knowing what we want to do and how we want to do it … her knowledge of the game … the role model that she provides these young ladies.”
She does it all, seemingly, and what helps so much is just how well she knows Schaefer from their many years working together. Like him, her attention to detail borders on unhealthy, a necessity in the coaching world. Her mind, Schaefer says, is like his: 10 different places at once and always staying a step (or better yet, two) ahead.
If there is anyone on the staff, however, who knows Schaefer better than Harris, it’s Maryann Baker. If Harris is the backstage star, then Baker might be the stage itself, the director of operations who keeps the entire production of Mississippi State basketball going on a daily basis. Another of the day one believers in Schaefer, hers was not a hard decision. A former Texas A&M shooting guard, Baker had already spent her playing career under Schaefer’s tutelage, winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and earning back-to-back All-Academic Big XII honors in her playing days, a span which included the Aggies’ 2011 National Title.
Now responsible for the day-to-day operations of the program, one observer joked that she’s the one keeping Schaefer’s head attached to his body.
“You’re exactly right,” he replied with a laugh. “She does a tremendous, tremendous job. Handles not only our staff, but our team, the managers, our boosters, all that. She just has her hands in a little bit of everything. And again, attention to detail. She just doesn’t miss anything. She knows exactly what I want and how I want it done.”
Baker, Harris, a handful of players and many, many more have believed in Schaefer from the start. As his star has risen, the numbers have grown. Crowds have increased, recruiting has advanced and nationwide respect has multiplied exponentially.
Schaefer may be the man at the top, the leader without whom the movement would never have begun, but he’s not so naïve to think he could have done it without those who trusted him from the start. For those, he is grateful, and for them, he hopes to do what many said was impossible, taking Mississippi State to the Promised Land.
“Hoo, Sweet Sixteen,” Schaefer said as he sat down for his meeting with the press earlier this week. “Great opportunity.”