“I’m critical of my kids,” he prefaced, “but he’s absolutely the best thing on that guitar I’ve ever heard. When he plays Johnny Cash – he does two of them. Starkville City Jail and, there’s another, what’s the other big one?”
“Walk the Line?” someone offered.
“That’s the one,” Vic Schaefer remembered, looking from person to person as he waited outside the room in which he was about to be interviewed. “Folsom Prison Blues. He plays those two songs, and you’d think it was really Johnny Cash up on that stage.”
Mississippi State’s head coach is really proud of his guitar-picking son Logan. He’s proud of his daughter Blair too, of course, a guard on his team at State. In fact, he listed the day she signed with MSU as one of the two best basketball memories of his life. But even as a doting father, Schaefer is competitive on behalf of his kids.
He believes Blair to be a great basketball player, but no one is more critical of her game than the man standing on the sidelines who raised her. He thinks Logan is a talented musician, but even when he’s standing on the front row during his son’s shows, he’s still breaking down the performance, both good and bad.
Schaefer can’t help it. He’s too inherently competitive, too naturally wired to want to be the best, too convinced that improvements can always be made.
At SEC Tipoff – the league’s preseason media extravaganza – Schaefer was asked a basic question, the same one every other coach who came through was asked.
“What makes your mascot the best in the SEC?”
“Bully? That dude is a bulldog,” Schaefer replied, stating more than just the obvious. “He represents toughness.”
In the next room, Schaefer was asked several questions about legendary former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt. He was then handed a pack of stapled pieces of paper, all of which were covered with typed out quotes from Summitt over the years. He was then asked to pick which one resonated most with him. It took Schaefer several minutes, reading through all of them, re-reading a few, then conferring in his own head as to the appropriate answer. He did, finally, settle on one.
“Here’s how I’m going to beat you,” he said, reading the quote out loud. “I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is.”
“That’s always been my approach,” Schaefer followed up.
He knew even when he was a basketball player himself that he was rarely the most talented player on the court. But regardless of natural ability, he knew he could still beat his opponents in at least two things: preparation and effort.
That revelation was unsurprising, considering just moments before he was heard to share with one reporter, “I love to compete.” And that’s how he got to where he is now.
The fact he did so this quickly was the subject of at least a few questions from reporters in Nashville, and Schaefer himself concedes that few expected it to happen this fast. Texas A&M still has a player on its team this year that Schaefer helped recruit and sign as an assistant for the Aggies before he took over at MSU. He hasn’t been in Starkville that long, yet just this spring, The Hump was home to the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and Schaefer’s Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The last two years – his third and fourth with MSU – the Bulldogs have won 55 games.
It’s been great, he said. Technically, it hasn’t just been great – it’s been record-breaking. It’s been, by dozens of standards, the absolute best, at least in terms of institutional history and success. But the best, pardon the quote, is yet to come. At least in Schaefer’s mind.
Schaefer wants to win championships.
“I didn’t need a job when I took this one,” he said Thursday. “I had a good one.”
But that goal, that idea of winning championships, was something he thought was possible at MSU. He was so convinced of the idea that he did, finally, after many other offers over the years, leave the great job he had so he could win championships with a program that has never reached that pinnacle.
He wanted the challenge. He wanted to do the work. He knew it would be a years-long process, and that possibility excited him. He was genuinely thrilled to join a conference full of Hall of Fame coaches and players, stuffed with the greatest athletes and best facilities and backing in the country.
“The best thing about coaching in the SEC is just knowing that we chose to live in this fishbowl,” he said. “We get to go up against the best every night.”
Get to. That’s how he views it. Challenge, in his mind, is also opportunity. And with his team picked No. 2 in the SEC in this week’s preseason media poll, opportunity has arrived.
“We want to be competing for SEC Championships,” he said in reply to a question about his expectations. “I think that’s where we are right now.”
The list of reasons MSU is there is long. The head coach is at the top, of course, but it’s also due to a staff of assistants he praises at every turn. It’s due to the players who believed in his vision, who signed with MSU and who perform on the court each game and every practice. It’s due to the support of fans, the backing of the athletic department and the facilities on hand in Starkville.
But certainly, so much of MSU’s success comes from the natural desire of the man in charge to be the best and to prove it in every way.
“I love to compete,” Schaefer confirmed.
And it shows.