How Vic Schaefer created a winning culture

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

By Brett Hudson

Vic Schaefer came to Mississippi State with no illusions, no desire to avoid the inevitable.

“We knew what 13-17 was going to look like,” Schaefer said, referencing his first season in Starkville, the 2012-13 season. Schaefer did nothing to dodge that short-term fate.

Instead, he installed a culture. The same culture that took the program from 13 wins to, by the end of Friday night, 13 (and counting) NCAA Tournament games over three seasons; the culture that has survived, if not fortified, as the program rose from inconsistent at best to constant Final Four threat.

It is the Vic Schaefer culture that years ago appealed to players hungry to reverse a program’s fortunes, now appealing to the nation’s most well known talent with more offers than they can handle. It is the culture that has captivated Starkville and a Mississippi State community to thousands of people on a nightly basis, home or away. 

This is the tale of how that culture was built.

“We have a saying: it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it that separates us from the rest of the country,” MSU assistant coach Johnnie Harris told Matt Wyatt Media.

* * *

In the beginning, establishing that culture was far more important than immediate talent. Harris remembers the program starting by trying to find players that could be competitive in the SEC, but it didn’t have to be raw scorers. Some things were non-negotiable.

“When we got here, we were really missing toughness,” Schaefer told Matt Wyatt Media. “Savannah Carter and Dominque Dillingham were two kids that really brought that toughness piece in practice every day: they were tough, physical, aggressive guards that we desperately needed. I recruited both of those kids not just for their skill set, but for their toughness piece and their competitive spirit.”

That first class — Carter, Dillingham, Ketara Chapel, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie — was crucial in that regard. Schaefer put it simply, “We inherited a bunch of good kids, but the toughness was missing,” and he leaned on that class to install it. Dillingham and Richardson ended up becoming two of just 26 players to score 1,000 career points, but their most valuable work was installing the style and image Schaefer wanted to have.

Yes, that means intense defense for the full 94 feet of the court. It means attention to detail on the offensive end and sacrifice everywhere, be it diving for loose balls or taking charges. But it also means thriving in a work environment that Schaefer realizes can grind down even the strongest of competitors.

“I’m trying to pitch a perfect game, that’s who I am. And that’s not going to happen, by the way,” Schaefer said. “I’m trying to beat somebody something to nothing, that’s who I am. I’m trying to coach the perfect game, the perfect team every day. My staff, they work tirelessly in that same mentality.

“Trying to coach the perfect game, be perfect, you can find yourself being a little bit miserable. It’s a hard way to live, but at the end of the day, it’s who I am and it’s who we are, it’s who we’re trying to be.”

That first class had to learn to live in Schaefer’s world and how to embrace it, but also how to teach it. Therein lies one secret of how this culture has stood the test of time and significant program rise: coaches engrained it in the first class, and players have passed it down to each other ever since.

That’s how Bre’Amber Scott learned it: she simply looked up to the seniors around her, knowing they were an example to follow, but their eyes would also be on her. When the culture is enforced by both coaches and players, it lasts the test of time and growth.

As challenging as the way of life may be for players adopting it, it’s just as hard for coaches to find players who can live it. This is not 2012 Mississippi State anymore: those that become Bulldogs are not signing up to simply thrive in a challenging environment, they have to stand that test and come out of it as the best players in the nation. Recent performance suggests nothing but the nation’s best will satisfy program expectations.

Finding the nation’s best players and those willing to live the Schaefer way is a small cross-section of people, and one that isn’t always easy to obtain.

* * *

Schaefer sees a lot of what he calls the Jack It Judy mentality in his recruiting trips: highly-rated players who know they are primarily evaluated for their ability to jack up shots in bulk and make them, and therein lies their sole motivation. Scoring ability is important, and MSU requires it, but it takes more than that to earn a chance to become a Bulldog.

“We recruit to a fit and the summer time is when you do your homework, when you’re out on the recruiting trail watching kids play and developing your list,” Schaefer said. “Not every kid can play our style, athletically, physically, can play our style of basketball. For us, those are the kinds of student-athletes that we have to go recruit.

“Not everybody wants to be that player that defends and dives for loose balls and is a gym rat.”

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

Photo by Blake Williams, MSU Athletics

If this were a Venn diagram, the selection of players that can truly thrive in the Schaefer culture is a small one, but the intersection between that circle and the one for nationally elite players is a small target to hit.

The recruiting records show MSU is hitting that small cross-section.

According to the rankings from girlsbasketballreport.com, MSU’s 2013 and 2014 classes contained just four players ranked among the top 50 at their position and only four among the top 150 nationally regardless of position. Compare that Teaira McCowan and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, both ranked fifth their respective signing class, both top 50 regardless of position, and both living the Schaefer edict well.

If the trend continues, the future could be even brighter: of the three freshmen on the roster (redshirt Myah Taylor, true freshmen Jessika Carter and Xaria Wiggins) and the five signed in the 2019 class, half of them are top 10 at their position and only one is outside of the top 25. All of them are inside the top 150 nationally, all but one inside the top 100.

Schaefer is convinced there are enough of those prospects that, given his staff’s recruiting ability and the program’s prominence, “You don’t have to settle for one over the other,” being elite talent or aptitude for the Schaefer way.

And yet, at MSU, their prospect search has an additional layer to it. From the moment these players set foot on campus, they are community icons.

It’s rare for athletes other than football players to attract followings of that ilk, but MSU women’s basketball is as close it gets in SEC country. The modern-day MSU player has a line of autograph and photo seekers at the end of every game, home and away, who are on the floor before they get back to the locker room. (To make no mention of the other public events, promotions and Schaefer’s affinity for exposing them to the media.)

It’s something Schaefer and staff take seriously, much like the program’s on-court identity. So they leave it to the seniors to handle.

“I think the culture we have created, the things we talk about, the things we show them and the situations we put them in allow them to buy into that mentality,” Harris said. “I don’t know that everybody that you recruit, I don’t know that they will show that or you will be able to see it. Some kids say they have it but maybe not so much. Once they get into it, they see our players doing it and seeing how our fans react, sometimes you can see a Teaira or a Jordan (Danberry), you see those kids on the court with long lines on the court every game, and sometimes it’s the same people wanting the same picture.

“Because we put Teaira in those positions, they come to appreciate our fans. I think it teaches them to be approachable and teaches them to appreciate our fans. That’s something we build once they get here. Some may have it, some may not have it, but it’s not optional. It’s what we do.”

It’s an all-around challenging way to live, but MSU doesn’t hide that from the players it is persuading to sign up.

* * * 

Schaefer is signing basketballs in his office as we talk. This sit-down comes early in the eight-day stretch where his team doesn’t know who its next opponent is, much less the days after that waiting to play them.

I ask him, “Do you have to derecruit?”

The marker in his hand comes to an abrupt stop. A look of confusion takes over his face.

“Do I have to what?”

I then explain to him that derecruiting is a term often used by football coaches, a term they’ve invented to describe the process of bringing their signees down to earth after a recruiting process that put them on a pedestal. These recruits have been told for months by dozens of coaching staffs that they are the best thing they’ve ever seen, then they get to campus and coaches have to convince them of their flaws and get their minds focused on developing them. Thus, derecruiting.

Looking back on it, the fact that I had to define derecruiting for him probably answered my question. But he expanded on it anyway.

“I think kids understand when they sign up for Mississippi State, they know what they’re doing,” Schaefer said. “Certainly freshmen, there’s a learning curve, but the kids that are here show them the ropes, show them what needs to be done, show them how we do things and just let them know this is what we do here and this is why we’re playing for national championships every year.”

As Harris put it: “We let them know how hard it’s going to be, what our kids are going to go through. I think Coach uses the phrase, ‘It will be hard, it will be difficult, but it will be worth it.’ We let them know that in the beginning. We’re not going to put you through anything that you can’t do, that hasn’t been done before.”

Schaefer has alluded to that approach being used against him. After MSU 91-63 win over Tennessee on Feb. 10, he said he has heard of opposing schools using Schaefer’s ideology of high-intensity defense against him; seemingly trying to convince a group of shooters that they would have to learn to play defense for him, but wouldn’t be bogged down as such somewhere else.

Schaefer’s response is simple: “Yeah, you’re going to have to learn to play defense, but you’re going to win, too.”

The message is communicated effectively, according to Bre’Amber Scott: “When you come here, you come here to win. You have to play within our system, that’s how it works.”

It’s done this way because it works. It’s done this way because this is the way that Schaefer used to create a juggernaut.

It is the way Schaefer will use to try to win that last game.

“There’s a difference between a top 10 team and a top 10 program. Teams come and go — especially that 12-25 range, that’s pretty fluid. But the top 10 programs, those teams are there every year,” Schaefer said. “When you get the paper in October and you want to know who’s in the preseason top 25, you’re looking in the top 10 for the same teams. That’s what I promised them that we’d build.”