STARKVILLE — Mississippi State women’s basketball is far from the program Vic Schaefer took over in 2012.
After two national title appearances, an Elite Eight and a Sweet 16, Schaefer elevated the Bulldogs to new heights. But as MSU hopes to parlay its 27-6 campaign into a deep NCAA Tournament run next season, it will have to do so without the architect of its success.
With 221 wins in Starkville under his belt, Schaefer landed the head coaching gig at Texas last weekend — leaving the Bulldogs at an impasse that could alter the trajectory of the sport not only in Starkville but nationwide.
Speaking with The Dispatch this week, four national women’s college basketball reporters shared their thoughts on the massive hole Schaefer left at MSU. And while each voiced varying conjectures on the opening, the general consensus remained that the job is among the nation’s elite.
“Something’s been built there that’s really substantial,” ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel told The Dispatch. “I hope and I think everybody who follows women’s basketball hopes that it can continue because it’s meant a lot to the sport in general for Mississippi State to have the elevation that it’s had.”
From a base level, the financial issues that can hurt MSU in sports like football are moot when it comes to women’s basketball. According to a source with immediate knowledge of the situation, Schaefer was slated to make nearly $2 million annually had he stuck around — just shy of UConn legend Geno Auriemma’s $2.4 million salary that makes him the highest paid coach in the sport. That said, should MSU athletic director John Cohen and president Mark E. Keenum continue their emphasis on women’s basketball, the job vacated by Schaefer should be among the most profitable in the country.
“That’s a huge investment and I think that he earned that,” longtime women’s basketball writer Rhiannon Potkey told The Dispatch. “I don’t know if you need to go that scale to get another coach or if (candidates) are going to be expecting that, but it’s still a mighty investment they’ve made. So even if they go down a little bit, it’s still a pretty good investment in women’s sports.”
Beyond the financials, the fan base and recruiting footprint MSU established in the Schaefer era are obvious pulls. In 2018-19, the Bulldogs ranked No. 5 nationally in attendance — averaging 8,446 fans per game. MSU also saw a nearly 5,000 person increase per game between 2015 and 2019.
As for the on-court product, the 2021 squad is slated to boast three McDonald’s All-Americans in rising sophomore Rickea Jackson, freshman Madison Hayes and Michigan State transfer Sidney Cooks in addition to 10 former top-100 prospects.
Rankings aside, Schaefer was also able to cast a wide net in where he recruited, as evidenced by a 2019 roster that boasted 13 players from 12 different states and one player from Australia.
“I think it was Geno (Auriemma) that said to me years ago that ‘Anyone can recruit local when you’re starting. You’re really a good program when you’re getting national kids from outside your area to want to come and play for you if you’re in an area that may not be the biggest draw by itself,'” Associated Press national women’s basketball writer Doug Feinberg told The Dispatch. “And that’s what Vic did and that’s what you want to continue on.”
“It’s a big deal to be able to show that this is something lasting; this is something permanent,” Howard Megdal, Editor-in-Chief of SB Nation’s High Post Hoops added. “To be able to build that fan base that has been coming for a few years, you need to make it lasting. You need it to be a generation. You need people to spend 20-25 years coming to these games, bringing their sons and daughters to these games and turning it into a permanent part of the community.”
When Schaefer took over the program in 2012, the Bulldogs had reached just one Sweet 16 and made six NCAA tournament appearances since 1974. Now heading back to his home state to a Texas program that has remained relatively dormant since longtime coach Jody Conradt retired in 2007, his next rebuilding project is off and running.
In MSU’s case, it will be up to Schaefer’s replacement to maintain the momentum he built in a place that has become a haven for women’s college basketball over the past decade.
“What Vic has done is a great service to the people of Starkville and to the SEC and to Mississippi State,” Megdal said. “And so now it’s about making sure you lock in those gains with the right coach to be able to bring them forward.”