You figure at some point in Sunday’s game, Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer will be serenaded with “Sit down, bus driver,”words that have served him well, first as an A&M student joining in on the chants and then as an assistant for nine seasons as the architect of a defense that was the foundation for turning the Big 12 Conference’s worst program into a national champion.
Schaefer’s return to Reed Arena at 2 p.m. is what his former boss, A&M head coach Gary Blair, calls a drama game. Blair, who has won 659 games, along with his 25th-ranked team that leads the Southeastern Conference, have the leading role but intriguing supporting parts will be played by Schaefer and his replacement on the Aggie bench, Bob Starkey. Both have different styles, but get results.
Schaefer was dubbed the “Secretary of Defense”by Blair during his time at A&M as the Aggies excelled in assist-to-turnover ratio, steals, points allowed and field-goal percentage. Blair is in six hall of fames in part because of Schaefer, who was part of 313 victories and 11 NCAA tournament appearances in his 15 seasons with Blair that started in Arkansas with a Final Four appearance in 1998. Starkey did much the same at LSU, working for men’s basketball coach Dale Brown, and women’s basketball coaches Sue Gunter and Van Chancellor, also all hall of famers. Starkey spent 22 seasons at LSU working for both programs but it was his 13 seasons with the women that he’s synonymous with, helping produce a 326-105 record and five Final Four trips.
Schaefer also was an assistant men’s basketball coach before settling in on the women’s side, and both attribute some of their passion for defense to the high school ranks.
Starkey played junior high basketball in Charleston, W. Va., for Allen Osborne, who also tutored Jim Boone, current men’s head coach at Delta State and winner of more than 360 games.
“To this day, [Osborne’s] somebody I talk to on a weekly basis,” said Starkey, who started his coaching career as an assistant at Winfield High School in West Virginia. “Coach Blair I think would tell you both of us share a love for junior high and high school coaches because we realize the length of their impact.”
Schaefer coached under legendary Houston Milby boys basketball coach Boyce Honea, who recently retired after a 30-year career that produced a 739-258 record.
“Defense was real important to him,” Schaefer said. “He always pressed at Milby, so it was something kind of ingrained in me from day one coaching with him.”
Schaefer also traces his passion for defense back to his student days at A&M.
“It probably goes back to my days watching R.C. Slocum and when the Wrecking Crew was so good, just having an admiration and respect, like most Aggies back then because of our great defenses in football,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer, Aggie Class of 1984, would pick Slocum’s brain.
“You can send one more rusher than they have blocker when you can lock up on the perimeter and run as fast as their receivers,”Schaefer said. “But when you don’t have guys who can cover on the perimeter, then you can’t go one-on-one out there. So you got to play zone coverage out there.”
When Blair and Schaefer arrived at A&M, it had trouble even playing zone. The Aggies were 22-90 in the previous seven Big 12 seasons, never finishing higher than ninth. It didn’t get much better as A&M was 6-26 in Blair’s first two seasons, but since then the Aggies have won at least 10 league games annually.
Starkey picked up pointers from football coaches at LSU. He was intrigued Nick Saban would get the most out of his players not just at every practice, but every play. Starkey also would play pickup basketball with Saban’s offensive coordinator, current Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.
Blair also likes to use football terms, saying he hired Schaefer because he wasn’t a yes man and he brought his own philosophy.
“You’ve got to believe in him, just kinda like you got to believe in Rob Ryan’s defense or you don’t believe in it or the same with Wade Phillips’ defense,” Blair said.
Blair runs the offense but he decided the foundation for his programs would be defense when he started coaching girls basketball at South Oak Cliff.
“The worst things girls do is pass the ball,” Blair said. “So instead of playing a zone and HTM – hope they miss. Why not play man and pressure and MTM – make them miss?”
Blair learned to appreciate defense more working under Hall of Famer Leon Barmore at Louisiana Tech, then hired and allowed his assistants to tinker with the defense, including Nell Fortner at Stephen F. Austin and Tom Collen at Arkansas.
“You’ve got to trust your defense,” Blair said.
Starkey sees that trust as the team makes defensive improvement in his second season, while Schaefer sees wholesale improvement in his second season in Starkville.
A&M had to replace three starters – post Kelsey Bone, forward Kristi Bellock and point guard Adrienne Pratcher – who were key cogs in A&M winning the Southeastern Conference tournament. A&M beat No. 14 South Carolina, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 7 Kentucky by leaning on defense to earn a No. 3 seed for the NCAA tournament, turning things around on the heels of three straight losses to end the regular season, two of them against unranked teams
“I thought halfway through last season, we really started to pick some things up and I think it really came to fruition in the SEC tournament,” Starkey said. “I think we’ve almost had to go back a little bit through that process again [this season] because of the players we lost.”
It was tough going early as A&M had a stretch where it lost four of seven games, three to unranked teams in Texas, Syracuse and St. John’s. A&M responded with a seven-game winning streak, the last three against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, all ranked teams. A&M held LSU and Georgia to less than 30 percent shooting at home.
Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams grabbed the scoring headlines during the streak but fellow sophomore Jordan Jones is playing so well that Blair said she’s as good as any point guard in the league and Starkey seconds that.
“Jordan Jones to me is the one player who gets it,” Starkey said. “When we are talking about do we want to defend this or do we want to defend that, she locks in. But I think some of the newer players that are playing are also starting to get it. The most important part, I don’t care how you defend, the most important thing is getting your players to buy in to what your doing. Whether you press for 40 minutes or whether you play zone for 40 minutes, your players have to buy in and they have to believe. And when you get that part, that’s when it gets fun.”
Mississippi State (14-4, 1-3) is not having as much fun as A&M (14-4, 4-0), but the Bulldogs already have exceeded last season’s 13-17 record. MSU won its last road game, 54-50 at Arkansas, and is coming off a 67-63 home loss to No. 12 Tennessee.
“There’s no doubt we’re a better team today,” Schaefer said. “As Bear Bryant said, ‘You need to be careful about evaluating progress in correlation to victories.’ I think we’re a lot better than this time last year, we’re 39 points better than when we played Tennessee. I think we’re a much better basketball team. I’m getting real good point guard play right now, which was kind of an Achilles for us last year.”
Schaefer’s evolution in coaching allows him to also call MSU’s offense.
“Here’s the bottom line if you know what gives you problems you ought to run it,” said Schaefer, laughing. “So that’s kind of my philosophy. If it gives you a hard time, you might need to put it in.”
That’s why besides sharing maroon and white uniforms, many of the plays will look the same because of the familiar minds on the bench. MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris was at A&M seven seasons. MSU assistant coach Aqua Franklin, director of operations Maryann Baker and video coordinator Skylar Collins all were guards at A&M, recruited and coached by Schaefer and Blair.
“We both run a lot of the same stuff, either Coach got it from me or I got it from him,” Schaefer said. “We all run the same stuff. This time last year, I didn’t have hardly anything different. Now, I looked at it today and I have 20 things different. So at least tomorrow when I’m calling things out, I don’t have to worry about them knowing what I’m running. So that will be a bonus for us.”
A&M didn’t have any problem against Mississippi State last year, grabbing an 81-33 victory at Starkville, part of an eight-game winning streak.
Starkey said that replacing Schaefer was easier because of the base that he left despite different philosophies.
“I remember going up to Mississippi State and Vic was kind enough to walk down to our bench before the game,” Starkey said. “He said, ‘ I want you to know something, you guys are really defending well.’ And I said, ‘Well, I need to thank you. I had a great base to start from.’”
If there’s anyone who can relate to what Schaefer might be thinking walking out of the visitor’s locker Sunday it could be Starkey who returned to LSU last season and this season, winning both times.
“Once I walked into the arena, I didn’t think it was LSU,” Starkey said. “It was an opponent and I’ve got a job to do. I certainly think there’s an added incentive. You want to look good. I had a lot of friends and family at the LSU game. And I wanted them to know that I’m still doing my job pretty good and I kind of imagine Vic’s going to feel the same way. There’s a lot of people here who adore him with good reason. And he’s going to want his team to play well.”
Aggieland already held a special place in Schaefer’s heart, but it was magnified in July, 2010, when his 14-year-old son Logan Schaefer suffered major head injuries in a wake boarding accident.
“This community really embraced my family when we about lost Logan,” Schaefer said. “I went to school here, my dad went to school here. It’s my university from that standpoint. But what really separates it in my situation is this community, this university really embraced our family in a very, very dire time and helped us get through that. And that in itself is a lot bigger than any basketball game.”