STARKVILLE, Miss. — Vic Schaefer is even busier than usual these days. Such is the life of a coach whose Mississippi State team just pulled off 1 of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball history.
Last weekend, just a handful of days after defeating UConn, a team that had won 111 consecutive games, the Women’s NCAA Tournament runner-up Bulldogs completed a victory lap of sorts around Starkville. On Friday alone, Schaefer attended 3 speaking engagements before he and his players addressed Mississippi State fans in the center of town, all gathered to celebrate the program’s first Final Four run.
Maroon-clad men, women and children cheered and rang cowbells as the team discussed its magical season on a small stage in front of city hall.
“We’re going to be really good next year. We’ve got a heck of a group coming back. They’re very talented,” Schaefer said. “You guys got to know this: They’re not just lining up to come to Starkvegas and play us. They don’t want to play these girls. The people in-conference have to come here because somebody’s making them.
“But the rest of the country? They know the environment that you have created, and they do not want to come here and play.”
Despite his schedule, Schaefer took time for a Q&A with SEC Country about the season that was and what fans can expect next season. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
SEC Country: It’s the Super Bulldog Weekend. Combined with last weekend, what’s the energy been like on campus the past few days?
Vic Schaefer: “It’s pretty good. We had a really good run at the end of the year. It was special. This team was special all year long. Campus is pretty excited about what we were able to accomplish. I’ve seen some videos of what bars looked like when we made the shot. It’s been good.”
SECC: Now that you’ve had a few days to let it all sink in, has the way you view the Final Four changed at all?
VS: “That weekend was so busy. You just don’t understand how hard it is on our players. You get out of that game on Friday night at 1 o’clock, 1:15. You don’t get out of the arena. Because you got to do media afterwards. We played an overtime game that didn’t start until 9. You’re up the next morning at 10:30, you’ve got breakfast, film at 11:15, you go to the arena at 12 for more media. You practice at 2:15. That’s over at 4:15. Now you got to go to the Hoops City, which is the outdoor piece of the Final Four, and sign autographs for everybody. We stayed 15 minutes longer than we were supposed to just because there were so many people wanting the kids’ autographs. We still didn’t get to 500 people. Then you go back, get cleaned up, take them to dinner. By the time they got to me on Saturday night at 9 p.m., I didn’t watch film with them. They were zonked. They were dead. So we got up Sunday morning, ate breakfast, watched film. Then shootaround at 10 or 10:30. You’re playing at 5 o’clock. It’s very, very difficult.”
SECC: Between the attention and then the excitement of playing for a title, I can imagine the team felt somewhat out of its element. It’s probably impossible to keep a routine with all that stuff going on, no?
VS: “We had a ton of fans. At every chance you walk through the lobby, they’re wanting a picture. They’re wanting an autograph. So it’s a really unique and special weekend. Our kids did a tremendous job. Obviously we beat a No. 1 (Baylor) to get there and beat another No. 1 (UConn) to get in the championship game. They had a heck of a run. I’m awfully proud of them.”
SECC: When you arrived in 2012, did you ever envision this as the ceiling of what the program could accomplish?
VS: “I did. I felt like we could do it. I’m not sure anybody thought we’d do it in 5 years. That’s really fast. Even last year, in the fourth year, being in the Sweet 16 was a big jump. We’ve finished second in the SEC 2 years in a row. That may be harder to do than what we just did. To finish second in the SEC, knowing the history of this league, and how many great players and hall of fame coaches there are. That’s the piece that’s really amazing. And in Year 3, we finished third. It’s an unbelievable league. It’s got great coaches, tremendous players. I call it what Triple-A baseball is to major league — that’s what our league is to the WNBA. But that’s the fishbowl we chose to live in. We embrace that and go about our business.”
SECC: What does having an all-SEC championship game do for conference pride and recognition?
VS: “It had been since 2008 that we’d had an SEC champion win the national championship. It speaks volumes to what we say all the time about our league. I say it all the time: We’ve got 16 rival games. That’s how I look at our schedule. Every night, it’s a dog fight. If you’re not ready to play, you won’t just get beat; you’ll get embarrassed. I think it speaks volumes to the toughness of our league.”
SECC: You’ve been around the game for a long time. What do you think you learned from this season, and especially the tournament run?
VS: “What you learn from this team especially is it’s never too late to peak. It’s never too late to get hot. We got hot in the NCAA Tournament. If you can get hot, you can make a run. We did. We got hot after losing our last 2 games. We’re up a game with 2 to go. We drop back-to-back. We lose an overtime game at Kentucky and then lose to Tennessee here at home. We lose the regular-season championship. A week later, we lose the conference tournament championship game. We came home. We took a little time off. But then we got back to work. We tried to figure out how to get better. We shuffled up the lineup. We moved some people around. Next thing you know, we’re scoring 97 points every night.”
SECC: What’s the message you try to communicate to your players now?
VS: “We’re good enough to do it again. We’ve got a really good team coming back. Let’s take some time. We need to rest, we need to get away a little bit. When we reconvene and start getting after it in the summer, let’s put our minds to doing it again. We know what it takes. We’ve been there. I told them last year, I know what a national championship team looks like. I’ve been a part of one. I thought we had a chance to win a national championship. I’ll say the same thing to them again. We’ve got enough good players in that room that we’ll have a chance to be in that moment again.”
SECC: What does Morgan William need to do this offseason to get better?
VS: “Her leadership. She knows. She’s got to really embrace the leadership role. She’s gotten so much better in so many areas. The kid is an absolute warrior. She’s going to be an All-American. She’s going to be on everybody’s preseason list, and rightfully so. The leadership piece is where I need her, we need her to really embrace that. And I think she will.”
SECC: Mississippi State has jumped into the national sports conversation a handful of times within the past few years. Your team. Dak Prescott leading the football team to a No. 1 ranking in 2014. Baseball played for the national championship in 2013. The men’s basketball program has hired a very respected coach in Ben Howland. It feels like there’s a lot of good momentum in Starkville. Your thoughts?
VS: “That’s the secret here. I get this all the time in recruiting when I get parents here. They go, ‘Coach, we had no idea this beautiful place was here.’ We have a beautiful campus, tremendous leadership with our president and John Cohen, our athletic director — both Mississippi State grads. They are invested in this university emotionally. You’ve got to have that. We’ve got great leadership at the top. And I think we’ve got great coaches here in all our sports. Competitive people. That’s what you got to have.”