WBB: What's next in the SEC?
The women’s college basketball world was rocked Sunday when Vic Schaefer agreed to become the head coach at Texas, leaving behind the perennial contender he had built at Mississippi State.
The announcement came the same day the national championship game would have been played, if not for the coronavirus pandemic. In a case of inspired irony, it also came as the SEC Network devoted an entire day of programming to tournament finals, which meant a lot of games with South Carolina beating Mississippi State. Schaefer, who struggled to beat South Carolina in the postseason, is replacing Karen Aston at Texas, who was let go in large part because she went 1-18 against Baylor in eight seasons.
Schaefer went 221-62 in eight seasons in Starkville, taking over a program with little history - no conference titles and just one Sweet Sixteen appearance. He took the Bulldogs to two Final Fours, won two regular season SEC titles and one tournament title, although his success will also be remembered for the Bulldogs’ 0-5 record against the Gamecocks in the postseason, including the 2017 national championship. Even in a rebuilding season in 2019-20, Mississippi State finished second in the SEC and ranked 9th in the final polls, and had one of the best non-Gamecock freshmen in the country in Rickea Jackson. Schaefer signed a contract extension in 2018 that put him in the top five nationally in annual salary, and there are reports Mississippi State offered him another extension worth $10 million over five years.
Specific details of Schaefer’s contract at Texas have not been released, but Texas is one of the few universities that can always offer more, and there are reports that it will be in the $2 million per year range, putting him behind only Geno Auriemma in annual salary. Schaefer was the obvious, home run hire for the Longhorns, who are scheduled to open a new arena in 2022. He’s an established program-builder, and at age 59, still has a lot of years left. Schaefer also has deep Texas roots. He was born in Houston, has lived in Austin, graduated from Texas A&M, was the head coach at Sam Houston State, and an assistant under Gary Blair at Texas A&M when the Aggies won the national championship.
Schaefer’s departure puts Mississippi State at a crossroads. As I wrote just a couple weeks ago, Mississippi State and South Carolina have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the SEC thanks in part to administrations that are willing to spend money. What I didn’t take into account at the time was the nomadic nature of coaching. Dawn Staley is firmly entrenched at South Carolina now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Ohio State went hard after Staley in 2013, and there have been others, but South Carolina gave her money and support to keep her in Columbia. Now it’s tough to imagine her leaving. It was hard to see Schaefer leaving Starkville until the Texas job came open and it was a perfect match for Schaefer.
Now the question becomes, how much will Mississippi State be willing to pay Schaefer’s replacement, and who will they look at?
The coronavirus pandemic has put uncertain financial strain on universities. Mississippi State was apparently willing to pay up to keep Schaefer, but he was a known quantity. Will Mississippi State be willing - or able - to spend over $1 million annually (about the going rate) for a top-level coach, or will they try to find an up-and-comer? Even with all the SEC Network money, Mississippi State is not a traditionally wealthy school, and with a possible disruption to college football looming, Mississippi State may feel it has no choice but to save money now.
Schaefer hasn’t announced whether he will bring his Mississippi State coaching staff with him, but I’d expect that to be the case. Could Mississippi State try to convince one of the assistants to stay? Associate head coach Johnnie Harris is known as a premier recruiter and coaches post players, helping turn Teaira McCowan into the 2019 SEC Player of the year. I would expect her to get a long list, however Mississippi State decides to go, but would she rather follow Schaefer to Texas. Another associate head coach, Dionnah Jackson-Durrett could also be a candidate if the Bulldogs opt for continuity. Looking outward, could Mississippi State try to raid the Gary Blair coaching tree again and hire Texas A&M assistant Bob Starkey? Or could they look at someone like Buffalo’s Felisha Legette-Jack, who struggled at Indiana but has made the Bulls a mid-major power? Could they dip into the Pat Summitt-Dawn Staley pipeline and go after Nikki McCray, who likely would have had Old Dominion in the NCAA Tournament this season?
Mississippi State’s decision will be closely watched. Mississippi State’s willingness, or unwillingness, to spend money will be a big indication of how universities (aside from Texas) are approaching their budgets in this time of uncertainty. We probably won’t know for a couple of years, but it could also signal whether the SEC continues to have two elite programs, or if Mississippi State will slide back to the rest of the pack behind South Carolina.