Why Vic Schaefer is a good fit as Texas’ new women’s basketball coach

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Texas decided to swing big again in hiring a women’s basketball coach, and it’s a move that makes a lot of sense — even if it might not be popular, at least initially, with all Longhorn fans.

Unlike players, coaches don’t go in a transfer portal. But the most successful usually are known to have a figurative “open to negotiation” or “not budging” tag associated to them. For Schaefer — Mississippi State’s coach the past eight seasons — most assumed the tag said, “Happy in Starkville — unless Texas A&M or Texas comes calling.”

Texas called, and according to Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman, the Longhorns might be paying Schaefer around $2 million per year. His four-year extension with Mississippi State in 2018 had given him nearly $1.6 million per year.

The Longhorns showed they are willing to pay big for women’s basketball success, which is similar to what they did back in 2007 when first trying to replace legendary Jody Conradt as coach.

Then, they lured Gail Goestenkors away from Duke, where she had made four trips to the Final Four between 1999-2006. But the Michigan native never seemed a comfortable fit, especially trying to follow the big-as-Texas-gregariousness of Lone Star State native Conradt.

When Goestenkors resigned in 2012 after not getting past the second round of the NCAA tournament, Texas opted to go to the Conradt coaching tree with Karen Aston, her former assistant. Aston is an Arkansas native who has spent her entire coaching career in Texas, save a four-year stay as head coach at Charlotte.

Aston led Texas to three Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight in eight years at Texas, but her 1-18 mark against Big 12 giant Baylor and a rather underwhelming 19-11 season this year convinced Texas to change course.

Schaefer was born and raised in the Lone Star State, is a lifelong Astros baseball fan and a Texas A&M graduate. He started coaching high school boys’ basketball in the state, and was an assistant to Gary Blair at Texas A&M when the Aggies won the 2011 NCAA title.

Blair has been at Texas A&M since 2003. Although he’ll be 75 this August, he shows no signs of wanting to retire. But Texas announced Friday it wasn’t renewing Aston’s contract, and by Sunday the position had been filled.

Safe to assume Texas already had made up its mind on Schaefer before releasing the news on Aston. He has built Mississippi State into a national power, reaching two NCAA championship games, and also energized the fan base, making the Bulldogs one of the top draws in women’s basketball.

And while he struggled (3-12) against South Carolina, the best team in the SEC, he has been part of two Elite Eight wins against Baylor, which has dominated the Big 12 for the last decade. One was while still with Texas A&M, the other with Mississippi State. Whoever took over at Texas had to know that doing a better job competing against Baylor was paramount.

For Schaefer, this is a dream job. But will all Longhorn fans consider him a dream hire? Some will be concerned that there are only two women head coaches left at Texas: in soccer and swimming/diving. That said, Texas previously has had a woman head coach for basketball since 1976, when Conradt took over.

From a big-picture standpoint in women’s basketball, there’s concern about whether black women, in particular, are getting legitimate opportunities for high-profile jobs. Last year’s two biggest jobs, Tennessee and North Carolina, went to white women. And in the WNBA, there currently are no black women head coaches; in fact, there are only four women coaches, compared to eight men, two of whom are black.

Schaefer’s signature “Praise the Lord” catchphrase — he closes every news conference by saying “Praise the Lord, and go ‘Dogs!” — and his evangelical-leaning pep talks might raise more eyebrows among some fans in Austin than they did in Starkville. So for all his success, Schaefer will have to win over some of the Longhorn faithful. But victories will do that.

As for Baylor, it’s an interesting juxtaposition that on the weekend Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey was announced as a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Texas made its own news with a coaching switch. That might have been coincidental on Texas’ part.

Mulkey doesn’t need any more fuel for her fire, but this probably adds to it. If anyone thinks Mulkey is worried about having to face off against Schaefer — or anybody else — then they don’t know Mulkey. She relishes competition.

And what of Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were 27-6 this season and projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament by Charlie Creme. They rank at No. 3 in ESPN.com’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2020-21, returning all but one starter, and had one of the nation’s top freshmen this season, Rickea Jackson. They also have the No. 7-ranked guard of the class of 2020, Madison Hayes, coming in.

Of course, we’ll have to see if all the players already at and committed to Mississippi State stay put. But the way it stands, whoever takes this job walks into a very good situation. Who are the top candidates? Here are a few.

Johnnie Harris: She was Schaefer’s associate head coach at Mississippi State and is an excellent recruiter who had an impact on all phases of the Bulldogs’ success. It’s not known yet if she will go with him to Austin; if not, she could take over in Starkville.

Nikki McCray: The former Tennessee and WNBA standout was an assistant to Dawn Staley at South Carolina for nine years; she knows the SEC. McCray went to Old Dominion in 2017 and just had the best of her three seasons there at 24-6, as she was named Conference USA coach of the year. She’s 53-40 overall with ODU.

Tina Langley: The Alabama native was C-USA coach of the year in 2019 at 28-4, and is 103-57 in five seasons overall at Rice. Before that, she was Brenda Frese’s top assistant at Maryland, which included two trips to the Final Four. She has also had stints at Georgia, Clemson and Toledo.

Michelle Clark-Heard: She was 32-15 over the last two seasons at Cincinnati, and was 154-47 in six previous seasons with Western Kentucky, where her team won the C-USA regular-season title twice, and made four NCAA tournament appearances.

Karen Aston: Why not? In eight seasons at Texas, Aston was 184-83, and went to the NCAA tournament six times.

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