Asked about his job security after a disappointing one-and-done exit from the NIT on Tuesday night, Rick Stansbury said that his record spoke for itself.
Two days later he stepped down as Mississippi State’s head basketball coach, saying:
“It’s time in my life to start a new chapter, and I’m ready for it. Everybody knows how important my family is to me, so I’m ready to become a better father and better husband. My wife and my young sons were all absolutely the #1 reason for this decision, and there’s not even a close second. After 28 years in basketball, I’m at peace with this. This is a happy day.”
So how does one go from defending his own record to walking away for family’s sake on a “happy day?” Well, a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with AD Scott Stricklin on Wednesday had something to do with it. In fact, when asked what would have happened had Stansbury not offered to resign, Stricklin said only, “That’s hard to speculate.”
Stansbury no doubt felt pressure to step aside from a fanbase that had lost faith in him as well. And that kind of pressure can have a nasty effect on a man’s wife and children.
Stricklin said of his meeting with Stansbury: “I’ll be honest, I did a lot of listening and let Rick really talk through what was going on in his heart and his head.” Stricklin called the meeting “much more personal than normal” and he said that there was “a peace that came over him, and a calm in his facial expression and everything.” How nice. Sounds like the description of someone’s peaceful slide into death.
But while Stricklin tried to make the situation sound like a Stansbury-only choice, the coach made it clear his boss didn’t try to talk him out of retiring.
“We both agreed to this,” Stansbury said during yesterday’s presser. “We’ve had a couple of disappointing years. Our standards, which we created, there’s no one to blame but me for that. I’ll take responsibility for that… Any time a team is not successful, the coach is responsible. I take all the responsibility. Nobody else. When your team wins, the players get all the credit and that’s the way it should be. You win as a team, you lose as a team.”
Well, actually it sounds like you win as a team, you lose as a coach.
Asked if he would be retiring if his Bulldogs were currently playing the NCAA Tournament, Stansbury said, “That’s a good question. But I can tell you this, it’s not about being tired, even though I’ve done it for 22 years. It’s not about that. It’s really about this stage of my life.”
The coach was noticeably emotional and his wife “cried throughout the announcement.” So while Stansbury might have stepped aside on his own to be with his family, let there be no doubt that this year’s losses, three years without an NCAA tourney bid, and growing pressure from fans and his boss played a hefty role in his decision.
For now, Stansbury is expected to stay on at MSU in some capacity, but that role has not yet been finalized. But this writer fully expects Stansbury — a man who posted 10 20-win seasons in a 14-year run in Starkville — to coach again somewhere, someday. He is only 52.
As for reaction, MSU recruits and recent signees were shocked by the news. The father of freshman Rodney Hood said “transferring is not a conversation” for their family and that he trusts Stricklin to make a good hire.
Renardo Sidney — the big man who seemed to be a 300-pound albatross around Stansbury’s neck the last few years — put out a long series of tweets in which he called his ex-coach a “great man” for putting up “with my sh-t all 3 years and I want to say thanks for all u done for me and my family and I’m truly sorry.” He also defended himself from fans and media who’ve fingered him as being a big part of MSU’s recent problems. Then he admitted, “I have been selfish, lazy, not willing to work, and that’s my fault not anybody else.” (Which kind of backs up why everyone has pointed to him as being a big part of MSU’s recent problems, no?) Sidney did not announce whether he would return to Starkville or leave early for the NBA, er, Ukrainian League.
Now the focus turns to replacing the winningest coach in State’s history. Stricklin opened the search talk by stating:
“I think every issue is correctable, every problem can be fixed. We’ve got a chance to build upon what Rick has done here with our basketball program and we have a program that can win consistently, like Rick has done and put ourselves in a position to win championships, which Rick has done.”
State can of course find and hire a winner. But the school’s history of winning is really just 20 years old and ties almost totally to Richard Williams and Stansbury. Stansbury was promoted from Williams’ staff. Williams was promoted from Bob Boyd’s staff before him. As we noted yesterday, it’s been 30 years since MSU has made an outside hire of a basketball coach.
If it were up to Dee Bost — who just completed an outstanding career at State — the Bulldogs would stay in house this time around, too. On Twitter he wrote: “I think all alumni and fans should try to get Coach (Phil) Cunningham as coach.”
Cunningham has been a Stansbury aide since 2000. But that move wouldn’t be met with cheers from a fanbase that wants change. For that reason, the usual names are being kicked around: VCU’s Shaka Smart and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. (Smart knocked Marshall from the NCAA tourney last night, by the way — not that one game should make a difference in who is hired.)
Smart is one of the hottest names in the country and one must wonder if he’d be gung-ho to move to a school that just turned on its best-ever coach… in a conference that features his old boss (Anthony Grant). Also, with State pouring money into football facilities, would MSU be willing to outbid other schools for Smart?
Marshall — a South Carolina native — is expected to be a top choice of the Gamecocks. Mississippi State has a better track record of recent success than USC, but the Palmetto State is home. If Marshall has to pick between the two.
Several names being tossed around have Mississippi ties: MTSU’s Kermit Davis (who beat Ole Miss this year, lost to Vandy and faces Tennessee on Monday) is a former Bulldog player and the son of a former MSU head coach. Larry Eustachy had Southern Miss back in the NCAA Tournament this season. And ex-Kentucky player Sean Woods led Mississippi Valley State to the Big Dance as well.
Don’t discount assistants from other programs, either. Stricklin just hired a Texas A&M assistant to take over State’s women’s program and Dan Mullen has had success with MSU football. So an assistant from a top-level program is also a possibility.
Whoever Stricklin chooses, Stansbury said yesterday he’ll support him. “Whoever he hires, I promise you I’ll know him a whole lot better than he knows him, whoever it is. He’ll get a good guy. He’ll get a coach better than me.”
Based on Mississippi State’s history, that’s doubtful. After all, Stansbury was the best basketball coach Starkville had ever seen. Finding someone better will require a damn fine search.
Finally, one more note on Stansbury as we close our wrap-up. The now-retired coach flirted closely with Clemson just two seasons ago. Had he moved when he had the chance, he’d be getting ready for next season rather than selling his “this is a happy day” spiel.
Just more evidence that coaches need to always stay one step ahead of the posse and get when the gettin’s good. Fourteen years at one school? That’s too long in this day and age.