December 3, 2012 9:35:07 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- One counter attack can change a match.
For most of the past nine seasons, the Mississippi State University women's soccer team tried to become a program that did more than bunker in and absorb pressure. While MSU had admirable success in non-conference games, it often opted to play a more defensive style against Southeastern Conference opponents. That brand of soccer is what then-coach Neil Macdonald felt gave his team its best chance to be successful.
Unfortunately, MSU had only 17 SEC victories in that time, which in October paved the way for Macdonald to be removed as head coach and re-assigned within the athletic department.
On Tuesday, MSU unleashed a counter attack it hopes will transform the program. Aaron Gordon comes to Starkville knowing MSU has had only five winning seasons in its 18-year history. The last time the Bulldogs qualified for the SEC tournament was 2004. Although the top 10 teams now advance to the league tournament, reaching Orange Beach, Ala., the site of the annual event, figures to be a little tougher given the introduction this season of the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University.
But Gordon is familiar with the success of Texas A&M. He spent the past six seasons as an assistant and associate head coach at Texas Tech University. In that time, he helped coach Tom Stone build a program that peaked this season with a school-record 16 victories, its first trip to the NCAA tournament, and its first NCAA tournament victory.
On paper, coaching at Texas Tech appeared to be an ideal situation. The Red Raiders figured to lose only five seniors from the best team in program history, they were playing at a $5M complex with a locker room, team lounge, and athletic training facilities, and opened a 37,8000-square foot soccer specific indoor complex earlier this year.
Gordon was frank, though, when asked why he decided to leave all of that and take the MSU job.
"I want to run my own program," Gordon said. "Tom Stone and I are great friends. When he hired me, he knew I wanted to do this. Could there be a better chance? I don't know. I was a finalist for (the University of) Arkansas last year and I didn't get it. I went through this process with two or three schools last year. The timing wasn't right, and this one just felt right. Five years ago, if you had come to me and said, 'Would you go to Texas Tech?' People would have said you are crazy to go out there. We did it and things fell in place. That story doesn't mean it is going to happen exactly the same, but it doesn't mean it can't happen here. That is why I am not really afraid of it."
It will take someone with drive and ambition to transform MSU's soccer program. Gordon made the point his decision was based in part on the fact MSU is "relevant" because it is in the SEC. That is true, but history shows MSU is nowhere near the same level as the University of Florida, Texas A&M, the University of Tennessee, Auburn University, just to name four of the league's top programs, and lags behind others with more tradition.
Gordon will have to work hard to change the perception and reality that surround MSU. He will have to work even harder behind the scenes to build financial support that could help him and the program realize other amenities.
Gordon's résumé shows he has the contacts that could give him an advantage in recruiting. He has extensive experience as a club coach in the state of Texas, one of the biggest hotbeds for talent in the country. He has professional experience from the time he spent with Stone as a coach with the Atlanta Beat of the Women's United Soccer Association, a defunct women's league. He also was director of coaching for Major League's Soccer FC Dallas from 2003-07.
"Relationships are where recruiting goes," Gordon said. "I can't expect friends to just give me players, but I certainly think we'll be in the conversation where Mississippi State probably wasn't before."
Gordon's drive will be crucial to locate unknown talent or players who, for whatever reason, failed to be recruited by other Division I schools. A new coach can inject fresh energy into a program and help change the thinking of a program that has fallen into familiar patterns.
Gordon will face his next challenge when he brings those players to MSU. He admitted Tuesday MSU's soccer facilities don't compare with most of the teams in the SEC. Instead, he said MSU's facilities compare more favorably to teams like Oklahoma State, the University of Kansas, Iowa State University, and Baylor University in the Big 12. All of those programs have advanced to the NCAA tournament at least once since 2005.
When it comes to facilities, Iowa State opened its $13M Cyclone Sports Complex in 2012, Oklahoma State had a new multi-million facility in the works, and Texas Christian University finished a 5,000-square foot addition to its complex in 2010. MSU doesn't have a locker room for the players at its field. The players use Humphrey Coliseum, which is adjacent to the MSU Soccer Field, as their dressing room.
"Success helps," Gordon said. "Our facility at Tech helped, but to get us on the roadmap, we didn't have a building to show them. We just had a drawing. The building came later, so I hope that happens here. I know we are at the stage where it is a priority and we want to get better. The thing is in the SEC it is not going to take an overwhelming bump to be relevant from a facility standpoint. The press box is nice, the setting is beautiful. If we can get that done (at MSU), which I am hopeful and we have talked about it, it can be the final piece that really gives it the big bump. The other ones, honestly, made them without any consulting soccer people what it was. Some architect put it together and now they're living in it and they're not very functional. At Tech, we designed it from beginning to end. It is insane. Going to work every day was pretty easy, even though we played on Astroturf."
Gordon's comment makes it more telling about what he has the potential to build at MSU. Consider that Texas Tech is one of 20 Division I programs in the state of Texas. While the school's soccer facilities rank with the best in that group, Lubbock isn't the first school you think of when you list the state's best schools.
That perception is similar to the one Gordon faces at MSU. While MSU has made inroads in recent years attracting some of the state's top talent, it still fights the perception that it is, to coin the phrase of a former SEC women's soccer coach, trying without really trying, emphasis added on really, to be a player in women's soccer.
MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin didn't give that impression when he announced Macdonald was being re-assigned and said he wanted leadership that was going to help the program win consistently and compete for championships. He elaborated on that comment Tuesday when asked about the qualities Gordon brings to Starkville. He said he was impressed by Gordon's recruiting contacts, club and professional experience, and knowledge of the game. Does Gordon know more about the game than Macdonald? I don't know. Does Gordon offer a fresh perspective of the program? Yes. Will Gordon have more weapons at his disposal for recruiting than Macdonald? Stricklin said time will tell.
"We need to make some more of a facility commitment there," Stricklin said. "That is one of the things we talked about on his visit. We have got designs in place for a team clubhouse/locker room facility that I think is the next piece from a facility standpoint. We have re-done the surface. We have done the press box, the stands, the dugouts. Having a clubhouse for our ladies right there on site is the next piece."
Stricklin said MSU is "committed" to taking the next step in upgrading the soccer facility. He said there isn't a timetable for the project to be finished. He said he will sit down with Gordon and get his input so he can tailor designs of the next phase to the needs of the program.
"Among our Olympic sports, just because the clubhouse impacts the student-athletes, and right now our soccer players locker at the (Humphrey) Coliseum, and they have to walk a third of a mile every day back and forth from their locker room to the playing field. It is a student-athlete experience welfare issue. That moves that piece up the priority list from an Olympic sport facility issue."
Stricklin's comments sound like MSU is going to sit back and wait for the right time to counter attack and capitalize on Gordon's success, if he can make it happen. Granted, the national and local economy and MSU's current construction plans might not allow it to break ground on facility upgrades tomorrow, but how long will the program have to wait? Looking back to 2001, when the program became the school's first women's team to win a SEC title, opportunities have been missed to make MSU women's soccer into something bigger. Improvements have been made, but so many programs in the SEC and across the nation have passed MSU that it remains to be seen if it can make up the difference.
That's where Gordon comes in. His experience transforming a program breeds confidence. Texas Tech finished below .500 in his first two years at the school before it went 8-8-4 in 2009. Three years later, the Red Raiders were in the NCAA tournament. Gordon hopes he will get enough time to engineer a similar turnaround. It remains to be seen if he will revert to familiar ways and counter attack or if his teams will play with the confidence that bigger and better things are yet to come on and off the field.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.