March 2, 2012 3:38:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Sharon Fanning-Otis wasn't one for euphemisms or pithy comments.
Instead, the veteran coach was more likely to use her postgame comments to the media to break down the finer points of the game and highlight where her team excelled or fell short.
True to her nature, Fanning-Otis was a teacher. She remained that way even in her next-to-last game as Mississippi State University women's basketball coach, a humbling 76-40 loss to the University of Kentucky.
"They have to be very focused on what they want," Fanning-Otis said. "They have to sense it, they have to taste it, they have to want it. It has to be a passion and a desire and something that they despise losing so bad that they're going to commit everything they have so that doesn't happen. If you find a way to play hard and you have that work ethic and that team chemistry, you will find a way to win a ballgame. I look forward to watching their progress as they grow."
The comment was packed with the intensity and the fight that epitomized Fanning-Otis' 17 seasons as coach at MSU. In that time, she built a respected program that took pride in its defense and advanced to six NCAA tournaments, including the program's first Sweet 16 appearance in 2009-10.
But Fanning-Otis' run as MSU's coach ended Thursday with a 67-51 loss to Vanderbilt University in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn. If Fanning-Otis had her way, it's my guess she would have opted to return to complete the final year of her contract. Knowing her competitive spirit and her passion for the game, Fanning-Otis likely would have welcomed the challenge of replacing six seniors, including her two leading scorers.
The reality of the situation, though, probably caught up to her. In an ever-competitive landscape of college athletics, there would have been pressure on MSU to win next season. After a 13-17 finish last season and a 14-16 record this season, the Lady Bulldogs are in a rebuilding mode. Not only has the program lost the momentum it earned from its first Sweet 16 appearance, but it also lacks the depth of talent needed to compete at a high level in the SEC.
Fanning-Otis would have been up for that challenge. As the all-time winningest coach in MSU women's basketball history, Fanning-Otis (281-232) helped bring tradition to a program that didn't have any. She infused toughness and pride into players who wore the Maroon and White. She did it with a balance of fiery talk and stop-you-in-your-track stares and warm smiles, generosity, and a sense of family that made everyone feel welcome.
That combination helped Fanning-Otis reach the 600-win plateau this season. The landmark victory came Nov. 30, 2011, in a 63-47 win against the University of South Alabama, and was part of a career record of 608-460.
The next coach will face a daunting challenge because no one will work harder than Fanning-Otis. No one will pay attention to detail like Fanning-Otis. The next coach might do things differently, might recruit better, might be a better politician, but that individual won't have a greater love for the game or a greater will to win.
Unfortunately, Fanning-Otis and her assistant coaches couldn't get the Lady Bulldogs to deliver those elements consistently for 40 minutes. There's no denying MSU had potential, but it went unfulfilled. The Lady Bulldogs looked sharp in stretches -- like they did Thursday in cutting an 18-point deficit to three points with 10 minutes to play in the second half. Just when something appeared to click for MSU, that spark would vanish and the Lady Bulldogs would slip into a lull and become their own worst enemy. It was frustrating to watch. It was frustrating to listen, too, as players talked after mounting losses that the Lady Bulldogs had beaten themselves or that they knew they were the better team.
It's easy to place blame for those shortcomings, but it's better to focus on why MSU didn't have enough punch to back up its preseason talk about reaching the NCAA tournament. That is the most frustrating part, especially for a Fanning-Otis coached team.
"I think the kids that are returning have enough time together to understand and to develop what you're just saying," Fanning-Otis said about will and toughness after the loss to Kentucky. "As they were watching the video (honoring Fanning-Otis) at the end, I had several of them around me and I told them, 'I am going to see you win a championship.' That is what you have to compete for. We have had a Sweet 16, and the next step is an Elite Eight and a Final Four, but you have to have the vision for that."
Fanning-Otis can see MSU getting there. It can be done. It will take vision and commitment from coaches and a willingness by recruits to be a part of a building process, one that will elevate MSU into the upper echelon of the SEC.
It also will take all of the returning players to make a significant investment in the offseason. They need to improve and to develop an attacking mind-set that allows them to set the tone, much like the one Kentucky showed in the regular-season finale at Humphrey Coliseum. The Wildcats imposed their will on the Lady Bulldogs and squeezed the life out of them. It's time to breathe some of that fight back into the program.
Most importantly, it will take a leader who will work long hours and who will set the bar higher each day. It will take someone who has the energy to sell MSU as a destination for the nation's top women's basketball players. It will take someone with a plan for building chemistry and stressing it is special to wear the Maroon and White.
That's a tall order. It's a challenge Fanning-Otis accepted when she arrived in Starkville in 1995. It's time to start another journey. It's time for MSU to show it has the will to get it done.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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