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Harris finds her calling coaching basketball


Adam Minichino



STARKVILLE -- Johnnie Harris didn't see the connection. 


It's not surprising, though, considering Harris never planned to become a college basketball coach. 


Growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark., and working in Little Rock, Ark., Harris gravitated toward a career as a social worker in the Department of Human Services and for an independent company called Integrity, Inc. Her goal was to help kids who might not have the means or who might have had issues growing up to find a way to take the next step in their lives or to find the right path. 


Basketball was just one way Harris could help those young people make that happen. In turn, the sport opened a door that allowed Harris to connect to so many more student-athletes. 


"One of the things I like to do is to get them to excel for themselves," Harris said. "You're not doing this for coach Harris or for coach (Vic) Schaefer, do this for yourself. I try to get them to change their way of thinking. A lot of kids come to college to play basketball. I want them to think I am playing basketball for the opportunity to go to college." 


At 1 p.m. Wednesday, Harris will get her first official chance to impart those lessons at a practice when the Mississippi State University women's basketball team kicks off its 2012-13 season. NCAA rules allow Division I women's basketball teams 30 practices in a span of time 40 days prior to their first regular-season game. MSU will kick off Schaefer's first season at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 with an exhibition game against Shorter at Humphrey Coliseum. It will play host to the University of Houston at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 in the regular-season opener. 


Harris was the first coach Schaefer hired after he was named the new women's basketball coach at MSU. After working with Harris to help build Texas A&M University into a national championship program, Schaefer knew Harris' talents as a listener, a teacher, a recruiter, and as a competitor would be a perfect fit in Starkville. 


"Johnnie Harris is going to be a great head coach one day," Schaefer said. "Johnnie brings not only a wealth of experience, but she also is a tremendous recruiter. She also is a mother figure for our kids. They see that in here and they know they can count on her for a home-cooked meal if they need it or advice on anything of a personal nature or of a basketball nature. I have had a first-hand view of watching her do things and get things done and knowing she could do more." 


Harris is ready to take on that challenge. She began her career in college basketball as a player at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff before she transferred and spent her final two years at Arkansas Baptist. Her first jobs were as a graduate assistant coach and as an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She then coached Amateur Athletic Union basketball, was a foster parent, and worked as a social worker at the Department of Human Services in Little Rock, Ark. 


If it wasn't for basketball, Harris likely would have remained on that path. She said she saw so many young people who didn't know how or didn't know how to move forward in their lives and that it was natural for her to want to help. She said her goal was to help kids any way she could -- as a volunteer, as a coach, as a trainer -- to help them get into school, to find their passion, or to put their troubles behind them. 


It just happened Harris was "discovered" on one of those trips. 


Harris remembers Arkansas-Fort Smith women's basketball coach Louis Whorton telling her he didn't know if he was going to get the student-athlete Harris had brought on the visit to the school, but that he really wanted Harris to join his coaching staff. It was a career turn Harris never saw coming. 


"That's really where my career started," Harris said. "My desire was to help these kids. That's my passion. The fact I could do that at this level is just amazing." 


Harris' competitive desire took over from there. She said her mind-set is to do the best she can in everything she does, so she watched, studied, and learned everything she could. She credits Whorton, former North Carolina State University assistant coach Stephanie Glance, former N.C. State head coach and Hall of Famer Kay Yow as some of her influences, former University of Arkansas assistant coach Kelly Bond, and Schaefer as some of her influences. 


Harris said Schaefer "took her under his wing" and taught her how to break down game tape and to develop a scouting report. She said the first-hand knowledge she gained working with and listening to Schaefer will be invaluable at an associate head coach at MSU. 


Schaefer said Harris and all of the coaches on Schaefer's staff understand one key thing -- It is not what we do it is how we do it -- that will help make the program successful. He knows each of the coaches he hired has a work ethic and a passion that is second to none. He said it is his obligation to help all of the coaches develop and to realize their dreams. In the case of Harris and assistant coach Aqua Franklin, Schaefer knows that might mean one day both coaches leave MSU to accept a job as a head coach, but that's what Schaefer wants to happen. 


"I think the first thing that comes to mind is chemistry," Schaefer said. "We always talk about the chemistry of our teams, but staff chemistry is so very important. I hired the best people in the country. They are the best at what they do whether it is recruiting, of Xs and Ox, their personalities with our kids, role models. All of those things play a part into making the decision about who you're going to surround yourself with. When I walk down this hallway every morning and come into the office, I have as big a smile as anybody in the country because I know I have the best in the country working with me." 


Harris honed her skills and developed a reputation as one of the nation's top recruiters at the University of Arkansas and at Texas A&M. Her ability to recruit helped Texas A&M sign center Danielle Adams, who helped the Aggies win their first women's basketball national championship in 2010-11. Harris perks up when she talks about Adams, who is a member of the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars. She said she speaks often with Adams and hears about her highs and lows. At the same time, she continues to prod the former All-American to finish the handful of classes she needs to get her degree. Part mother, part confidant, Harris knows how to develop relationships with teenagers and young women. She knows when to be tough and when to push. Like Schaefer, she is tough and won't accept excuses because she knows there is greatness inside everyone. 


Those are strategies Harris, who raised two children of her own and is the guardian for another, used as a foster parent for four children (not all at the same time) in the state of Arkansas and as a social worker. She said her transition from that life into her work as a college basketball coach felt "natural" and that she felt comfortable going to her student-athletes and finding ways to help them. 


As part of Schaefer's 'A-Team', Harris said it also has been easy for her and all of the new coaches to build a family atmosphere in the program. Although Harris and Franklin admit everyone is extremely competitive with each other, she said they all are on the same page and share the same values. She said that will make it easier for them to build something special at MSU. 


After more than a decade as a college basketball coach, it is easy for Harris to make that connection. She found a way to do that with young people at Integrity, Inc., a community service organization that provides health care, rehabilitative, and child-care services. She knows she, Schaefer, and the rest of the staff will be able to do similar work with the Lady Bulldogs. 


"All kids want to be respected," Harris said. "I try to show them if you want to be respected you have to give me a reason to respect you. In turn, you have to respect and you have to be respectful and you have to respect others. 


"I just always wanted to help kids do better. I loved sports, so before I even got into working as a social worker, I would take kids in the neighborhood to (UAPB) football games (in Little Rock, Ark.) if they took care of their business. Those kids worked their butts off just to go there. Those kids never would have been able to see a college football game. Now that they see a college football game, you're an athlete, so maybe -- some of them weren't athletes -- you can get here one day. The more they go, the more they want to. Now they're seeing these college people and every once in a while we would get them to meet the team, or whatever. I just tried to spark something in them to want to make them better."


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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