October 31, 2012 11:40:32 PM
STARKVILLE -- Earlier this season, Neil Macdonald had an artist's rendering of upgrades to the Mississippi State University Soccer Field on the wall in his office in Humphrey Coliseum. When asked about the picture, Macdonald smiled and said something to the effect that he hoped the rendering would come true because it was something the program needed to compete.
Unfortunately, Macdonald won't be the coach at MSU to reap any rewards from potential facility upgrades to the Southeastern Conference's smallest soccer stadium.
On Monday, MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin announced Macdonald would be re-assigned within the athletic department and that the school would begin the search for a new coach.
Going by Macdonald's 58-103-14 record, the move wasn't surprising. In a sports world increasingly dictated by numbers, it is hard to look at Macdonald's record in nine seasons as MSU's coach and wonder how he survived so long. But before you think it will be easy to hire a coach who will transform the program, it is infinitely more difficult to build a competitive women's soccer program in the SEC than it is to reload or rebuild a basketball program. In the SEC West, only the University of Mississippi and the University of Arkansas are on par with MSU in terms of NCAA tournament futility.
Macdonald knows about that struggle all too well. Working in the shadow of the multi-million dollar Mize Pavilion across the street, Macdonald led a program that didn't have a home of its own. Sure, the team had a dressing room and a team area in Humphrey Coliseum, but when comparing MSU's soccer facilities to its SEC rivals, Macdonald was working at a disadvantage. The problem can be traced to the 2001 season, when MSU won the SEC Western Division for the only time in school history. The title was the first SEC championship of any kind for an MSU women's team.
Instead of seizing that momentum and making a commitment to become the best women's soccer program in the state of Mississippi, MSU's administration settled for the status quo. Granted, women's college soccer in the state of Mississippi might not have been able to attract donations 10 years ago to help fund a major construction project, but visionaries at other SEC institutions have and continue to commit to women's Olympic sports and are reaping the benefits.
A quick look around the SEC and it is easy to say that MSU has made the smallest commitment to women's soccer, and don't think that goes unnoticed by high school soccer players who want to play the sport in college. To label MSU's "commitment" to soccer as the "worst" in the SEC would be unfair because a fan's perception likely is different than that of an administrator who looks first at a bottom line that features wins and losses.
Make no mistake, facilities come before victories in the evolutionary change, especially when your program doesn't have a tradition. Not only has Macdonald had to compete against SEC rivals like the University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee, the University of Arkansas, and Auburn University that have upgraded their facilities in the past 10 years, but he also had to recruit in a state that lags behind talent-rich states like Georgia, Florida, and Texas, making it even tougher to build a competitive program when you're in the developmental stages and your competitors are at the Olympic Development Program level.
It's telling to look back at the comments of Neil McGuire, who coached MSU from 2000-03, after the 2000 season. McGuire expressed pride at the performance of a team that came "very close" to making the SEC tournament, which he said was the team's "ultimate" goal. The following season, MSU realized that goal and then some, but two years later McGuire left for another job and Macdonald replaced him. Since 2004, MSU has had one .500 season and one winning season.
It's difficult to determine how much a coach or a lack of facilities contributed to MSU's lack of success. But another question of commitment can be traced to the 2010 season, when MSU was forced to move matches against the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Southern Mississippi from the MSU Soccer Field to the Starkville Sportsplex. Weeks before the season, the new sod for the MSU Soccer Field still hadn't been put down, leaving the school little choice but to change venues.
Weather, finances, and time all can be blamed as part of the reason the matches had to be moved, but the decision spoke to a lack of commitment to the program and the sport. If you don't want to spend the money, don't have a program. But judging from Stricklin's comments Monday, he wants a winner.
"Neil was a tireless worker and gave soccer everything he had both as an assistant on our staff and then as head coach," Stricklin said in a university statement. "We just felt a change in leadership was needed to guide our program to the ultimate goal we have for all our student-athletes -- to win consistently in the Southeastern Conference and compete for championships."
It remains to be seen if MSU is going to make the commitment. It is going to be a challenge for any coach -- regardless of their soccer knowledge or force of their personality -- to build a program in Starkville that can compete in the SEC, let alone earn the program's first bid to the NCAA tournament.
It's going to be even tougher to attract qualified coaches who have the desire and drive to realize those goals when they look at MSU's history and see the missed opportunities and lack of commitment from the administration.
Are things going to change? With a new football facility nearly completed and talk about a upgrades and renovations to MSU's softball complex, those interested in the job better take a long, hard look and know they will have to wait in line. Even if the plans are realized, they better proceed with caution because they, too, might not be around to see the artist's rendering come to life.
Adam Minichino is sports editor at 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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