August 3, 2013 11:34:10 PM
STARKVILLE -- Aaron Gordon didn't expect a rousing welcome to the Southeastern Conference.
After all, when you're the coach of a program at the bottom of one of the nation's toughest leagues, your peers are going to make it that much harder for you to climb into the upper echelon.
The fact that the Mississippi State University women's soccer program received 21 points -- the fewest of any of the SEC's 14 teams -- in the league's preseason coaches poll shows the starting point for Gordon and his staff. But being picked to finish last in the SEC's seven-team Western Division doesn't faze Gordon, the former associate head coach at Texas Tech University. It shouldn't because he worked with Tom Stone for six seasons to transform Texas Tech from a program that used to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference into a NCAA tournament qualifier.
Gordon has been working on a project of similar scale at MSU since November 2012. The next step will come Wednesday when MSU opens training camp. Unfortunately, soccer coaches don't have a lot of time to get their players into shape or to test a variety of lineups or formations. MSU will play host to the University of South Florida at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 in its only exhibition match of the preseason. MSU will play the University of South Alabama at 7 p.m. Aug. 23 in Mobile, Ala., in the season opener.
"I am taking over a program that does not have a lot of history, so when you do not have a history of success, it is hard to pick you to be successful," Gordon said. "That is regardless of who is taking over as coach. I think the coaches picked us based on their history with the program, not their history with me, which is fair. In some instances, someone could argue they know my players better than I know my own."
Gordon doesn't take the preseason poll as criticism. He also said he doesn't plan to use it as bulletin board material. Instead, he said his primary focus is making sure his players are working hard and doing everything they need to do to move the program forward. The loss of eight seniors and the addition of 10 freshmen will add urgency to the situation. But Gordon believes an undefeated preseason showed the players who were available for the spring season should form a solid nucleus to build on.
"I think there is a sense of opportunity to change the history of the program," Gordon said. "I told all of the returning players you really only get one chance to change the culture because if you're not changing it, then how can I count on you to be successful here? The freshmen aren't changing culture. They're coming in to it, so if returners change it and freshmen come in, then you can build every year on a level of expectation of how to, at least, prepare for the season. That is step one. If we can do that, I think we have a chance to be more successful than we have been in the past."
Elizabeth Sullivan and Morganne Grimes will lead a class of four seniors who hope to help the program improve on a 9-10-1 finish last season in what turned out to be the final season for Neil Macdonald, who was re-assigned in the athletic department. MSU went 58-103-4 in Macdonald's nine seasons. The program qualified for the SEC tournament one time (2004) and had only two seasons (2004, 2009) in which it finished at .500 or better.
This will be Gordon's first job as a head coach. In addition to his time at Texas Tech, Gordon spent three years as director of coaching for the second largest youth club program in north Texas with FC Dallas of Major League Soccer prior to his work at Texas Tech. He found himself in Lubbock, Texas, the home of Texas Tech, only because he convinced Stone, one of his best friends and his boss when he worked as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Beat of the Women's United Soccer Association, a former professional league, to interview for the job at Texas Tech.
Gordon's wife, Ashley, will be a part of the coaching staff with assistant coach Phil Casella and volunteer assistant coach Robbie Kroger. Their goal is simple: To help MSU win its first SEC tournament game, to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time, and to establish the program as a perennial contender in the SEC.
Gordon played an integral role in helping Texas Tech become a contender in the Big 12 Conference. Last season, Texas Tech made its first trip to the NCAA tournament after advancing to the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference tournament for the first time. Texas Tech also notched a school-record 16 victories and defeated the University of North Texas 2-0 in Lubbock, Texas, for its first NCAA tournament victory. It lost to Florida State University in overtime in the second round.
Gordon inherits a program that has won five games in the SEC only one time (2004) in the past nine seasons, which helps explain why the other league coaches picked MSU to finish last in the SEC. Gordon's first steps to change the culture in the program centered on getting better every day, having standards every day, and not taking days off that are permittable working days. He likes what he has seen and what he has heard about the players' conditioning entering this week. The spring season also drove home the point MSU aims to give its best performance possible every match. If that happens, Gordon believes the results will come. He will get to see this week how far along the Bulldogs are to realizing those results.
"I think coming out of the spring set the tone," Gordon said. "We did things in our meeting for every individual to help set the tone and to show them how their individual contribution in the summer would directly affect their teammates in the fall. I have had some kids who have come back that their physical makeup, their body shape has transformed, their appearance in every way has transformed. That is exciting. I want that to translate on the field. If it translates on the field, we have a chance to have success."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.