March 16, 2012 3:09:27 AM
STARKVILLE -- Applause greeted Rick Stansbury at 1:12 p.m. Thursday as he turned the corner into the lobby of the Bryan Building.
The longtime Mississippi State men's basketball coach scanned the room and chided the supporters gathered for the announcement of his retirement for having long faces.
"Cheer up. Smile. This is a happy day," Stansbury said.
Some who wear Maroon and White would have agreed for different reasons, but if they were in attendance Thursday, they stayed silent as Stansbury talked about the relationships he and his wife, Meo, and their family built in more than 20 years in Starkville and the reasons why he decided to retire as MSU's coach.
High on that list was a desire to spend more time with his family, including his sons. He spoke of wanting to be able to see more of Luke's soccer games. He talked with regret about not being able to watch his sons Isaac and Noah's Starkville Parks & Recreation (SAY) basketball games. He said he was at a point in his life where he wanted to be a better father and a better husband.
Fifty-two minutes later, Stansbury exited to another round of applause. It is an honor few coaches -- regardless of the sport -- get to experience, and the appreciation was genuine. Many of those in the crowd remained after Stansbury finished to wish him well and to shake his hand.
If you needed any affirmation, you needed only to walk up the road and look to your right at a gleaming Mize Pavilion, a basketball practice facility Stansbury's success and ability to build relationships helped create.
It is nearly unheard of in 2012 for a Division I coach to stay at one institution for as long as Stansbury remained at MSU. For 22 years, Stansbury was an integral ingredient in MSU's rise to national prominence. For the past 14 seasons, Stansbury guided the Bulldogs to heights few would have imagined. He won 293 games, the most in school history, including 122 in the Southeastern Conference. He solidified MSU's reputation and helped push it to the level of national championship programs like the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida.
"If you would have told us 14 years ago we would have the success we have had, we would have taken it," Stansbury said. "Some of you in this room stood up when no one knew anything about Rick Stansbury. I had never coached a game as a head coach, but you guys showed belief. I hope I made you proud."
MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin sat to Stansbury's left for the announcement. Stricklin fielded only a few questions, but one of his answers stood out: "There is no one better at developing individual relationships," Stricklin said.
On a day in which those relationships were celebrated, it was left unsaid that Stansbury's inability to create lasting and impressionable relationships with his players was a factor in the timing of the announcement.
Regardless of what was said Thursday, Stansbury still would be MSU's coach if the team had earned a bid to the NCAA tournament. The fact it didn't accomplish that goal highlighted the dysfunctional nature of a team that had a load of talent, not a lot of depth, and a mercurial willingness to play hard. All of those go back to the coach.
The calling card of any coach is their ability to get their players to play hard. Vic Schaefer spoke of it Tuesday when he was introduced as MSU's new women's basketball coach. He talked about a lesson he learned from his future wife, Holly, who encouraged him to soften up and to show his women's basketball players he cared. If he did, she knew they would respond. Years later, Schaefer has a national championship ring and a reputation for being a defensive guru thanks to players who "play their guts out" for him.
There were few times in the past two years the Bulldogs played their guts out for Stansbury.
There were moments when the team sparkled. There were times when individuals took charge. But there weren't enough and the Bulldogs didn't play consistently to make up for it. That was Stansbury's fault.
Stansbury took that hit Wednesday and acknowledged there were some things he and Stricklin didn't like about this season. He refused to single out individuals and took the responsibility for the fact his team didn't do better.
It was an honorable exit for a man who helped create a tradition and leaves a legacy that will be tough to live up to.
Or will it? There's no denying Stansbury did a lot and leaves the next coach with resources many would love to have. In the six- to seven-figure world of college athletics, though, Stansbury's teams the past two seasons didn't perform to the standard their coach set in building the program. His last loss at MSU will be remembered because the Bulldogs didn't play defense, didn't play as a team, and for large stretches of the game looked like they didn't want to be there.
For that, Stansbury deserved to be fired. Whether that was a step Stricklin was willing to take remains to be seen. With so many projects on the athletic department's wish list, Stricklin likely didn't want to alienate the donors he hopes will help make those plans a reality. Instead, he gave Stansbury a choice and some time to consider his options.
The choice he made was one that so many college coaches opt to put on hold and come back to in hopes that too much hasn't passed them by.
Coming off back-to-back seasons with plenty of disappointments on and off the court, the timing was right for Stansbury to make that decision. What can't be denied is Stansbury received equal amounts of applause from the ones who matter most when he got home.
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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