With the bar raised,
by David Murray
photos by Darrell McAllister
For Rick Stansbury and Mississippi State basketball, Friday the 13th was a lucky day.
This was the day in March 1998 that Stansbury was presented as the 18th head coach of the Bulldogs. Eight years after coming to Mississippi State as an assistant to Richard Williams, the 38-year-old Stansbury received the promotion he had worked 16 seasons to attain.
"This fulfills a lifelong dream for me," Stansbury said, "to be the head coach of an SEC team."
Not just any SEC team, either, but the team Stansbury has served since 1990; first as an assistant, then as associate head coach. In these seasons he not only helped Williams raise Mississippi State basketball to new levels of success, but greater levels of expectations. Now it is his responsibility to see that the Bulldogs meet these expectations.
"My goals are very simple," Stansbury said. "We want to continue to build on the foundation Coach Williams laid. We want to recruit quality people who are interested in education. We want people that the administration and alumni and fans are proud to say 'that's my team.' And, we want to get this program back to where we're competing for championships."
In every sense, Stansbury has been preparing for this challenge since he first picked up a basketball. And since he was born and raised in Kentucky, that was at a pretty early age.
Stansbury, here with freshman forward Tang Hamilton, is recognized around the country for his recruiting skills.
Stansbury grew up in Brandenberg, Ky., and after high school played college basketball at Campbellsville (Ky.) College. There he earned a double-degree in business and physical education in 1982, while starting four seasons and taking the Tigers to the NAIA Tournament as a senior. Even before he quit playing he had found his goal, and the first step was as a student assistant coach at Campbellsville.
After a year at Cumberland College he became a full-time coach as an assistant at Austin Peay State in Clarksville, Tenn. There Stansbury established himself as a rising star in the profession, helping recruit and prepare players that turned a long-dormant program into Ohio Valley Conference champions.
His success attracted the attention of Williams, who wanted a personable, aggressive, young assistant on his staff. Stansbury fit the bill, becoming the top assistant and primary recruiting coach two years later. Since then, he has earned a national reputation as a recruiter. At the same time, working with Williams meant Stansbury could also handle his Xs-and-Os.
In his eight MSU years, Stansbury has been contacted by other programs eager for a young coach with just these credentials. He himself never applied for another job.
"There were some jobs available, but I was patient," he said. "I've been patient along the way in my career, to not just jump and take any job."
|"We've proven that no longer do kids have to go out-of-state to get everything they want in quality of education, and the opportunity to play for championships at the same time. You can do it all here, close to home."
"At that time, Coach Williams told me he was going to get me ready to be the next head coach at Mississippi State when he decided to retire. He did that, and that day has come."
Director of athletics Larry Templeton presented Stansbury as the latest Bulldog basketball assistant coach to merit promotion to the top job. "I think the strength of any great organization is that you have quality people within your program," Templeton said. "There is no question that we have the quality person to continue leadership of our program."
This is Stansbury's first chance to be a head coach at any level, but he doesn't lack for self-confidence.
"Folks say I've never been a head coach," Stansbury said. "Let me say something positive about that: every coach who became a head coach had his first head coaching job. I've had 16 years as an assistant, and in those years you learn a lot of what-to-dos and some what-not-to-dos. I think I can take a combination of those two things, with my own personality and my own philosophy of what I want to do."
Former cage star Greg Carter (left), an assistant under Williams, has joined Stansbury's staff.
Williams allowed his top aide a great degree of freedom in recent seasons, not only to suggest ideas but put them into practice. This show of faith by his boss gives the new head coach confidence that now he can call the right shots, and defenses.
"The biggest thing with me is I'll change offices and titles," noted Stansbury. "As far as hands-on, there isn't going to be much adjustment. That's going to make it easy for the transition. And it's easy because of the freedom Coach Williams gave me over the years."
This mutes questions of promoting a 'recruiting' coach to head coach, Templeton said. "One of the big strengths is that he understands the Xs-and-Os of basketball a lot more than people think. Richard gave him a lot of freedom in putting game plans and scouting reports together. His recruiting speaks for itself. He's basically worked the last three years on scheduling. The only thing we've still got to work on is the budget area, but we'll give him some help there," said Templeton.
Stansbury is more interested in budgeting more Bulldog victories like those he enjoyed in the glory years of 1991, '95, and '96. The difference is, now he is the man in the glare of the spotlight.
"As confident as I am about recruiting, the only thing I'm more confident about is my understanding of the game," Stansbury said. "We can only wait and see how my teams play. But I'm very confident in my ability and understanding of the game to get my teams to play with passion."
The boy from the Bluegrass is thoroughly Maroon and White by now, even married to a Mississippi State graduate, Meo Mellen. While a good recruiter can sell any program, Stansbury is genuinely passionate about Bulldog basketball.
"I believe this: Mississippi State may not be the best place in the world for every kid, but for that Mississippi kid it's the best place in the country," said Stansbury. "We've proven that no longer do kids have to look out-of-state to get everything they want in quality of education, and the opportunity to play for championships at the same time. You can do it all here, close to home."
What Stansbury hopes is that next March he and the Bulldogs aren't at home, but off playing in the NCAA Tournament again. In fact, when he was introduced at a Friday afternoon press conference, he stood in front of a video screen that only an hour before had been showing 'March Madness' in full cry.
Discussing the difference between playing in the NCAAs or not, Stansbury said a team must be both good and a little lucky. So, it seems, must a coach be to get the job of his lifelong dreams.
"I've found out that Friday the 13th is not so bad after all," Stansbury said.
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