On October 30, 2010, I participated in my first half marathon, which took place on the streets of uptown New Orleans. I honestly didn't know what to expect going into that morning, but I followed what seemed to be a semi-legitimate training guide to the T, and felt I was as prepared as I could ever be. 1 hour 59 minutes and 57 seconds after my feet first hit the New Orleans pavement in front of the convention center, I finished the race, thrilled as I could be - both to be finished, and to have completed the race start to finish without stopping to walk. Never mind that I nearly threw up into a woman's stroller (yes, with a baby inside) shortly after crossing the finish line; I had completed the task that I set out to achieve that day, and it was a feeling of accomplishment that was truly worth the 2 hour wait.
What half marathon training and racing has taught me is that some things in life take time, but are worth our patience and our persistence. They take dedication, they take your willingness to not expect immediate results, but in the end, the reward is ten fold what you get if you check out early.
Like my running, the race that new Mississippi State head basketball coach Rick Ray will run to rebuild this program will definitely be a marathon, not a sprint. But also like a marathon, it's a race I believe Ray, along with those who support the program, know is worth running. But rest assured, State fans, that this will take time. In the age of college basketball where the rebuild is expected to happen sometimes overnight, it won't at Mississippi State. And that's OKAY with those of us who know the situation coach Rick Ray was left with, and for those of us that can be honest with ourselves about the state of the program. But it's also okay because we believe we found the right man, and in time, the new Rick in town could lead this program back to the heights we've been accustomed to (and maybe even higher).
Replacing a Legend
Looking not at the twilight of his career but at his career as a whole and from a broader picture, it's tough to argue that Rick Stansbury didn't take the Mississippi State basketball program to heights it had never before been to. Continuing where his mentor Richard Williams left off in 1998, Stansbury built a program that manufactured consistent winning seasons, SEC West Championships, and even a few SEC overall and tournament championships as well. Although some may remember him for the disastrous final season or his lack of Sweet 16 appearances, many will remember Rick for the expectations he brought to MSU basketball. Before, State fans were just looking to compete, but when he retired, we were upset with Stansbury for a 21-12 season, which in itself says a great deal about the expectations he created here. Sure, there were countless circumstances that brought about complaints on Rick's final season, but taking the broader approach to reviewing his legacy, MSU fans can not deny he took this program to another level. Now, did he leave it better than he found it? Absolutely not, but that's all in the past, and it's time to move forward.
Who is the new guy?
I remember exactly where I was when Jeff Goodman of CBS tweeted that MSU would hire Rick Ray as our next head basketball coach. I was riding down I-55 just south of Jackson, and briefly read the tweet (sorry Dexter), not really believing what I was seeing. My first thought was obviously: ummmmmmmm, who? My second thought was that the fact that I had no clue who this guy was was disappointing in itself.
The coaching search that followed Rick Stansbury's retirement last March was without a doubt a mangled process, caused by several factors. The number one reason it concluded the way it did was because of the irrationally elevated expectations of MSU fans, who thought we could reel in a big name to a program that had just forced out a coach who won 20 games in his final season. The number two reason as to why the search was a mess was because of the actual state of the program - which was much worse than I imagine it was presented to interested parties during the search. But coaches talk, especially outgoing coaches, and I would imagine all those who considered the job knew just how bad things were behind the scenes here in the bowels of Humphrey Coliseum.
But no matter how the search was handled, no matter what transpired between the beginning and the end, we were given a coach, Rick Ray, and the reasons to why he was chosen became irrelevant, and the support stage of our fanhood kicked in.
Rick Ray, who came to Mississippi State from his assistant coaching position at the University of Clemson, is starting anew as a head coach at Mississippi State. What does he bring to the table coaching wise? Well, he will implement a motion offense, no not the one you saw under Stansbury, a real motion offense, one that centers around solid passing and constant movement of the ball. Most of all, though, coach Ray brings a sense of discipline, one that was lacking under previous administrations, and one that is sorely needed at State. How and where he leads this team will remain a mystery until this season and future seasons are underway, but one thing is for sure, he will field a team that plays more as a team than previous MSU squadrons have done before him.
The Remaining Cast
Players lost (12): Dee Bost [graduation], Brian Bryant [graduation], Reed Clayton [left team], Rodney Hood [transferred - Duke], Shawn Long [left team], Taylor Luczack [graduated], Arnett Moultrie [NBA], Charles Parker [left team], Renardo Sidney [left team], Deville Smith [left team], Shaun Smith [kicked off team], Kristers Zeidaks [kicked off team]
Returning players (5): Tyson Cunningham, Roquez Johnson, Wendell Lewis, Baxter Price, Jalen Steele
Newcomers (7): Andre Applewhite, Trivante Bloodman, Colin Borchert, Jacoby Davis, Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware
Viewing that list of players lost really sums up the off-season for Mississippi State, and visualizes just how much of a rebuilding effort Rick Ray has been tasked with. The good news is that he was able to, in a very short time period, recruit some solid basketball players to come in and hopefully have an immediate impact for a very thin basketball team. Although this team will most definitely finish at or near the bottom of the SEC this season, it will be interesting to observe the progress they make and the foundation they hopefully build for success to come in the future. Again, this roster is being built as much for a quick fix to get us through the next several seasons as much as it is for long term success, but for now, all we can do is root for the 12 players who don the maroon and white, and hope for them, as well as for ourselves, that they are on the path towards success.
Let's dispense with the pleasantries right here folks, this year is not going to be pretty. That's not a pessimistic approach to this situation either, it's just the reality we live in as of right now. Rick Ray has been given very little to work with returning from last season's team, but he will also, viewing it from the flip side, get a chance to start fresh, with his players, doing this rebuild his way.
But that won't give you much solace this season. State is most assuredly in for a long haul this year. The Bulldogs lead off with a trip to the Maui Invitational - something many State fans would be excited about under different circumstances. State will then follow that trip with yet another grueling SEC conference schedule. Will this season be fun? No, but remember, when things seem difficult this season, this is a rebuild that's a marathon, not a sprint. Just because things don't automatically get better this year doesn't mean that they won't, and you should keep your faith in Rick Ray and his program for awhile, because the road to recovery for this program is a long one, but one that is being led by the right man. If Bulldog fans have faith and patience in coach Ray, then I believe that reward will be waiting for us at the end of our long, arduous journey.