By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Rick Stansbury believed Mississippi State could win consistently, and so he believes what he accomplished in 14 years as head coach belongs to the school and the fans.
Stansbury, who retired on Thursday, owns a school-record 293 wins. He reached the NCAA tournament six times, more than any other coach in program history, including four consecutive trips from 2002-05.
He won five SEC Western Division titles, two SEC Tournament crowns, and was named the SEC coach of the year in 2004.
And he was 21-8 against rival Ole Miss.
“I don’t have to have it,” Stansbury said of the records. He was speaking at Thursday’s press conference, which was well attended by supporters. He told them, “When you go to Ole Miss, remind them of that record, guys. And you be proud of it, always.”
When Stansbury joined MSU’s coaching staff in 1990, the Bulldogs had suffered three losing seasons its first four years under head coach Richard Williams. Thanks in large part to Stansbury’s recruiting efforts, State transformed into an SEC contender and reached the program’s first Final Four, in 1996.
“He came in, and he’s probably the one person who thought that Mississippi State could compete on a national level,” said Phil Cunningham, an MSU assistant since 2000 who was also on staff during the 1991-92 season. “He knew it all started with recruiting. Just look at the teams he helped put together as a coach. It was a great combination of him recruiting and coach Williams coaching.”
Perhaps Stansbury’s greatest strength was recruiting. He had an ability to connect with players, including highly talented ones. Some of the best players he signed never actually showed up on campus, but instead went straight to the NBA: Jonathan Bender, Monta Ellis and Travis Outlaw.
“That never gets a whole lot of mention,” Cunningham said. “What would Rick’s legacy be if all those guys came for one year each?”
With the players he did get to campus – guys like Mario Austin, Lawrence Roberts and Timmy Bowers – Stansbury put together some of MSU’s best squads. The Bulldogs won a school-record 27 games in the 2001-02 season. Two years later, they were ranked as high as fourth nationally and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
While Stansbury has always hung his hat on defense and rebounding, those teams had some dynamic offensive players.
“For the most part, players really enjoyed the freedom he gave them offensively,” said Cunningham. “For the most part over his tenure we were pretty good defensively. … But the players are all about offense, and those guys always enjoyed playing for him.”
One knock against Stansbury was his inability to advance past the second round of the NCAA tournament. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that 2004 appearance, when the Bulldogs lost to Xavier in the second round.
“Nobody felt the disappointment more than we did, the players did,” Cunningham said. “It’s understandable from a fan perspective. As a staff we never talked about that, we never discussed that. There are so many variables involved with that, matchups, things in general.”
In the bigger picture, Cunningham believes Stansbury did a job a lot of coaches would have balked at tackling.
And in the context of MSU athletics, Cunningham believes it was the best stretch of success any team on campus has ever had.
“I think in 10 to 20 years from now you look back and say, man, that was one heck of a run you made there,” he said. “His attitude was so much behind it, his attitude of we’re going to do this, and it can be done, and we’re going to do it my way.”
Stansbury was promoted in 1998 after Williams resigned. He was 38 years old and had never been a head coach before. There were questions about whether he could do the job.
Now 52, Stansbury looks back and doesn’t give himself the credit for what transpired over the next 14 years.
Speaking again to his supporters, he said, “Some of you stepped up in this room when nobody knew anything about Rick Stansbury. Never coached a game as a head coach. But you guys showed belief.
“And I hope we’ve made you proud.”