Vic Schaefer's Texas-sized task: Returning Longhorns to nation's elite

Vic Schaefer knows Big 12 basketball, and was part of Texas A&M's national championship run in 2011, prior to the school's move to the SEC. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

On a beautiful late-spring morning, Vic Schaefer looked out from his living room at oak trees that have been standing more than a century and the sunlight sparkling off a lake. He chuckled at the ironic timing. Just as he and his wife, Holly, were putting the finishing touches on their dream home on a farm just outside Starkville, Mississippi, a dream job had opened in Austin, Texas.

Schaefer couldn't pass up the chance to be women's basketball coach for the Texas Longhorns. He'd turned the Mississippi State Bulldogs into an unlikely national power, and was beloved by fans there. The Bulldogs played in back-to-back national championship games in 2017 and 2018, won their first SEC tournament title and reached the Elite Eight in 2019, went 27-6 this past season and are projected as a top-five team for 2020-21. Why leave?

Schaefer was born in Austin at a hospital across the street from where the Longhorns' Frank Erwin Center would later be built. He grew up in Houston, graduated from Texas A&M and spent much of his coaching tenure in the Lone Star State, including winning a national championship at Texas A&M as an assistant in 2011.

"Texas is where I'm from," Schaefer said. "I will be 65 miles from where I spent weekends at my grandmother's house, and where my mother and father are buried, in La Grange, Texas. I'll be 2 hours and 40 minutes from my older sister, who was also my kindergarten teacher."

So part of this is about coming home. But it's also about trying to reconstruct something grand at Texas.

"This is one of the most storied and tradition-rich programs in the history of women's college basketball," Schaefer said. "This was a chance to go build Texas back to where -- in my mind -- it deserves to be."

That will mean moving twice, first into the new home in Starkville, and then to yet another home in Austin. Because of the coronavirus pandemic preventing in-person gatherings, Schaefer had to say goodbye to his Mississippi State players on a brief phone call that pained him greatly. And then get to know a new group of players and program boosters at Texas through FaceTime and Zoom calls.

"Nothing has been normal, with us not meeting the new staff face-to-face," Texas rising junior forward Charli Collier said. "But I did my research about them. I think it fits my style; I'm looking forward to pressing so much on defense, and the aggressiveness his teams play with."

That's how Schaefer built his Bulldogs teams into title contenders. He might happily have stayed at Mississippi State until the end of his career. The call from Texas changed everything.

"This is not just about being good. I have no desire to be good," Schaefer said of his vision for the Longhorns. "You want to be great. That's the challenge: to be in the mix every year, to play for national championships."

Texas won it all in 1986, finishing a 34-0 season by beating legendary player Cheryl Miller and USC in the NCAA final in Lexington, Kentucky. The next season, Texas hosted the Final Four and advanced to the national semifinals, but lost to Louisiana Tech by five points in the semifinals. The Longhorns watched Tennessee win the championship on Texas' home court, giving coach Pat Summitt her first NCAA title.

At the time it seemed likely the Longhorns would continue as Final Four regulars. But Texas -- which joined the newly formed Big 12 in 1995 -- didn't return to the Final Four until 2003. There, a late surge led by Diana Taurasi gave UConn a 71-69 semifinal win, and the Longhorns haven't been back since.

Meanwhile, Baylor -- a program that wasn't even relevant during Texas' 1980s glory days -- has become the boss of the Big 12, winning three NCAA titles since 2005. The Lady Bears are coming off their 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.

Futility against Baylor -- a 1-18 record -- cost former Texas coach Karen Aston her job despite a 184-83 record, one Elite Eight and three Sweet 16 appearances in eight years. Aston, a former Longhorns assistant, had taken over at Texas the same time, in spring 2012, as Schaefer did at Mississippi State.

His success with the Bulldogs made him Texas' first choice when Aston's contract wasn't renewed. He'll be the third person to try to replace Jody Conradt, who went 783-245 from 1976 to 2007 at Texas and embodies the best of times for Longhorns women's basketball.

"We've had our ups, and we've had our downs," said Conradt, who is a special assistant to the athletic director at Texas. "We're sitting in a hotbed of girls' basketball recruiting. The No. 1 challenge is to try to entice them to your university and to keep the momentum going.

"Vic's history of recruiting is extraordinary; he knows this state, he knows the players and I think he will make an immediate impact in terms of the types of recruits he can attract to the program."

Conradt said she remembers what then-football coach Darrell Royal told her when she came to Texas in 1976.

"Coach Royal said, 'This job's not that hard, you just have to be No. 1 or better,'" Conradt said. "It is a high standard. People think it's easy, that all you have to do is open the doors and people will flood in, in terms of recruits and spectator interest. But Texas is a difficult job; everything you do here is magnified."

That might have contributed to the exit, after five years, of Conradt's successor, Gail Goestenkors, who left Duke -- where she went to four Final Fours -- for Texas in 2007. The Michigan-born-and-raised Goestenkors never seemed the right fit at Texas. And though she had some success against Baylor, going 5-6, she never got past the second round of the NCAA tournament, and resigned citing burnout and fatigue in 2012.

Aston took over, but couldn't beat Baylor and didn't have that last breakthrough to another Final Four appearance. So Schaefer knows full well what he'll be judged on.

"It's hard to have a rivalry when one team is winning the game every time," he said of the matchup with the Lady Bears. "Baylor's not going anywhere; our job is to get better at Texas. And we will get better. You want to make that a game just like the games we had with South Carolina over the years."

South Carolina-Mississippi State has become the SEC's most compelling matchup. The Gamecocks had the best of it -- including winning their faceoff in the 2017 NCAA final -- but the Bulldogs were competitive. Schaefer wants to be that and more at Texas.

Iowa State's Bill Fennelly, the dean of Big 12 women's coaches, has been with the Cyclones since 1995. It's Fennelly's job to beat Texas every year, but he also has a keen understanding of the big picture of women's basketball and how the Longhorns' success can help that.

"Texas is a well-known brand across the country," Fennelly said. "I think everyone expects a lot of great things from that program, and probably more so with Vic there. There are a lot of styles of play in our league. Vic's style of all-out pressure defense will add another piece to our league, and it creates another huge challenge for teams across the country."

Conradt last coached 13 years ago, but she still has a big-as-Texas personality. Schaefer had a similar presence at Mississippi State, where he said he spoke to groups from 10 people to 1,000 people, and everything in between, to boost interest in the Bulldogs.

"Vic is a Texas guy, and he has the blessing of Coach Conradt," Fennelly said. "Which I think is huge, because of what she built there. The connection that you have with your fan base, your community, your state is something crucial with our sport. People need to feel connected."

The pandemic has prevented a lot of in-person connections, but Schaefer has been using technology to get to know his new players, and vice versa.

Collier and rising sophomore guard Celeste Taylor are the top two returning scorers from a 19-11 Texas team. Graduate transfers Kyra Lambert (from Duke) and Lauren Ebo (Penn State) will give the team more experience.

Taylor is from Long Island, but said she just felt at home when she visited Austin. Texas is home for Collier, who's from the Greater Houston area. Schaefer calls them the program's "bookends." They've had much to adjust to the past few months.

The Longhorns were in Kansas City preparing for the Big 12 tournament in March, but before they could play, the event was canceled. Then Aston was let go in April, and Schaefer hired two days later.

"A lot of things happened all at once," Collier said. "We have all kept checking up on each other, but we're really staying positive about everything, and looking forward to next season."

With the pandemic, though, there are still many questions about the upcoming season. Basketball players are scheduled to be allowed back on campus in July, and then Schaefer and his staff, which he brought from Mississippi State, can start to get to really know the team.

Saying goodbye to a school and state he'd come to adore was difficult for Schaefer. He's taking on a new challenge that -- if he is successful -- will be a major storyline in the women's basketball world.

"Going from Starkville to a city the size of Austin ... sure, it's a big difference," Schaefer said. "But we're going to find our niche. We'll want to connect with people just like we did at Mississippi State. You've got to sell your program and add new fans; you have to be accessible. I got that from watching people like Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt."

Yet, some of Schaefer's heart will stay in Starkville, with the friends his family made there, and the house and farm that they'd looked forward to so much. Schaefer hopes to keep it as a place where perhaps he can retire someday.

But that's a long way off. Schaefer knows well what Texas women's basketball was at its peak, and he wants to take it there again. The Longhorns have had a good deal of success over the past several years. But there's another level to reach.

"There is a big difference between being a top-25 team and being a top-10 program every year," he said. "That's our goal: to put Texas back in that top tier."