- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Vic Schaefer says he could have taken several head coaching jobs while he was an assistant coach for 15 years at Arkansas and then Texas A&M.;

His former boss - Texas A&M; coach Gary Blair - has an off-beat theory about why Schaefer finally took the Mississippi State job in 2012.

“It’s because he’s so cheap,” Blair said. “Both schools wear maroon and he didn’t want to change his wardrobe.”

Jokes aside, Schaefer agrees there are similarities between the schools beyond the colors. Much like Texas A&M; before Blair and Schaefer arrived in 2003, Mississippi State had never been a consistent threat in the Southeastern Conference.

Schaefer saw a school that could rise in a hurry.

Four years later, it appears he was right.

No. 10 Mississippi State (17-3, 4-2) is about to embark on one of the biggest weeks in program history. The Bulldogs host No. 2 South Carolina on Sunday and No. 18 Tennessee on Thursday. A few wins could solidify the program as one of the favorites to win the league.

The rapid rise has caught even Schaefer by surprise. It wasn’t until the preseason that he realized his team might be ready to make the jump from very good to elite.

“Once we got these kids on campus and realized the skill set we had, we knew we had a pretty good basketball team,” Schaefer said. “There’s a lot of basketball left, but yes, it’s very rewarding to see us at this point.”

It’s not just the winning that has Schaefer excited. It’s the enthusiasm around the program.

More than 7,100 fans came to Humphrey Coliseum to watch the Bulldogs beat in-state rival Mississippi on Monday. That was the second-largest crowd in program history.

Now the school is making a social media push to draw 10,000 fans Sunday against South Carolina. Blair said Schaefer’s charisma - along with the winning - is perfect for kindling fan interest.

“Vic can talk with a fire hydrant,” Blair said. “And then he can squeeze a little money out of it and get it to join the booster club.”

Mississippi State athletics director Scott Stricklin said it’s the atmosphere he expected when he hired Schaefer.

“I wanted to make women’s basketball something that’s really important - not just something you have to do,” Stricklin said. “Something you can get behind and create a following. He’s been our pied piper.”

The 54-year-old Schaefer’s easygoing, down-home personality has been a perfect fit in Starkville. The Houston, Texas, native has slowly worked his way through the women’s college coaching ranks, starting with the head coaching job at Sam Houston State from 1990 to ‘97.

He had just one winning season during eight seasons with the Bearkats while dealing with a meager budget and resources. In 1997, Schaefer said he was making $35,000 per year and had $25,000 in debt when he decided to join Blair as an assistant at Arkansas.

It was a great choice. He went to 11 NCAA Tournaments with Blair during his time at Arkansas and Texas A&M;, capped by the Aggies’ national championship run in 2011.

Finally, Schaefer earned his chance to lead another program in 2012 when Mississippi State called.

“I really felt like Mississippi State was committed and wanted to win,” Schaefer said. “One big thing is I’ve been able to hire the right people and I have the resources. I’m smart enough to know I can’t do it by myself.”

The Bulldogs were 13-17 during Schaefer’s first season, but Schaefer quickly built his roster. He brought several good players to campus and then added one elite talent - Parade All-American Victoria Vivians - that helped push Mississippi State into the top 10.

Vivians, a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard from Carthage, Mississippi, leads the team with nearly 18 points per game. She said she always wanted to stay close to home even before Schaefer arrived at Mississippi State, but a few conversations with the coach during recruiting solidified her decision.

Now she’s playing in games with SEC title implications.

“It’s been everything I expected,” Vivians said. “Coach Schaefer is always so positive with us and it rubs off on everyone.

“Mississippi State’s never really been known for women’s basketball - usually it’s all about football, men’s basketball or baseball - so this is something that’s been really fun.”

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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