"We worked on that for thirty minutes yesterday, hopefully we got it right."
Mississippi State certainly believes they got this hiring right. "Rick is ready to be a head coach," Stricklin said. "He has that ‘it' factor all successful coaches have."
This is the first head coaching position for Ray, 40. He comes to State after two seasons at Clemson, and was selected by Stricklin and University president Dr. Mark Keenum after three separate interviews in a two-day span in New Orleans. Stricklin reported a salary of $1 million per year, with incentives built into the contract, and for the state of Mississippi maximum four-year period.
Ray succeeds another Rick at Mississippi State, taking the post held 14 seasons by Rick Stansbury. The new coach took time to acknowledge his predecessor. "I want to give special recognition to Coach Stansbury. He did an unbelievable job building this program, of laying a foundation. It's something I want to build on."
"I'm looking forward to working with guys he recruited, guys he has in the program, and guys he has coming into the program." In fact, Ray has already met with many of the above and reached out to others. He met with current Bulldogs on campus Sunday evening—none were present at the Monday presentation—and has contacted signed recruits or their families as possible.
"Obviously the most important recruits are the guys already on our team. So we're going to reach out to the guys that we have signed, but I always feel the most important recruits are the guys already on your team. We want all those guys in our program. I've reached out to some of the guys, I've gotten text messages from some guys. And some of the feedback has been really good. But at the end of the day those guys don't know me yet."
They'll learn soon, much as Stricklin did from the first face-to-face meeting. Ray had been on an initial list of candidates provided by the search firm Mississippi State contracted for just such information. How many were on that list and who else he talked directly to, Stricklin is not saying. At the same time the A.D. was doing some searching of his own that also put Ray on the radar.
"As I talked to basketball people and said I want somebody to fit these attributes, his name came up. It got to the point I said I probably need to talk to this guy."
Timing was perfect all around. "I was waiting for the right opportunity," Ray said. "I've been offered some jobs at a lower level, and offered some jobs that I felt weren't quite right for me." Once Ray began checking into Mississippi State's job though, and realized there really was the opportunity, things looked right. Even Clemson head coach Brad Brownell thought so. "He said you'd be a fool if you turn down the opportunity to be head coach at Mississippi State." Ironically, Brownell and Ray were at Clemson because in 2010 Stansbury turned down the then-open position.
Stricklin had already planned on attending the Final Four weekend in New Orleans, but when Stansbury's retirement was announced two days after a NIT loss it became a working trip for him. And, an audition for Ray. Stricklin said there was a ‘vibe' to this candidate impossible to miss.
"When you sit down with somebody usually about 15 minutes in could I see this guy as our basketball coach? Rick was a guy that early in the conversation I could envision him as our coach." After that conversation, another one was arranged.
And, another. "It's unusual, we had three face-to-face meetings," Stricklin said. "I just wanted to make sure I'm certain. And the last one Dr. Keenum was in on, I wanted to get his perspective, to see if he saw what I saw."
Both A.D. and president saw and heard the right things from Ray. Such as, the style of basketball he will bring to Humphrey Coliseum. First and foremost will be a tough-minded and hard-nosed ball club, Ray emphasized.
"I don't ever want to walk off this court knowing another team played harder than us and played tougher than us. That's one thing I won't tolerate on this basketball team. We may not have the most talent and we may not have the best shooters, we might not be the longest guys on the court. But I'm telling you what, we're going to fight you."
At the same time, Ray intends to fight on his terms. That would be a up-tempo style at each end and all areas of the floor, comparable to what the Bulldogs saw this season from Tennessee. That's no surprise as Ray and first-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin worked together at Purdue for years. "We're going to push the basketball," Ray promised. "We're going to put people on their heels right away."
The offense will be motion, not a radical change at State since that is what Dogs have done for years. But this motion, Ray said, is not a static set with ten or twelve passes before somebody shoots the ball. The only motion that matters is attacking.
"It allows guys that are good enough freedom to go make plays. It's the hardest thing to scout, because there are no sets plays and patterns. It's more than anything teaching guys to play basketball." Not to mention all that goes with it. Ray talked how at a former coaching stop some players came to him asking if the offense could run more. He told them they could do it, but they had to get the defensive rebound first just to be able to run at all.
Meaning, nobody runs unless they've run harder on the defensive end for a stop and rebound. Then it goes into motion, and fast. "It's something fun to play, because it's something you can't scout and it's based on unpredictability."
Ray doesn't downplay X-and-Oing at all. In fact Stricklin said something which came across in talks with the candidate, as well as coaching peers, was Ray's quick grasp of what happens on a court…even before it happens. Speaking of which, it says much about the ‘basketball telegraph' that after everyone shook hands on the job offer in New Orleans and promised secrecy, by the time Ray returned to Clemson he had "867 emails and 347 text messages and I can't tell you how many Twitter hits," Ray said. "I told my wife I think the word has leaked out."
Initial word did not cause wild celebrating among most Bulldog basketball fans. So few had heard of him in the first place; then there was the image issue of hiring an assistant, and one not from a major basketball name. Lack of SEC familiarity didn't help, though as Ray said he has some knowledge of the league after annual games with South Carolina and Georgia.
Besides, "Brad Brownell named me associate head coach for a reason. He had a lot of belief I could do things for him. Now I'm going to be moving over 36 inches to that head chair. I don't look at it as being a problem, I relish the opportunity and I don't foresee a situation where I'm going to be nervous in my abilities to get the job done."
His first job and the one of most immediate impact on the 2012-13 team is keeping current Bulldogs in the fold, varsity and recruits alike. Ray was having individual talks or meetings with campus players Monday afternoon already. It was not known if he had reached out yet to All-SEC forward Arnett Moultrie, who has declared for early NBA draft entry but was waiting to this week before submitting official paperwork that would finish his college career.
Stansbury signed five players in November, all of whom have valid scholarship contracts with State still. And there are new openings with the departures of center Renardo Sidney (turning professional) and guard Deville Smith (transferring). So Ray has room for further recruiting before the April signing period begins next week.
Whether current or prospective, Ray wants a dialogue with everyone to explain what is happening now and what will be coming as he puts things in place. "I don't think that should hinder how you feel about the program. Those things happen when you have a coaching change. Very rarely is there a smooth transition, so it is something to be expected. So we have to make sure we don't have more attrition, that's the key."
Ray has to set an assistant staff, and said he would like to retain one current Bulldog aide once he determines who best fits his own approach to building a program. He will also hire a coach already familiar with him, and then look for a ‘wild card' as Ray called it, an aggressive young coach who recruits himself to Mississippi State.
Related to recruiting…Ray was courting Bulldog fans as soon as he took the podium Monday. And after, shaking hands with anyone who wanted to meet the new man in town. Image matters and Ray absolutely knows the image he wants for Bulldog basketball.
"What I want to do is make sure I put a team on this court that you guys can support and feel good about. That is very important to me. I want our kids to be role models to younger kids. I want to make sure our guys are out there fighting, and when people leave these stands they will say hey, those guys play hard, they play smart, they competed, and they weren't jerks. I'm coming back!"
How quickly Bulldog basketball can get back into genuine conference and national attention will depend on how well such ideas are absorbed. Or just accepted. Stricklin is optimistic that the timing is right for such a philosophy to flourish at State.
"He talked about recruiting the right kind of person," Stricklin said. "And I think we've got the right kind of people coming back next year that fit what he wants to do from a character standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint. It's not just recruiting talent, it's recruiting the right kind of people that are going to fit. And he is going to play a hard-nosed style, so you're going to have to recruit those people."
Those recruits will know what they are getting into because Ray is up-front about what he wants in his program. He is equally clear in what will result. "I'm telling you this, we will be successful. I don't know how to lose. That's the only thing I've ever done, is win ball games," he said. That is what will happen here in time, Ray insisted.
"It will take some patience. But it will happen. Throw away your doubts, throw away your fears, and just go two feet-in to Mississippi State basketball, and then see what happens. Don't be judgmental right now. Just make sure you go out and support these guys. We're going to be good, we're going to be successful. We're going to put a brand of basketball on the court that all you are going to be proud of."