GAINESVILLE — His team’s shootaround inside Exactech Arena has just wrapped up. Lunchtime has segued to early afternoon, and Mississippi State women’s coach Vic Schaefer still hasn’t eaten a thing all day.
No sense letting nutrition infringe on a tried-and-true routine. The seventh-ranked Bulldogs are rolling, and Schaefer keeps fasting. At least on game days.
“That’s just the way it is,” says Schaefer, whose team will steamroll Florida, 90-42, later that night for its eighth consecutive victory. “That’s my life, it’s the life I’ve chosen.”
Calories aren’t the only casualty of winter. Schaefer, who transformed MSU hoops from middling SEC program to national force in only a half-decade, has spent two nights in his office already this week.
It’s only Thursday.
“I’ve got to get through January and February,” he adds, “because they are the two worst months of my life every year.”
Meet the pride ― and paradox ― of Starkville. A 58-year-old married father of two, Schaefer is a self-acknowledged workaholic who once dropped everything for the sake of family. The guy seemingly consumed by the rigor and ebb and flow of conference play may possess a clearer perspective than any peer.
His backstory, the one preceding the pair of SEC regular-season championships, SEC tournament crown, Naismith National Coach of the Year honor and consecutive national title game appearances, explains the contradictions.
Before finding himself on the cusp of winning it all, Schaefer darn near lost it all.
“I just think for me, any time I get off-center or out of whack, I’ve just got to bring myself back to the fact that things could be so different in my life today had my son not lived, had he not recovered,” said Schaefer, whose team is the No. 1 seed in the Portland Region of this year’s NCAA Tournament, joining Louisville, Notre Dame and Baylor on top.
“I just think at the end of the day, it really brings you back to reality and what’s important in life.”
Against all odds
Backpedal from Starkville to College Station, Texas, and the summer of 2010. Schaefer was associate head coach at Texas A&M, raising 14-year-old twins ― Logan and Blair ― with wife Holly. Both kids adored sports, forming the battery for the College Station Giants youth baseball team coached by their dad as prepubescents.
“I was pitcher, she was catcher,” Logan said. “And here’s something you need to put in your story: The boys had no idea that Blair was a girl as a catcher. And whenever they would steal from first to second, she would throw ’em out and then take her helmet off and flip her ponytail.”
By 2010, Logan had graduated to wakeboarding; mastered it, in fact. He already had brandished an assortment of aquatic tricks at the Frontier Camp ― a Christian youth camp in Grapeland, Texas ― when he joined other elite wakeboarders for a run on the water at dawn on July 12.
“You get up and the water’s beautiful, it’s like glass,” Logan recalled. “It’s the best time of day to go wakeboarding because nobody’s on the lake yet.”
Logan had the last run of the morning that day, opting for a trick he had done hundreds of times: Backside 180 Melon Grab. Only this time, something went awry, and he landed backwards ― hard.
“And usually I’m strong enough to pull myself out and land right and just pull myself around,” he said. “But that time, the water caught the edge of the board, and the way it hit the board, it actually completely stopped my movement, and it shook me so bad that I had whiplash really bad in my neck.”
He attempted a second run, but dropped his handle halfway through it. By this time, he could feel his heartbeat in his head. Upon returning to the dock, he got his life jacket halfway unzipped. It’s the last thing he remembers.
Logan had ruptured a blood vessel in his brain. When blood began coagulating on the side of the rupture, it essentially pushed his brain off-center, rendering him comatose.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital,” he said. “I had no idea why I was there, what had happened. I couldn’t really talk. ... In a coma, it’s kind of amazing. You can feel when people touch you, and you can hear when they speak to you, you just can’t respond.”
Dr. Thomas Graham, a neurosurgeon based in Tyler, Texas, managed to locate the rupture within the myriad vessels interwoven inside the brain, and stop the bleeding. Still, the initial prognosis was grim. Doctors told Vic and Holly the statistics weren’t in their son’s favor. Far from it.
“(The doctor) said, ‘The only thing worse than your son right now is being dead,’” Holly told ESPN.
Leaning on its deep-seated faith, the family prayed and waited as friends and family members rallied. A pastor acquaintance visiting the hospital told one of the doctors that he’d been reading the biblical story about Jesus wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, and that Logan would be released within 40 days.
The doctor essentially told the pastor to go home. Logan emerged from his coma after four days, but remained another week in ICU before being moved to TIRR Memorial Hermann, a renowned Houston rehab hospital.
“When I took him in there,” Vic said, “he couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, couldn’t hold a fork in his right hand, drooling out of the left side of his mouth.”
While Holly shuffled between the hospital and home (to care for Blair), Vic never left his son’s side. At one point, he told A&M coach Gary Blair when the ordeal was over, he might not have a job, but he darn sure was gonna have a son.
“Maybe the best coaching job, me and the good Lord, that I’ve done in my career,” Vic said. “I never left him for 39 days.”
Within seven days of his arrival at TIRR, Logan was walking unassisted down the hallway. After three weeks, he was baking cakes and taking batting practice with a plastic bat and tennis ball.
On the 39th day, he walked out of the hospital “like nothing happened to him,” Vic said. Today, Logan, a 23-year-old graduate student at Texas A&M, lifts weights and runs four miles a day.
“He’s my walking, talking miracle, no question about it,” Vic said.
“Any time I get to feeling, ‘Woe is me,’ or we lose a game...all I’ve got to do is pick up the phone and call my son and hear his voice,” Vic said. “That gets you real grounded real quick.”
From catastrophe to confetti
Another miracle occurred less than eight months after the ordeal. Texas A&M, a No. 2 seed, upset a pair of top seeds (Baylor, Stanford) in consecutive games en route to the program’s first national title. Cameras captured Vic ― consumed by the emotion ― on all fours on the Conseco Fieldhouse floor in Indianapolis at the final buzzer. When the Aggies were presented their title rings, the inside of his featured an inscribed message he had requested.
Life Flighted to the Final Four.
Eleven months after the tournament, he was named coach at Mississippi State, where his transformation of the program has been staggering. MSU, 87-71 (.550) in the five years prior to Schaefer’s arrival, is 191-55 (.776) in seven seasons. Its consecutive SEC regular season titles are the first two in program history.
“He really built this program up from the bottom to the top,” forward Anriel Howard, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “And it’s crazy how short of a time span he did it in.”
Entering this season, he had to replace four starters from the 2017-18 NCAA runner-up squad including All-American Victoria Vivians, the No. 8 overall pick in last year’s WNBA draft. Then, 6-foot-1 sophomore Chloe Bibby, the Bulldogs’ best 3-point shooter, suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-January.
The Bulldogs (30-2) have lost once since Bibby was sidelined. Behind 6-7 senior Teaira McCowan’s 24 points and 14 rebounds, they rolled past Arkansas, 101-70, for the school’s first SEC Tournament championship. Many insist the season represents Schaefer’s best coaching job.
His family knows better.
“He says it all the time, that he believes all the years of coaching he’s had was what prepared him for the moment that he was put in whenever I had my accident,” Logan said.
“He says the coaching he had from basketball taught him how to respond to people, how to understand what people are going through. He said that every moment that he’s been through helped him get to that point to be ready to coach me.”
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
April 5: Semifinals, 7 and 9:30
April 7: Final, 6
More info/tickets: www.ncaa.com/womens-final-four
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.