Harris shares Schaefer's view for MSU

MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris, right
Staff Writer

In the middle of Texas A&M’s run to a 2011 women’s basketball national championship and stacked recruiting classes was a coaching staff that helped Gary Blair build one of the nation’s top programs.

On the bench, sitting beside each other, were Vic Schaefer and Johnnie Harris, who were No. 2 and No. 3 on the staff behind Blair. Those two spent most of their days together on the road, on the court or in their offices striving to make the program as competitive as humanly possible.

Harris said that most of her duties included recruiting, but she wanted to learn more. To Schaefer she went when she needed help on a scouting report, drills or development for her players. When Schaefer agreed to take the job in Starkville as head coach in 2012, he had one name on his list of associate head coaches and that was Johnnie Harris.

“In coming here, I knew I had to have (Harris)," Schaefer said. "I didn’t have anyone else. She was the only one that had complete, total autonomy and trust that I knew could do what I wanted to do. It’s hard to find. There’s nobody better.”

Harris started her career at Arkansas-Little Rock, made stops at Arkansas-Fort Smith and North Carolina State before going to Arkansas in 2004. From 2007-12, Harris and Schaefer spent their time an office apart. Walk into the Mize Pavilion on the campus of MSU today and you’ll find their offices are within a step of each other.  

Schaefer would contend that he, and MSU for that matter, wouldn’t be where it is without Harris. She has been instrumental in both recruiting, coaching and developing the players to become No. 2 in the country and holding the nation’s longest winning streak at 30 games.

Though things are great on campus now, it had to be difficult for Harris to make a leap of faith and take over a program with exactly one Sweet 16 trip in school history and an overall losing record. Still, she knew they would win with Schaefer’s leadership.

“I trusted him and trusted his system,” Harris said. “Once I came here, he gave me some responsibilities that would help me grow and do more.

“I knew coach Schaefer was determined. One of the things I said to him when I agreed to come here is that we had to win. We put our heads together and came up with a plan. This was our vision. Did we think we would get here this fast? Probably not. We did feel like we would have a top 10 program.”

It wasn’t easy. The Bulldogs won 13 games in Schaefer’s first season and a talent overload was on the horizon. The coaches did have something to work with in center Martha Alwal, who was a sophomore at the time.
Alwal still needed instruction and Harris was the one tasked with reforming her game. By the time Alwal’s career ended, she was the ninth leading scorer in Bulldog history, the record holder for blocked shots and second all-time behind LaToya Thomas in rebounds.

When Alwal went out of the door, it was time for more work for Harris. Teaira McCowan, a 6-7 Texas center, ducked through that door and into Harris’ arms. While she was a five star, she too had work to do on her game.
McCowan went from confused freshman to the Southeastern Conference’s Sixth Woman of the Year. This week, she was selected a first-team All-SEC player in her first year as a starter and she has the season record for rebounds heading into the postseason.

Both players owe much of their success to Harris.

“It was challenge, but the biggest thing with both of those players was getting them to buy in and trust because we had experience with post players,” Harris said. “We got Martha to be tougher and develop herself in the weight room. With Teaira, it was just breaking down fundamentals.”

These days things aren’t much different for Schaefer and Harris. While Schaefer isn’t doing much sitting anymore, Harris is still in that seat right next to him. He’ll continue to keep her close by, too.

“She fulfills so many roles for me," Schaefer said. "She’s a veteran who, like me, sees the whole program. She can not only develop them on the court, but off the floor. She can be that person that they can lean on when they’re not at home. She and I are so much alike that we embrace the grind.”