By MATTHEW STEVENS
During one fall afternoon a sight few could’ve predicted what occurred at Humphrey Coliseum – Mark Gottfried and Rick Stansbury chatting, laughing and smiling during a Mississippi State practice.
Months after Gottfried resigned his head coaching position at Alabama under pressure in the middle of the 2008-09 season, Stansbury personally invited him to Starkville.
So one fall afternoon at Humphrey Coliseum there stood Stansbury and Gottfried watching the Mississippi State team practice before the day ended with former Crimson Tide head coach at the Stansbury house for dinner with his family that evening.
“After what happened at that time, he needed a friend,” Stansbury said. “I knew that situation was tough on him. He’s a got a wife and kids and I needed to reach out to him and let him know that I respected him.”
For two rival coaches that in the past publicly described recruiting in the Southeastern Conference in pugilistic terms, Stansbury and Gottfried both now describe themselves as very friendly.
“For one thing, I think what happens is when you’re not competing and recruiting against somebody every day or every year, you begin to understand things from the other person’s point of view,” Gottfried said.
Stansbury, who is in his 13th season at Mississippi State, described Gottfried Monday as a somebody he’d even enjoy taking a vacation with and spoke up for the former Alabama coach as the Bulldogs prepare to take on the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa Wednesday.
It is the opinion of Stansbury that the Crimson Tide program are atop the Western Division of the SEC because of players Gottfried recruited and current head coach Anthony Grant simply inherited.
“I think one thing that’s been missing in this (and) somebody needs to give him some credit is Coach Gottfried,” Stansbury said. “Basically all those are his kids except for one, that’s the point guard. All those other four starters Gottfried left there.”
Alabama (13-7, 5-1 in SEC) is led by a former McDonald’s All-American in junior forward JaMychal Green signed by Gottfried out of St. Jude High School in Montgomery Ala., and four of the Tide’s top five scorers are players Grant inherited when he took the job in March 2009.
“I mean don’t lose track that Anthony has done a very good with them but it’s kind of like (what) Trent (Johnson) stepped into at LSU a couple years ago,” Stansbury said. “Trent would be the first to tell you that though, that he stepped into a championship team that (John) Brady left them all in there. I think it’s kind of similar over there that Mark Gottfried left them some really good players.”
The recruiting battles between Gottfried and Stansbury while the duo coached less than 80 miles away from each other are well documented but after Mississippi State signed Alabama natives Mario Austin and Walter Sharpe away from the Crimson Tide, the relationship was more than contentious.
“Early on we were a little testy with each other but after time we both had a lot of respect for each other,” Gottfried said.
Austin was the most recently memorable recruiting battle between the two men after the Livingston, Ala., native decommitted from the Crimson Tide and became the first McDonald’s All-American selection in MSU history. Austin would go on to be a two-time All-SEC selection at Mississippi State while Gottfried got Mississippi talents such as Derrick McKey to play at Alabama.
“It does seem surprising, given how competitive they were in the past, but both are likable guys who, removed from the heat of battle on the court and in recruiting, have no reason not to get along,” Blue Ribbon Yearbook editor and founder Chris Dortch said.
Dortch authored a book titled ‘String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball’ that detailed some of the bitter battles between Stansbury and Gottfried through the years.
“With Mark in the media now, he's had to interact with Rick in a different way, and I'm sure during the course of their recent conversations they've found some common ground,” Dortch said.
Gottfried, who is in his second year of color commentator work at ESPN after resigning at Alabama halfway through 2008-09 season, said he and Stansbury developed a very healthy friendship that started during his final seasons roaming the sidelines of Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa.
“I can appreciate being so close in proximity for all those years what Rick has done at a Mississippi State,” Gottfried said. “In my opinion, it's very underrated and under-appreciated nationally. In the beginning I think it was two young coaches doing whatever it took to win and hated to lose at anything whether it was a game or recruiting.”
Gottfried, who spent 23 years coaching college basketball either as an assistant or head coach, said he’s enjoying his television responsibilities that have included recently calling the Bulldogs (11-9, 3-3) loss to Vanderbilt last Thursday.
“I know these coaches, I know the players and I think I see things in a different perspective that allows me to bring a unique angle to the broadcast every night,” Gottfried said.
Stansbury admits to treating Gottfried differently than the normal television analyst in a pre-game meeting.
“He’s a coach and he’ll always be a coach in my eyes,” Stansbury said. “That’s what makes him not good at the TV thing but great. I’m sure he’ll have coaching opportunities every year but I think he’s one of the best on television.”