A week ago today Mississippi State fans learned athletic director Scott Stricklin had found his man.
Stricklin found a man with the character, charisma, and basketball knowledge to lead Bulldog basketball into the next era of hoops.
Rick Ray, a Clemson assistant coach, accepted the challenge of leading the program, leaving State fans asking, who?
Ray had just finished his second season with the Tigers and felt he was ready to take the next step in his coaching career, he was simply waiting for the right situation to come along.
Mississippi State was that perfect fit.
While thankful for the opportunity in Starkville, Ray admitted it was his co-worker’s, not knowing Michael Jordan some 19 years ago, that set him on the path to becoming a Bulldog.
“I had an internship at an actuary firm in Chicago, and it was during the days, the heyday of Michael Jordan,” said Ray, who earned a degree in mathematics from Grand View College. “I was there. I obviously didn't get a chance to go to the games, but I'm sitting there watching in a bar, stuff like that.
“I come back in the next day after they won the championship, I said, 'Hey man, that was great. Did you guys watch that game?' Michael Jordan, winning the championship, this and that. They were like, what are you talking about? I knew right then and there, I'm done. I quit.”
Ray promptly left Chicago for Des Moines, Iowa, to become a high school math teacher. After a short stint in the high school ranks, he jumped into college coaching. His first stop was the University of Nebraska as graduate assistant.
From there, it was on to Indiana State then Purdue before landing at Clemson.
“I was really happy that Matt Painter hired me," Ray said. "It was a great situation for me. That first year there at Purdue, I got my brains beat in on the recruiting trail. I wasn't familiar with it. I was familiar with mid-major recruiting. I was fortunate to be around such strong recruiting guys. Cuonzo Martin is now the head coach at Tennessee, and Paul Lusk is now the head coach at Missouri State. Those guys were already kind of entrenched in there and kind of taught me how to do it, and I learned my way.”
Learning his way and fighting every step of the way is a characteristic Ray came by honestly, as he describes his father as a hard working man.
“My old man, he's a scrapper,” Ray explained. “In and out of unemployment, just trying to find a way to feed us. Not really a trade, just go work here – carpenter, paint, janitor, whatever it was.”
Robert Walker, his father, chose to uproot the family from Compton, Calif. when Ray was just 6-years-old in order to get away from the gangs and problems of the area. They moved to the heartland where basketball was king, Kansas City, Kan.
“Danny Manning, the Miracles of 1988. I was actually at the Final Four in Kansas City when it happened,” Ray said with a big smile. “One of my friends' dad ran a scoreboard for the Final Four for that year. I'm a huge Sean Elliott fan. I'm just big about that, seeing him. You had the Oklahoma Sooners and Mookie Blaylock, the Grants – I was pumped up about it. I've always been a fan. That's when they used to have big events in Kansas City at Kemper Arena.”
His love for basketball led him to Grand View College, but he admits his basketball skills were lacking.
“Oh, I wasn't a very good player," Ray said with a chuckle. "I was just like a utility guy. I started, was a team captain and things like that, but I was more out there because I could guard man and pass the ball, do the right things, good attitude, but I wasn't any good.”
Today, he’s the head coach at Mississippi State University charged with getting the Bulldogs back to the postseason.
“When you first hear the information, you're excited and ecstatic,” Ray said. “Then after about 5 seconds, you start thinking about what do I need to do? Who they've got on their roster, who I need to get in contact with, is this kid going to transfer. I've got to make sure this kid still wants to come. I've got to hire a staff. You start thinking about those things right away.”
State fans will quickly see a man ready to make a name for himself through hard work and extreme organization.
“I'm probably OCD," Ray said. "Everything in my house is color-coordinated. If I've got something in my refrigerator, all the bottles are facing the same way, are all in a line. All the canned goods have got to be facing out in the same line.
“I'll tell you what, my mom always says that she ironed my pants one time, and I didn't like the way they were ironed, and so she showed me how to iron. From that point on, I ironed my own pants, cleaned up my room. I didn't want her touching my room. I've always been that way. Everything has to be clean and immaculate.”
So, does that make Ray difficult to play for? In his eyes, not at all.
“I've always had good relationships with the guys, and things like that, because when I'm in practice I like to joke around,” Ray said. “I like to make guys compete against each other. I like to get guys mad, like a brother-brother rivalry. I just want to do things to liven up practice. If it's getting guys upset at each other and making them compete more or telling a joke about something, that's really it.”
However, he is quick to tell his players he expects a lot of them.
“I'm very detail-orientated,” Ray said. “I can be detail-orientated, but I don't want a situation where I want our guys over-thinking. I want to know all the information, but I don't want to necessarily give our players all the information, because I want those guys relying on principles and playing more so than out there worried about, two means this for the opposing team, and things like that.
“Make sure you know the information as an assistant coach or a head coach, but I don't want too much information transferred to our guys where they're over-thinking instead of playing.”
While Ray may have entered his new role as head coach as a relatively unknown commodity, State fans will quickly see Stricklin found the man that will give Mississippi State basketball every once of energy in order to continue building a very proud Bulldog basketball program.