Women’s basketball royalty forged in Maroon and White


e earned multiple Southeastern Conference and USA Basketball national coach of the year honors. He coached teams to four WNBA championships and an Olympic gold medal, and holds membership in two national basketball halls of fame.

At times he’s been a Comet, a Rebel and a Tiger. But through it all, Van Chancellor’s always been a Bulldog.

“I grew up watching Mississippi State basketball,” the Nanih Waiya native said. “Bailey Howell, Red Stroud, Leland Mitchell, Kermit Davis, those were some of the people who fanned my love of the game.”

Chancellor played point guard for Bulldog alumnus Gary Hughes from 1958-61 at Louisville High School where he averaged 23 points per game. He then spent two years as, what he calls, “a star bench warmer” at East Central Junior College.

He hung up his jersey after transferring to Mississippi State, but couldn’t shrug off his love of the game so easily. Chancellor turned his attention to the coaches’ box and found himself leading boys teams while completing a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. But still, it wasn’t his knowledge of the game that landed him a gig at Noxapater High School.

“I got my first job because I could teach algebra,” the 1965 Mississippi State graduate admitted. “Then, when I transferred to Horn Lake High School to teach and coach boys basketball, they said I could teach one less class if I would also coach the girls. Coaching beat teaching every time.

“So, I kind of fell into coaching girls to get out of the classroom but once I coached it, I fell in love with the women’s game,” Chancellor continued.

Just six years later, he found himself leading the Ole Miss Lady Rebels.

“When I went to Ole Miss in 1978, women’s college basketball was just beginning to catch on,” Chancellor recalled. “I never dreamed it would carry me to the places it did and it would enjoy the growth that it has.”

In 19 seasons at Ole Miss, Chancellor led the Lady Rebels to four Elite Eight appearances and an SEC Championship. He also was a three-time conference coach of the year and earned the honor nationally in 1992 from the Women’s Basketball News Service. When the WNBA was formed in 1996, he couldn’t resist the opportunity of taking the sport he loved to the next level.

“As a coach, you enjoy the wonder and enthusiasm of the young players but when you get that and an athlete with refined skills and knowledge of the game, well, there’s no more fun in coaching,” Chancellor said. “When you get to that upper echelon you coach more, too. Everyone has talented players and you have to study and strategize how best to use your players to beat theirs.”

Chancellor was the first coach of the Houston Comets, one of the WNBA’s founding franchises, and saw immediate success. In what is described as the first dynasty of the WNBA, he led his team to win the league’s first four championships—1997-2000. No American professional basketball team had earned four consecutive titles since the Boston Celtics’ finished eight in a row in 1966—and none have accomplished the feat since.

“I’ve known Vic a long time and there was never any doubt in my mind that he would be successful. All sports change and no sport has improved as much as women’s basketball.” ~Van Chancellor

With his success in Houston, Chancellor was chosen to lead the U.S. women’s basketball team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where he coached household names like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes to bringing home the gold.

“The greatest thrill a boy from Nanih Waiya could have is to be the coach of the Olympic gold medal-winning USA women’s basketball team,” Chancellor said.

Now on the 10-year anniversary of his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame—at which childhood hero and longtime friend Bailey Howell delivered his introductory remarks—Chancellor said he believes it was more his enthusiasm than his skill that led to his career success.

“I don’t know that I was much of a leader, but I had a lot of energy,” the ESPN 3 analyst said. “I worked at the game and studied the game.

“And I loved my players,” he continued. “I genuinely cared about them as human beings. They knew that I had their best interests at heart. If you’re going to get after them pretty good, they’ve got to know you’ve got their best interests at heart.”

Chancellor said he sees that same care for the players in Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, who is coming off the most successful women’s basketball season in program history.

“I’ve known Vic a long time and there was never any doubt in my mind that he would be successful,” Chancellor said. “All sports change and no sport has improved as much as women’s basketball.

“To see an arena filled with fans cheering the ladies, just like you so often see with their male counterparts, always feels good because I know the blood, sweat and tears many have put in over the years to bring the sport to this level,” Chancellor said. “It’s nice to see it appreciated at my alma mater and everywhere it’s played.”

By Tom Kertscher and Alumnus Staff | Photo by Russ Houston

Writing the next
chapter in history

Last season, Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team made history. What began with a record-setting run of victories and finished with an appearance in the national championship game, didn’t just complete the best season in program history–they had the best season in the history of Mississippi State sports, period.

And now, head coach Vic Schaefer has to answer one big question: how do you follow that up?

“It’s not building the program that’s the hardest thing to do,” Schaefer explained as he pondered the question. “It’s maintaining it. That’s what we’re trying to do now.

“What we’ve been preaching to our kids,” he continued, “is that year is over. It’s done. We lost four seniors that won 111 games. They’re not coming back. This senior class will be remembered for what they accomplished this year, not what they did their junior year. This senior class has a chance to surpass the 111 victories. I’ve got four seniors that are a little hungry to do that.”

Certainly, this season’s senior class has already made some history of its own. It was senior guard Morgan William–then a junior–who hit one of the biggest shots in basketball at any level when she sank a buzzer-beater against UConn in the Final Four.

Senior guard Victoria Vivians is one of the most accomplished athletes to ever play at MSU, regardless of sport, a star shining so bright that she had a display in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame before she even graduated high school.

However, replacing the four seniors from last year’s team involves replacing four of the best the program has ever had. No one brought more heart, energy, passion and determination in Schaefer’s tenure than Dominique Dillingham, and the graduating trio of Ketara Chapel, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie means he lost three of his four top forwards.

How do you replace so much tangible production and intangible inspiration?

“If we’re doing our job in recruiting,” Schaefer said, “those kids are here. It doesn’t change my expectation. We’re still going to coach and try to win an SEC Championship…We’re going to keep trying to be the best we can be and keep Mississippi State where it’s supposed to be. That’s our job. Our expectation is to go out and win.”

Following up the greatest season in school history will be difficult, but Vivians already knows exactly how to do it–win one more game.

“Last year’s team was great and last year’s seniors were great,” she said, “but I feel like we have a new role to play.
We can’t play the same role because we didn’t reach the goals that we wanted to reach. This year’s seniors, we have something to strive for that’s even better. We’ve got to try to get first place now instead of second place."

By Bob Carskadon | Photos by Kelly Price