Nikki McCray-Penson isn't just the newest women's basketball coach at Mississippi State. Or the newest coach in the SEC. She's the newest member of an even more exclusive club. Only seven women's programs played for a national championship at least twice this century.
McCray-Penson now leads one of them.
"When I pick up the phone and I say I'm the head coach at Mississippi State, they know who we are," McCray-Penson said Tuesday as she was officially introduced in her new role. "Everybody in America knows Mississippi State women's basketball."
These jobs don't turn over often. UConn's Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, Baylor's Kim Mulkey, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and Louisville's Jeff Walz are also members of the exclusive club and their programs are responsible for all of those national championship game appearances.
Only Tennessee, which played for the championship five times this century under the late Pat Summitt, has attempted the sort of transfer of power now underway in Starkville.
Vic Schaefer saw an opportunity at Texas that he felt he couldn't pass up after leading Mississippi State to NCAA title game appearances in 2017 and 2018. But there aren't many jobs like the one McCray-Penson just landed after eight seasons alongside Dawn Staley as an assistant at South Carolina and three as head coach at Old Dominion.
"We talked to many, many in this industry," Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said Tuesday of the hiring process. "Everyone said the same thing. There was incredibly high praise for Nikki's competitiveness, her personality. They talked about her ability to recruit and her attention to detail and her ability to break down the game of basketball."
Longstanding basketball fans need no introduction to a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. But it can't hurt to pause for a quick refresher.
She has more SEC Player of the Year awards than the rest of the league combined
Kentucky's Rhyne Howard is the SEC's reigning player of the year. And until this week, she was the only player or coach in the conference who had won that award.
Enter former Tennessee standout McCray-Penson, who won the award in 1994 and 1995. For all of the talent that passed through Knoxville over the years, she and Chamique Holdsclaw remain the only Lady Vols to win the honor in back-to-back seasons. Not surprisingly, McCray-Penson was also a first-team All-American in each of those seasons for Summitt.
"I think [Summitt] would be very proud," McCray-Penson said. "That's legacy -- when you play for a great coach and they impact your life in so many ways. Now there are a lot of her players that coach in this league, there are a lot of her players that coach in general. So she's left a legacy in women's basketball in the tree of coaches that carry on her tradition."
Although McCray-Penson lost just 11 games in her college career, a national championship evaded her. Her lone Final Four ended with a loss in the NCAA title game against UConn -- the first of four championship game pairings for those two programs.
She will enter next season as one of just two coaches of a Power 5 school who was also a two-time player of the year in one of those conference. The other? Dawn Staley.
McCray-Penson helped define a new world of opportunity for women's basketball players
The post-college women's basketball world was a tad bleak when McCray-Penson arrived at Tennessee. There wasn't a viable professional domestic league awaiting graduates. And even as the Dream Team captured the world's imagination in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the women's national team -- without that same professional environment in which to develop -- settled for a bronze medal after a semifinal loss to the team representing the former Soviet Union.
Yet by the time McCray-Penson's 10-year reunion came around at Tennessee, she had won two gold medals and played in two professional leagues. Like Staley, her Olympic teammate in 1996 and 2000, McCray-Penson initially signed with the ABL instead of the WNBA. The ABL didn't lack for star power. And it was McCray-Penson who was named MVP and led Columbus to the title in the league's inaugural season.
She went on to play nine seasons in the WNBA, a career unfathomable a generation earlier.
She might be Dawn Staley's best friend and worst nightmare
Expect the rivalry between South Carolina and Mississippi State to remain intense, starting with the nearly lifelong friends and longtime coworkers calling the shots from the sideline.
"When you're a competitor, you don't have friends," McCray-Penson said. "That's just the way it is. Dawn and I have always been like that. Even playing against each other in our WNBA careers, we only get together after the game is over. ...
"We're really, really competitors, and that's what makes us who we are."
But don't expect it to be bitter. At least not when it comes to the two people running the show.
Almost as soon as she stepped off the court as a player, following a stint as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky, McCray-Penson joined Staley's South Carolina staff and helped her former ABL and WNBA rival build the Gamecocks into a power. The friendship between former USA teammates, and the community it allowed McCray-Penson to become part of in Columbia, were invaluable after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and battled that disease.
"There's certain people that you gravitate to," McCray-Penson said. "She's one that has been very honest at all times. But she's a giver. She wants people around her to be successful. A lot of my success has come, especially on the playing field, through her. She has put me in a position to be successful on the court as a teammate. When I was at South Carolina as an assistant coach, she groomed me to be a head coach. She challenged me in so many ways. ...
"But our relationship, we're sisters. I can call her and she will be there at the drop of a dime. I always tell her there is nothing that she and I have not ever been through together."
Facing Schaefer's teams was never any picnic, but now Staley will face her mirror image.
McCray-Penson had Old Dominion on the road back to relevance
Even if Old Dominion's heyday, two AIAW titles and the 1985 NCAA title, predated McCray-Penson, she grew up in a world in which the program mattered a great deal in women's basketball.
Pushed down the ladder over the years as bigger athletic departments in bigger conferences invested more and more in their women's programs, that was no longer the case when McCray-Penson took over prior to the 2017-18 season. Her first head coaching gig was an iffy mix -- a program that could realistically never again be what many of its fans remembered it once was.
But there is a reason Mississippi State was interested. The first season at Old Dominion was rough (8-23). But the Monarchs hadn't made the NCAA tournament in a decade anyway. A rebuild was overdue. And Old Dominion's 45 wins the past two seasons were more than, to pull two names out of the air, Tennessee or Texas.
Not surprisingly for someone who remains among Tennessee's all-time leaders in steals, Old Dominion became one of Conference USA's stingiest defenses over the course of the past three seasons. Ranked 15th nationally in field goal defense this season, the program was poised to make a return to the NCAA tournament -- possibly even if it didn't earn an automatic bid.
But McCray-Penson was also a pragmatist at Old Dominion. She likes to play fast. It's what she did with Team USA and through much of her own pro career. It's what South Carolina did. But Old Dominion didn't always have the personnel for that approach, and it failed to rank near the top of the league in field goal attempts or turnovers forced.
The culture and relationships she said she emphasized at Old Dominion? She'll bring those to Starkville. And the style of play should look pretty familiar.
"Nowadays kids want to play fast," McCray-Penson said. "You watch Steph Curry, you watch James Harden. I mean, the 3-ball, that's what they want to do. But you want them to be able to express themselves, to be in a position to where we're playing high intensity and a fun style of basketball. And that's what I like to do. My style, it's similar to what Vic runs. I had a chance to spend a lot of time with him with USA Basketball and we talked a lot of about our styles."