By JOEL COLEMAN
Tucked away in a cozy hallway deep inside of Humphrey Coliseum sits the office of Mississippi State head soccer coach Aaron Gordon.
As his third season guiding the Bulldogs quickly approaches, Gordon sat inside his personal headquarters a few days ago, crossing the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s’ for the campaign that’s about to begin. Before MSU opens its season by hosting South Alabama on August 21, there is paperwork to be completed. There is an impromptu encounter with a member of the Mississippi State event staff, who is hard at work making his own preparations. There are all kinds of details that must be worked out, coming from any number of directions.
For several moments though, Gordon puts all that aside. The Dallas, Texas, native, just the fourth coach in MSU history, leans back in his chair and begins to describe a plan. It’s a plot based around consistent competitive values – every player pulling in the same direction, all the time. It’s the pathway Gordon has designed to push Mississippi State soccer higher than it has ever been before.
“I think to be able to make that step, you have to create a culture within your program where there is a dedicated lifestyle of an SEC athlete,” Gordon said. “It’s not a part-time proposition. It just isn’t. The best teams in our league … those players they train, they play and they take care of themselves year-round because that’s what it takes.
“That has probably been the best part of the last two years. Though our success hasn’t translated on the field, the success off the field and bringing those types of players to this campus and now having them here, I think will allow us to be successful. And this year, really, is what I would say is the culmination of two years of recruiting hard, (and) bringing players in over two years that will buy in to what it takes.”
Gordon has worked tirelessly to mold his program just the way he desires it. After taking the MSU job, his first collegiate head coaching position, in November of 2012, Gordon quickly went to work to fill his roster with the type of talent he needed. He knew though, the fruits of his labor wouldn’t be seen immediately.
“Recruiting in soccer is a two-year process,” Gordon explained. “Right now even, our 2016 and 2017 classes are verbally committed. We’re now (working on) 2018 (and) 2019. Those kids, as far as I’m seeing, aren’t going to be here for three years. That’s OK. That’s what it takes, but that’s why it takes a little time to get a program somewhat turned around.
“You need a roster that everyone can contribute. That’s what we’ve been building towards. I think this is the first time we’re going to start to see that.”
As a result of building for the future, Gordon and his Bulldogs have taken quite a few lumps in the recent past. MSU has now had back-to-back years finishing 3-15 overall and 0-11 in the SEC. Though the numbers aren’t pretty, Gordon has found a silver lining in the struggles.
“Nobody likes to lose, but it also gives you an appreciation for how hard it is to win in our league and how you have to stay the course and stick to the process,” Gordon said. “There is no shortcut. You can’t just show up and expect to win. You’ve got to put the time and effort in. That’s one of those things that we’ve tried to instill in this program. Yeah, I think our program had more losses than previously, but the end result was still the same. Even a program that has struggled in terms of wins and losses over a 10- or 11-year period, you have to go a little backwards to go forwards. You have to instill the right values.”
Gordon continues to work to mold the type of mindset he wants on his team. He’s been able to go about it, essentially, from the ground up. On his 24-player roster, 21 are either freshmen or sophomores. The lone senior on the team is Shelby Jordan.
Many of Jordan’s classmates didn’t stick things out at MSU in recent years.
“(Jordan) saw what we wanted to do and wanted to be a part of that, where others in her class were like ‘Wow, that’s too much,’” Gordon said.
According to her coach, Jordan stayed around in large part because she saw the dynamics of the team changing.
“I think a lot of that is she looks around the locker room and sees a lot of players that share the same values that she has,” Gordon said. “Shelby is a 12-month a year soccer player, keeps herself fit and lives the lifestyle of an athlete. When you have those things, and everyone shares them in the room, you can get a lot of special things done.
“I think she’s really geared up to have a year that you want seniors to have, and she’s excited to have it. I think she’d be the first to tell you that she’s looked back and thought ‘It’s gone by so fast, but I’m more prepared this year than I ever have been.’”
Though she came to MSU prior to Gordon’s arrival, Jordan seemingly exemplifies many of the standards that Gordon has been setting. As Gordon examines his current roster and compares it to when he first arrived, he sees more players ready to do the same.
“What you see is two recruiting classes that share, I believe, the value system of the coaching staff, and really the value system of what it takes to compete in this conference,” Gordon said. “I think people will see a team that is more athletic and better soccer players. We’ll just be young, and the only way you get that experience is being able to play. We were lucky that with all the freshmen we had last year, those kids that are on this team now got a lot of valuable minutes.”
Seeing the progression of his squad excites Gordon. Yes, the last two years have been tough at times, but Gordon is more determined than ever now to bring a winning soccer program to Mississippi State.
“My expectations are the same as when I got here,” Gordon said. “I would take whatever team we had. We would compete as hard as we could. We would train as hard as we could. We would do things with standards with the goal in mind to compete for championships.
“We’re going to compete better than we ever have before and if you can step out on the field and feel like you can go toe-to-toe, even if you lack experience, all kinds of stuff can happen.”
Now, Gordon just needs his maturing team to get that initial feeling of on-field success. In recent years, it has become all too common for MSU’s soccer season to conclude before Halloween. Gordon is ready to reverse that trend, knowing that the smallest of achievements can create an extreme hunger for more.
“We’ve got to take that first step to be able to not have to put our gear away after October,” Gordon said. “We need to be able to roll the soccer balls out in November. That’s what I want our players to be able to experience because when you get that taste of rolling out the soccer balls in November, when it’s for real, you never want to put them back in October.”