Arkansas assistant Schaefer shaped by Cincinnati roots

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee (33) and assistant coach Todd Schaefer talking along the sideline as the Razorbacks play LSU at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Sunday, March 1, 2020.
Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee (33) and assistant coach Todd Schaefer talking along the sideline as the Razorbacks play LSU at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Sunday, March 1, 2020.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors holds his breath every year from the end of March until the final days of June.

That is the time period other women’s programs across the country would attempt to swipe Todd Schaefer, the Razorbacks’ top assistant coach, and make him their own. Selfishly, Neighbors does not want that to happen.

“He is a head coach ready to be other places,” Neighbors told WholeHogSports, “but he loves Arkansas and loves to be here. It’s a sigh of relief when he walks in (in July) and says, ‘All right. What are we doing?’”

Last July, Neighbors recognized Schaefer for his efforts and dedication to the Arkansas program, promoting him to associate head coach. In the university release, Neighbors said the job title “displays the highest level of trust and talent.”

At the time, the promotion meant a lot coming from Neighbors. The two struck up a friendship at former Arkansas coach Gary Blair’s golf tournament in Fayetteville in the summer of 1999. Almost a year after adding his new title, Schaefer says his first three seasons with the Razorbacks have been about as rewarding as any he can recall.

“When Mike had the opportunity to come back here to his alma mater, his home, and be able to take over a program that was in shambles, looking back on it, it’s been an incredible experience,” said Schaefer, whose wife, Lisa, grew up in Pocahontas. “It’s really hard to believe it’s been three years. It seems like it’s been forever, but it feels like we just got here at the same time.

“To be able to do it with the people we’ve done it with, to be able to be side by side with Mike and see the program get to where it is, it’s been a tremendous three years and we certainly have a lot of momentum. I’m looking forward not only to the next three years but many years to come.”

Although he did not grow up in the state, Schaefer, a native of Cincinnati, considers himself an Arkansan. His previous coaching stops include Greenbrier High School, Arkansas Tech and Arkansas State.

His understanding of the state and what Arkansas has to offer, Neighbors said, helped him make an immediate impact with the Razorbacks.

“I want our players to be the best they can be,” Schaefer said. “If they have dreams, whatever they might be, I want to be a part of helping them reach those things. I spend a lot of time in the gym and with our players outside of practice and game time kind of when nobody is looking. That’s when you become a player. That’s what I really enjoy.

“That’s what I miss, not being able to be in the gym when nobody is looking with our players, working just to help them and be there for them and push them. For me, I go back to all the way to when I got started in this deal way back in the day in Cincinnati.”

Schaefer’s coaching career actually began early in his high school years when he was put in charge of his sister’s Catholic Youth Organization team. Back then, Schaefer’s parents owned restaurants in the area, he said, and his father did not have time to coach the team.

His father signed him up to lead the team despite not being old enough to do so. That much didn’t matter to Schaefer, though. He quickly began formulating ways to help the team improve.

“(My sister) was pretty talented and so were a couple of her teammates,” he said. “I spent tons and tons of time in the backyard. Some friends down the street had the really cool basketball court with all the lines and a real basket, and we’d go down there and practice.

“I would rebound and pass. I think back to those days a lot.”

Toward the end of his high school career and in his early days at Thomas More College in northern Kentucky, Schaefer met two of his greatest basketball influences: Mary Jo Huismann, one of three Ohio high school girls coaches to reach 700 career wins, and Deb Gentile, who helped Huismann establish the AAU girls’ basketball program in Cincinnati in the 1980s and 1990s.

Together, they gave Schaefer the opportunity to coach his own AAU team of 10-12 year olds.

Later, he would meet Bill Moss and Chad Veddern, who ran Urbana (Ohio) AAU, and during the offseason and summer months, he traveled and coached with them. Together, from Ohio, they drove across the country with their players to Texas, West Virginia, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. for tournaments.

Moss and Veddern provided Schaefer the chance to realize coaching is what he was meant to do.

“I gave up a lot of those things that college kids and my teammates were doing,” said Schaefer, who did not walk at his college graduation so he could travel to a basketball tournament. “We just coached. Some of the kids we coached turned out to be great high school players and really great college players, and some turned out to be pros. Those were the raw, authentic days.

“Those four people gave me an opportunity at a much younger age than I deserved. ... I look back at that and think there is nothing I could do for those four people to repay them for that. I’m 47 and the associate head coach at Arkansas. There’s no way I could give back to them what they gave to me. It really gives me a sense of appreciation. It was time well spent.”

Neighbors says he and Schaefer have broken the notion that coaches can’t hire their friends. You can, he said, but you have to make absolutely certain they are your friends before you hire them.

They would have never made it work if they weren’t diametrically opposed in the way they think, Neighbors added.

“We always say this: We’re not going to let a sport come between very good friends,” Neighbors said. “At our age, you don’t have friends you’ve been friends with 20 years. He knows where my box is. If I die, he knows to come get this box and where all the things in that box go.

“I think there are three people on the face of the earth that know where that’s at, and he’s one of them. ... He’s a family guy who really loves his family, and he treats our players that way. He coaches our players just like he raises his boys. The guy is talented.”

In college, Schaefer had every intention of attending law school, probably at Xavier, he said. But he couldn’t give up basketball. He still remembers his father and a couple of his father's close friends in coaching attempting to dissuade him from becoming a coach.

They told Schaefer that there are only two types of coaches: those who have been fired and those getting ready to be fired. Being an attorney was the way to go, they said.

“Here we are today,” Schaefer said. “My dad, I think he’s probably glad I did (become a coach). He gets to be retired and watch SEC Network every Thursday and Sunday night. I bet it gives him something to do now because I didn’t listen to him and his buddies.”

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