At first, I had a hard time believing it was real.

It was my first few weeks in Mississippi, and everywhere I went, people were incredibly friendly. They were so friendly, in fact, that I wasn't sure if people were putting on a show or if they were actually that nice.

The people in my home of Southern California have always been kind as well, but when you live in a big city like Los Angeles, it's rare to see the kind of hospitality that I witnessed in Starkville.

And the only reason I ever got to see it was because of a blessing in disguise.

In March of 2013, just a few days after my 10th season at UCLA, I was fired. It came as a shock to me, because we had won the Pac-12 regular season championship that year, and I had been to three straight Final Fours earlier in my tenure. I had done everything there except win a National Title, and suddenly I was out of a job.

For a kid from Santa Barbara, coaching at UCLA was a dream job. I was 6 years old when the Bruins won their first title in 1964, and by the time I graduated from Cerritos High School in 1976, they had won 10. I grew up admiring the job John Wooden did, and when I left Pitt to take the UCLA job in 2003, I told people it was the only job I would have left my old position to take.

To give my best and still lose my job was really difficult, but I never felt completely devastated about it. I knew God had his hand in all of it, and He was going to do what was best for me and my family. Even if I didn't know that a place like Starkville was on my horizon, all I knew was that I would keep my faith in God's plan.

With the family I have, it's the only way I know how.

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(Title photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics)

Thomas Hager