(Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics)

On the same day I was born, May 28, 1957, my dad was ordained into the seminary.

For my family, faith is something we all have in common. My grandfather – my mom's father – was the one who ordained my dad. In fact, my grandfather was a missionary in China, which is how he met my grandmother. My mom and her sisters were all raised in a Christian household in China until the communist party kicked them out for their religious beliefs, but they continue to go back every two years for their high school reunion in Shanghai.

My parents raised me on the belief that Jesus died for our sins, and that He is our Lord and Savior. They did such a good job instilling this lesson in me that it's no wonder they are teachers for a living. That's the other thing our family has in common. Both of my parents were teachers, and all of my siblings are teachers. My brother teaches English while my sister is now working at Johns Hopkins University in development. I definitely think there's a connection between faith and teaching. Once the Holy Spirit is in your heart, you want to teach it to anyone who will listen. The only difference is that my teachings come on a basketball court.

I got my start as a basketball coach in 1981 at Gonzaga. Few people had ever heard of the school back then and even fewer had heard of our point guard at the time - John Stockton. But I spent one season in Spokane before I returned to my hometown to become an assistant coach at UC-Santa Barbara. I was there for 12 seasons before I finally decided to give head coaching a try. I coached Northern Arizona for five seasons, and our team won 21 games in each of the last three years. Then, the Lord gave me the gift of the job at Pitt. My staff and I built that program up into a national contender, and after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2003 I became the head coach at UCLA. I thought it would be the last job I ever had. Now that I've been in Starkville for four years, I'm glad the road led me here.

Mississippi has such a Christian environment, it's unlike any place I've ever lived before. I think there's definitely a link between their religious beliefs and the genuine warmth of the people here. One of the best parts about moving to Mississippi was discovering how wrong the perception is of this state. People might have preconceived notions of what it's like here, but once you actually move to the Magnolia State, you realize that just about everybody really does get along here - regardless of the color of their skin.

Being around people of such strong faith has helped my family and I grow closer to God. I think my faith is stronger now than it ever has been. The only question that remained was how everything would turn out on the basketball court.

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Thomas Hager