It’s simple, really.
Shaka Smart won 163 games at VCU in six seasons, shattering the school’s alltime wins mark. It’s the second-most wins for a D1 coach in his first six seasons in the history of college basketball. He never won fewer than 26 games in any single season. He won the only tournament VCU played in that was not an NCAA tournament.
There’s that Final Four business that was, uh, significant. Wins. Hardware. T-shirts. Banners.
There are banners, lots of them, that hang in That Animal.
But here’s the truth: basketball coaches are replaceable. VCU won before Shaka Smart, and it will win long after Shaka Smart is gone. Smart may have been the figurative can of spinach, but VCUs success on the court is the Popeye. From a basketball perspective there are other cans of spinach.
Here’s the second truth: to appreciate what Shaka Smart accomplished at VCU, you have to separate the man from the job. And then separate everything around the program from both of those.
This has everything to do with winning, and nothing to do with those banners. Those are mere artifacts. It has everything to do with 66 straight sellouts. Standing on the tables at KBH in Brooklyn. Smart’s moxie and how he handled press rooms. Food being named after him. Billboards on I-95 and a media feeding frenzy that bordered on embarrassing.
It was Smart’s ability to elevate the VCU program to national prominence and bring those who care along with him that is the differentiator. Any coach can be a tactician and win. Any coach can be a good guy. Any coach can care deeply about his players. And any coach can whip you into a frenzy by his very nature.
Shaka Smart’s blessing, and legacy, is that he is all of those things. People don’t write about Smart because he wins games. That’s a small piece of the puzzle. Smart is what we want from our leaders, and he went about his business at VCU with a humble nature. We know about Daniel Roose and Sofia Hiort-Wright because Smart talked about them and raised them up.
He galvanized this city and the college basketball world around concepts that made you feel hopeful and energetic, and we are all better for that. Smart is a true servant-leader.
So keep the banners. Keep the wins total. I don’t need them to validate anything. There will be more banners and more wins to enjoy.
Be thankful for these six years. Be thankful for we have today, this day, and be thankful to that man. Take every bit of that and continue to move forward, in your life and the lives of those that surround you. Be appreciative. Have a plan and write it down. Create approach goals. Have a positive outlook. Lift up others. Be energetic.
Shaka Smart is gone, and he will be replaced, but don’t let his spirit evaporate.
They ran an offensive set that broke down one day in practice. Whistle. Shaka Smart began hammering Troy Daniels, I mean flat out playing the classic role of basketball coach.
“What are you doing Troy?” Smart bellowed in a coach’s voice. “I can’t believe it’s February and you don’t know that play! Go!”
And Troy Daniels began running the Siegel Center stairs.
When enough time had elapsed and enough stairs has been stepped, Smart called Daniels down and turned control of practice over to Mike Rhoades. Smart spent the next 10 minutes with Daniels over in a corner, one-on-one, just talking. Both started laughing, and Daniels resumed practice.
Immediately, they ran that same play, the result of which was Daniels swishing a corner three.
We were on the plane earlier this season returning from a loss. Mike Gilmore had played a bucketful of minutes, and it was not his best night of the season. It was one of those nights where a freshman played like a freshman–tentative, fearful, almost lost on the court.
Smart made sure he sat in the row behind Gilmore.
Typically, and especially after a loss, Smart’s habit is to settle into his seat and fire up the laptop to watch a tape of the game we just played. On this evening, the laptop remained closed and he started chatting up Gilmore.
It turned into a conversation about how to approach the game, Gilmore’s time on the floor, how to manage fear, and how to use his teammates to help him get past fears.
“Let me tell you about when I played…”
There was a discussion of what goes through his mind when he gets the basketball in his hands. Smart spent time on how Gilmore should think about the opportunities when he has the ball in his hands–not avoid it by thinking “what if I miss this shot?” He also spent time on the opportunities he could create without the ball in his hands.
“If you’re on the court, and we’re making plays, you’re going to stay on the court whether you make the play or a teammate.”
I can’t count the number of times Smart paused, asked Gilmore what he thought, and listened intently to the answer. The whole conversation turned when Smart made one statement.
“It’s the same approach for everything you will face in your life. School, career, relationships. Let me tell you about when I gave my introductory speech when I took this job…”
It was a 30-minute clinic on helping Mike Gilmore understand life and his own emotions and fears. And me, a 46-year old man with life experience, could not get enough.
Mo Alie-Cox was deemed a partial-qualifier by the NCAA. Alie-Cox will graduate early this summer, and is on track to finish his basketball playing career with an advanced degree.
I’m done here.
You may remember Cole Sydnor. A few years back, while swimming in the James River with friends, the Atlee High Schooler dove into the water, hit his head, and was paralyzed.
I am friends with Sydnor’s father and obviously know Cole. We decided an autographed basketball from Shaka Smart to display in his hospital room would help lift his spirits, or at least help somehow comfort him.
So one summer day I popped into Smart’s office and explained the situation, when Smart did a funny thing. He reached for his keys.
“Let’s go,” he said.
All I wanted was an autograph on a basketball, and Smart was prepared to drop everything he was doing, on a moment’s notice, to go visit a kid he did not know but was in a perilous situation.
It didn’t work out that way because Sydnor was in a special rehab facility in Atlanta at the time, but I will never forget that.
You want numbers?
Typically an in-season post in this space generates around 1000 views. The better ones hit 1500 and every now and then it touches 2000. As of yesterday, the post where Shaka Smart talked honestly about the challenges of being a coach has crossed 19,000 views. I stopped counting at coaches from 34 different states.
Those five anecdotes are why they can take every banner out of the Siegel Center and wipe the record book clean and it will never touch the memories of what Shaka Smart brought to this program, and to me personally.
Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant were transactional. Shaka Smart was transformational. The campus, the energy, the spirit. Everything about VCU has been transformed. Let’s keep it going.