Less than nine hours after agreeing to replace Anthony Grant as head coach at VCU, Shaka Smart had Will Wade on plane bound for Richmond. The pair met into the wee hours, discussing everything from players to staff to strategy to the reality that dreams were about to become true.
This was the day before Smart’s introductory press conference.
Let me write that this way: Shaka Smart—who left VCU as the school’s alltime wins leader, and the man who many claim should have the Seigel Center court named after him and the man who turbocharged VCUs climb into national prominence—had not yet coached one collegiate game and needed a bright basketball mind to help him get established, and further a winning tradition.
He chose Will Wade, in an unwavering heartbeat, and before he spoke one public word.
Six years later, after it took Wade two entire years to move Chattanooga to the top of the Southern Conference, so did Ed McLaughlin. I texted McLaughlin soon after hearing Smart was leaving and said “not that you need recommendations from me, but you should call Will Wade.”
Ed’s response was immediate, and direct.
“We love Will and look forward to talking with him.”
And from what I’m told, the “talk” between McLaughlin and Wade stretched more than three hours.
The first time.
Before all this broke, months ago, Will Wade told on himself. Oh, he was trying to tell on Smart, but he gave himself away in the process.
I had asked Will if he had a story he could relate about Smart’s thoroughness and attention to detail. Wade recalled the days before their first game at VCU together—Smart as a head coach and Wade as his assistant. VCU was hosting Bethune-Cookman, a matchup that defines early-season buy games.
Wade was preparing his scouting report, and Smart wanted video of the Bethune-Cookman freshmen. These were going to be bench players, marginally effective role players. But they still needed to be scouted.
Now, getting a scouting report on the freshmen who play for Bethune-Cookman is slightly more difficult than finding film of Kentucky’s freshmen, or juggling chain saws. That meant Wade had to call high school coaches, associates, send up smoke signals–anything. Smart wanted every detail on the seventh or eighth man in the rotation for a November game against Bethune Cookman.
And Wade got it.
Before the first press conference. Before the first public word. And before the first game. The point of these three anecdotes: my friends, we are in great hands.
In many ways, I’m about to argue, we are in better shape with Wade than Smart. I’ll explain that, but first I have to get something off my chest.
I don’t understand the rancor and derision surrounding Smart and his move to Texas. You may not like that it happened. And you may feel like he owed something more publicly. I’m in that camp. But the pettiness is awful, and quite frankly disrespectful.
Besides, you have no idea what he did in private. You have no idea if he’s continued to text people. You don’t know how close he was to Treveon Graham in the run up to the NBA draft, or to Briante Weber right this moment.
Just because you don’t see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
It isn’t about how much the players did or how much the coaches did or how much the media lapped up his presence. Shaka Smart was hired to win basketball games and take VCU to the NCAA tournament and raise its national profile and graduate players.
That’s exactly what he did, and he did it better than any coach who ever set foot in Franklin Street Gym.
Lament is a wasted emotion, but feel free to lament the last couple days Shaka Smart was employed by VCU. That’s fine. But if you let those two days wipe out six years of growth and joy, that’s your cross to bear. It’s also pretty pathetic.
Now, we are moving forward because this is V fricking CU and we won before him and we’re going to win long after him, but I need Smart’s move to outline why we are in better shape with him in Austin, and Wade in Richmond.
It also allows us to address the biggest misconception surrounding VCU basketball.
I keep reading and hearing that now that Smart is gone, we are going to get back to being the underdog, or some similar story. You know, the party line goes, VCU was most successful as the underdog, when it didn’t feel respected. We need that motivation.
We are not going back to the hunter as opposed to the hunted. We are not going back to doing more with less. There was not some magical motivation that made us play better in the 2011 NCAA tourney.
We are not going back to anything. It doesn’t work that way. There’s only going forward.
You don’t suddenly get back to “being the underdog” because it isn’t about underdogs and overdogs, or feeling slighted. That’s an external limitation, like mid major, put on the players and coaches by media and fans. They are conversation points, not reality.
And as for money, we charter to road games, have a $25 million practice facility coming online, and don’t have to worry about funding football. So while the budget may not threaten nine figures, there’s no such thing as more with less.
The players decide the outcomes and what is inside them determines the fate, not some ill-conceived notion of motivation. It’s basketball.
Motivation is episodic. It’s easy. No locker room speech ever turned a lollygagger into Darius Theus. No tape of a lion chasing down an antelope will make you a better three-point shooter, and no sideline torrent of fiery adjectives and verbs can make you want to dive for a loose ball.
However a coach can unlock a mindset and unleash an attitude. There is a difference in mindset and motivation.
It’s difficult to create a Darius Theus mindset. That “chip” you used to hear VCU coaches talk about didn’t have anything to do with underdogs. It had everything to do with mindset, and ego. Joey Rodriguez has that mindset. It was unlocked and unleashed in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
And that’s the crux of the misconception. We were never the underdog in 2011, at least not in the minds and hearts of he players and coaches—where it matters. Listen to Rodriguez.
“We never felt like an underdog. Why? I don’t know,” Rodriguez wrote last March when asked to recall the 2011 run. “We just had an attitude and swagger about us that when we stepped on the court we were better.”
The staff in 2011 were masterminds. They didn’t play the underdog card. They played the ego card and that team was full of ego. That’s a coaching staff teaching mindset.
What we’ve got with Will Wade is a rare opportunity to tap back into a mindset through a fresh but familiar teacher. It’s the essence of VCU basketball. It’s what we have now.
Perhaps that’s what’s been askew the past couple seasons. (An A10 championship and two NCAA tournament seasons, I might add.) We were playing more with motivation than mindset.
There is no going back. There is only forward. I know this. And guess what? The biggest pure basketball mind of those 2011 masterminds is running the show now.
There’s one other thing that’s been forgotten. It’s what happens when mindset meets talent, and you play aggressive and fun.
Will Wade–bringing back the swagger.