Every coach crushes his introductory presser. It’s unavoidable. You get to script it, and at VCU we’ve become experts at writing this script.
Here, it’s more like a town hall meeting, where leaders wax rhapsodic about a return to the good old days and nights, when men were men, games were won, and loyalty meant something. The canvas is painted with a perfect combination of colors and shapes and the future will be even better than the great past. More than 1,000 people found their way on a random Wednesday at lunchtime to take it in.
(Side note: in fact, if you don’t crush the introductory presser there’s a big problem that’s not yet surfaced.)
And that’s the precise construction we got earlier today when the lights went on for Mike Rhoades and his family’s return to VCU. It was straight from the Introductory Presser handbook. We got a fired up Dr. Rao talking about wagons, saying Rhoades “understands what we’re talking about.” We got Ed McLaughlin clearly running on fumes but up to the task of un-quiet barbs and stage-setting remarks. “Mike Rhoades fits VCU.” Rhoades was next, and he was thankful.
In that vein, Rhoades crushed it. It was exactly what you’d expect.
Except for the fact that this was entirely different.
There is a playbook for these things, and it was followed, but it was nothing more than mechanics. Plumbing. The ice on the pond. Mike Rhoades brought an authenticity, a feeling, to an event that serves an entirely different purpose. Clinically speaking, it was about Mike Rhoades being named head basketball coach at VCU, but it felt like a homecoming. It felt like the moment you walk into the house, after six hours on the interstate coming home from vacation. That other stuff was nice, but this is home. There is no place like home. It was a palpable exhale after 36 looney tunes hours.
Rhoades chose to thank his support at Rice—named them personally. He spoke about his family, and he was sure to speak to the players directly. The crescendo came midway, and it had nothing to do with basketball.
“I am home. I am at VCU,” he said, and then delivered the hammer, looking over to his mom. “We’ve been on a ride for a long time, and this ride stops here, mom. At VCU.”
Friends—grown ass men who pretend they are tough guys—told me they teared up. Nobody will forget his wife Jodie, on the verge of tears more than once.
Rhoades barely talked about his style of play, and when he did that, it was stilted. “I don’t have to write this part down,” he said, before quickly stating “we’re going to play fast. We’re going to play exciting. We’re going to go after people. And we are going to win.”
In short order Rhoades made sure everyone knew the goals. “This press conference is about me for about two more minutes,” he said. “This is about the players. To the players: I am here to serve you.”
There was more, but it didn’t matter. Rhoades is the Seinfeldian brand in that he is the un-brand. There is no brand. No gimmicks. No half-hearted or phony shout-outs. He is Mike Rhoades. A real guy. Our guy. The VCU head basketball coach.
But for a lot of us, it’s more. The connection and the feeling matters on a deep, longstanding level. You see, there was a long history of VCU basketball success before March 2011 turned everything sideways. Rhoades, and McLaughlin, spoke the names Duncan, Warren, Jones, Maynor. This was more of the home feeling.
Like Dr. Rao said, they know what we’re talking about. That matters, and I don’t think the timing of it occurring today is coincidence. This felt like a moment.
You see, there’s been a 12-year sense of dread that bubbled every March.
Ever since Jeff Capel nearly beat Wake Forest and Chris Paul, and Anthony Grant beat Duke with The Dagger. Since Shaka Smart led us on a beautiful ride and Will Wade was a two-year caretaker. It’s been there. Lingering.
The shoe was always going to drop. We knew it. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when, and success could not be truly savored. Many times April was nothing more than a stay of execution when your taxes were due. We never knew the name of the school but it was coming. Oklahoma. Alabama. Texas. LSU. For 12 damned years the albatross hung on our necks, taunting us. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. April has been dreadful.
And part of the dread was the unsaid reality, at least recently, that VCU had hit a ceiling. The hope of what can be died in the round of 64, or 32. That momentum had stalled. Though we never really faced it, we knew turning over coaches and spending time re-racking progress is exactly what led to the sputter of the engine despite expectations churning forward.
So I think that’s the feeling for many of us tonight. An absence of dread. A renewed sense of hope. Mike Rhoades represents a consistency and continuity that we can build on and take that step. And then the next step. More importantly, Rhoades can flat out coach. Most importantly, Rhoades used two key words that binds us all to this journey.
Family, and love.