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2011 Richmonder of the Year: Shaka Smart

From obscurity to the Final Four - and back - VCU's unheralded coach inspires a city.


Coach Shaka Smart roams the sidelines during Virginia Commonwealth University's 22-point win over the University of Richmond on Dec. 9. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Coach Shaka Smart roams the sidelines during Virginia Commonwealth University's 22-point win over the University of Richmond on Dec. 9.

A GIANT TRUCK tire sits on the sidelines during basketball practices at the Siegel Center. It's usually wrapped in a bed sheet, which allow it to slide across the hardwood. Sometimes the tire is filled with weights, making it more difficult to push. Players must get low to shove it forward, which creates a burning sensation in the hamstrings, the lower back, thighs, calves — pretty much the entire body.

The drill was devised by Daniel Roose, strength and conditioning coach for the men's basketball team of Virginia Commonwealth University, and it serves as a potent symbol of the blue-collar work ethic required of players under Coach Shaka Smart.

"If you are not doing the right thing," former player Ed Nixon recalls, "you are going to have to go over there," meaning the tire, which tends to grow with each retelling, like a myth. Nixon, one of the four seniors on last year's team, still has close ties to Smart — and the tire. It wasn't that moving it was extremely hard, he says, but it added an aggravating, temperament-pushing dimension to the already brutal practices.

But that's not why the tire is important. In a magical year that launched the Rams — and Richmond — into the national conscience with a trip to the Final Four, the tire embodies all that is Coach Smart, and all that isn't. What most coaches would use as intimidation, a tortuous and cruel drill, Smart uses as a daily affirmation of the transformational qualities of discipline and hard work. Want to be great? Hit the tire. Smart doesn't punish players in the militaristic sense, he motivates by constantly reminding them why they came to VCU — to push themselves to be great. Don't be a hypocrite, hit the tire.

Fans mob Shaka Smart during an appreciation rally at the James Center downtown April 12, after the Rams returned from the Final Four in Houston.
  • Fans mob Shaka Smart during an appreciation rally at the James Center downtown April 12, after the Rams returned from the Final Four in Houston.

"If a guy's not functioning at a baseline level, he needs to be removed from practice temporarily," Smart says. "Roose came up with the tire concept, a relatively uniform reminder for the guys. They push the tire. Sometimes they carry the tire. Sometimes they put weights in the tire. It's a place in practice that you don't want to be."

It's also not a bad place for Richmond to start. This is a town searching for an identity, especially after the economic turmoil of the last four years. Richmonders too often find comfort in the way things were, which breeds complacency about confronting the future. When Smart was hired as the Rams' coach in the summer of 2009, considerable angst followed the loss of his predecessor, Anthony Grant, who took the team to two NCAA tournaments, beat Duke on national television, and generally was beloved. Smart inherited a team, and a city, that saw its better days in the rearview.

For giving Richmond a reason to flood Broad Street en masse, for the pure joy of seeing an undersized, scrappy team of underachievers take out five bigger, more-talented teams en route to the Final Four, for giving Richmond a blueprint for how to become great, Shaka Smart is Style Weekly's 2011 Richmonder of the Year.

Yes, it's only a game. Basketball won't solve our spiking poverty, crippling unemployment or lead to more businesses relocating here. But in 2011, Smart helped Richmond see itself as something more than an old city mired in what was. A group of unheralded players cast aside their hesitations, found a leader in their diminutive, giant killer of a head coach and became the greatest upset story in NCAA history.

At times crude but always loud and imposing, VCU students pack the Siegel Center for the game against the University of Richmond on Dec. 9.
  • At times crude but always loud and imposing, VCU students pack the Siegel Center for the game against the University of Richmond on Dec. 9.

RICHMONDERS SHOULD BE content to buy their commemorative T-shirts, have a beer at the bar and reminisce. Where were you when the team bludgeoned Georgetown and Purdue by a combined 36 points? Or the 1-point victory over Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen, when Bradford "Big Shot" Burgess found the net as time expired? And who could forget Kansas, then the last remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament — with the giant Morris twins and all that history (Kansas' first coach in 1898, James Naismith, actually invented basketball) — which the Rams were beating by 14 at halftime?

To be fair, no one really saw it coming. Especially Richmonders. This was a team that was blown out of the Robins Center by its cross-town rival, the University of Richmond, lost five games in February and universally was dismissed and derided by the basketball pundits for even getting into the NCAA tournament. Smart used it all as motivation. The Rams didn't just advance to the Final Four, eking out a handful of close wins. They bludgeoned the competition. With an unrelenting defense that never stopped pressing, the Rams beat the University of Southern California by 13, Georgetown by 18, Purdue by 18 and Kansas by 10.

At 34, Smart easily could have cashed in on his magical run. The most popular coach in the country for three weeks in March, the energetic Smart dove after loose balls during televised practices, strutted up and down the sidelines and gave inspirational speeches in the locker room before games. The week after VCU lost to Butler in the Final Four, he was offered the job at N.C. State, and was rumored to be a head-coaching candidate at several other higher-profile schools.

No one would have blamed him if he left. His predecessors, Grant and Jeff Capel, used VCU as a launch pad to bigger jobs at Alabama and Oklahoma — bigger schools with bigger budgets and bigger paychecks. But Smart chose to stay. A group of young, athletic recruits were on the way, and he liked VCU. His wife, Maya, loved Richmond and was pregnant with their first child (Zora's now 3 months old). The university signed Smart to an eight-year contract in early April, with a base salary of $1.2 million a year, a healthy raise from his previous salary of $350,000. Still, he left $800,000 on the table in turning down N.C. State, which reportedly offered Smart $2 million a year.

"People talk about a window of opportunity being there last year, and what if that window closes?" Smart says of the decision. "Well, it's not like a window that's in a burning building, you know. I'm in a really good place. I forget the coach that said, I think it was a football coach a while back, 'Be careful that you don't run away from happiness.' And this is a place where I'm happy."

Shaka Smart's wife, Maya, holds their new baby girl, Zora, at the Siegel Center on Dec. 9.
  • Shaka Smart's wife, Maya, holds their new baby girl, Zora, at the Siegel Center on Dec. 9.

SMART'S LOVE OF basketball, by most accounts, couldn't have been foreseen. His mother came from a baseball family, and his father, who was in and out of his life, preferred soccer. "I had no influences in basketball," he says, explaining that he didn't start playing until he was 11 or 12. "I didn't really have anyone teach me basketball."

So he taught himself. He grew up in Madison, Wis., during the golden era of basketball, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were winning championships in the NBA, and Michael Jordan was just coming into his prime. Smart loved the game, especially Magic and the showtime Lakers of the 1980s.

"From day one, he had this big smile and he had the bubbly personality," says Kevin Bavery, Smart's high-school basketball coach at Oregon High School in Oregon, Wis. Bavery, 55, recalls first meeting Smart in the seventh grade. Bavery was filling in as a substitute teacher for a social-studies class. Smart found out he was a basketball coach, and started chattering about Magic and Jordan. Magic was better, Smart insisted. Bavery tried to convince him otherwise. "You can't win with him," Bavery says. Of course, six championships later, Smart says there's "no question" Jordan is better.

When Smart entered his freshman year at Oregon High, Bavery had just been named the varsity basketball coach, and the two reconnected. "He was the type of kid who would really do unusual things," Bavery says. During the summers, Bavery would find Smart in the gym, alone, tossing the ball into the air and concocting all kinds of hustle drills on his own. He always wanted access to the gym, and the work paid off. Smart started on the varsity team three years and left the school with the most assists in school history, 458, setting a single-game record with 20 assists.

Coach Smart passes a throng of VCU alumni and well-wishers after the team's upset of Kansas in the Elite Eight in San Antonio.
  • Coach Smart passes a throng of VCU alumni and well-wishers after the team's upset of Kansas in the Elite Eight in San Antonio.

True to his name, Smart also was an academic star. Raised primarily by his mother, Smart didn't have curfews or many chores. But she forced him to excel in school. He was accepted into Harvard, Yale and Brown University, but ended up at Kenyon College, an academically rigorous private school in Gambier, Ohio, where he could play Division III basketball. Peter Rutkoff, professor of American studies and Smart's adviser while in college, recalls being asked by the team's then-coach, Bill Brown, to make a recruiting visit to Smart. He was a senior in high school, but Rutkoff recalls being immediately impressed with young Shaka. "Already, he was smart, focused," Rutkoff says. "It was pretty unusual."

Smart excelled at Kenyon, Rutkoff says, and could have gone on to enter a "high-powered Ph.D." program if he'd chosen. Smart wrote his honors thesis on the migration of African-Americans from Mississippi to Chicago. "He wrote history, he didn't just write about it," Rutkoff says. "He was among the best students I've ever had."

But Smart excelled at coaching, too. He loved to teach the game, and his tireless enthusiasm seemed to rub off on the younger players. "He's a teacher and a mentor, and his tool is basketball," Rutkoff says. Smart gets involved with his players academically; all six seniors from the last two years have graduated.

Still, Rutkoff didn't always get the hoops obsession. "At the time, I would confess that I might have said something like, 'What are you doing with this basketball?'"

Kansas University's Josh Selby lifts for a jump shot, but it's not enough against VCU, which goes on to beat the Jayhawks by 10 in San Antonio. The victory is the biggest in VCU history, and the greatest upset of the NCAA tournament.
  • Kansas University's Josh Selby lifts for a jump shot, but it's not enough against VCU, which goes on to beat the Jayhawks by 10 in San Antonio. The victory is the biggest in VCU history, and the greatest upset of the NCAA tournament.

NOT EVERYONE WAS convinced that Smart was the right fit for VCU. He had spent just a year as an assistant to Billy Donovan, the head coach at Florida, and two years under Oliver Purnell at Clemson. But that's it for the big-name coaching experience. He got his start in 1999, working as an assistant for his first-year college coach, Bill Brown, at California University of Pennsylvania before moving on to become director of basketball operations at the University of Dayton in 2001, then moving again to the University of Akron — the Zips — as an assistant in 2003.

When Anthony Grant left for Alabama in the spring of 2009, VCU's players were devastated. In his first season (2006-2007) Grant took the Rams to the NCAA tournament and beat Duke in dramatic fashion. Eric Maynor, now a point guard for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, was a rising star in Richmond but hardly known outside of the Siegel Center. All that changed when he sank the 17-foot shot with 1.8 seconds left, giving VCU the victory over Duke — and Maynor and Grant instant name recognition. Grant preached pressure defense, playing "94 feet," the length of the court, and was an intimidating presence on the sidelines at 6-foot-5. He was tough, and prone to yell and intimidate players during practice, but he also forged close personal ties with them.

"We liked Coach Grant, how his personality, it kind of represented us a little bit," Burgess said in late March, the week before the team departed for the Final Four. "And so, you know, with Coach Smart being different the guys felt like he didn't know what he's talking about, he didn't know what he was doing. So it was a rough transition."

It wasn't just the players. Smart, who's at least six inches shorter than Grant, didn't have much experience and was considered by many in basketball to be a questionable hire. He gave the players more freedom on offense — he encouraged them to take shots Grant didn't allow — but he also wanted more intensity on the defensive end.

Lots of college teams play pressure defense, but not like VCU. The Rams are prone to press an entire game, and at times last year even pressed after missed shots, which is extraordinarily difficult to execute because the game is already in motion, and players are even more apt to be out of position.

"It takes control out of the other coach's hands," Smart says of the press. "It's difficult to prepare for. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. It takes people out of what they do. It's demoralizing."

When the system works, the Rams easily can jump out to double-digit leads. The goal of Smart's defense is to "wreak havoc," pressuring the opponent into making mistakes, which can lead to easy, quick baskets. But it's also risky. Run the full-court press without discipline and good teams will expose you and also score easily. It takes just one player on the court to be out of position and the press can be broken.

"I would call it controlled chaos." says Bavery, now head coach at Middleton High School in Wisconsin. He recently reconnected with Smart, coming to VCU for a visit in mid-October to watch a few practices, pick up some pointers. The press philosophy, he says, takes a complete buy-in from the players and requires patience. During a recent game his high-school team was losing by 12, and then went on a 16-1 run and won. "You're going to get some runs," he says, "you just never know when."

And that was perhaps the biggest misconception about Smart. The combination of players' darting chaotically around the court and the excitable coach's running up and down the sidelines can give the appearance that Smart isn't in control of his team. Grant, who often stands arms-crossed, glowering in the coach's box, is just the opposite.

Smart had some success early, but he wasn't nearly as well received, Teague recalls. After a game in early December 2009 at the Siegel Center, Teague remembers the heckling — and the team was 6-1.

"We're walking off the court, and I happen to be walking behind the team, and a couple people yelled over at me, 'Hey man, you need to get a new head coach,'" Teague recalls. "And we had just beaten Rhode Island. Granted, we let the lead slip a little bit at the end, but Rhode Island is really good."

The Rams began to jell at the end of Smart's first season, during the College Basketball Invitational, which they won. In his second season, the Rams could blow teams away, or get blown away. Against UR in mid-December 2010 at the Robins Center, the Spiders thumped the Rams, who fell behind 40-17 at intermission and lost by 12. After rattling off nine wins in a row, VCU lost five of its last eight games leading up to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The team caught fire in the tournament, but ended up losing to Old Dominion in the championship game. Coach Smart didn't even gather his players on Selection Sunday, the day the NCAA tournament brackets were announced. The late-season wane had all but doomed their chances.

Of course, they got in. The Rams made the field of 68 teams, but were widely dismissed and derided by basketball analysts. Few gave them much of a chance of advancing out of the "first four" — two play-in games that were added last year.

"What I think about is after the USC game, how happy we were," Teague says. "I remember being down in the floor [in Dayton, Ohio,] with a lot of our staff. ... It was if we had just accomplished everything we had set out to do in some way. And we had no idea what was getting ready to happen."

Almost universally derided for getting into the tournament, VCU went on to win five games and cut down the nets as the Southwest Regional champions in San Antonio.
  • Almost universally derided for getting into the tournament, VCU went on to win five games and cut down the nets as the Southwest Regional champions in San Antonio.

DESPITE ALL OF the adulation that comes with making it to the Final Four — the celebrity, the job offers, the recruiting prowess — what haunts Smart is how close they were. VCU had beaten the best team remaining in the tournament, Kansas, and the three remaining teams — Butler, Kentucky and Connecticut — were good but not exactly juggernauts. If thousands flooded Broad Street after the Kansas victory in San Antonio, just imagine winning the national championship.

"I think about it every day," Smart says.

He may be bubbly and motivational, but he's also a fierce competitor, says Mike Jones, one of Smart's former assistants who left in the summer to take the head coaching job at Radford University. Smart likes to talk trash, and is known for running out on the floor during practices to challenge players — sometimes personally. In the culture of hoops, where trash is always talked, this only endears Smart to his players.

"Shak's a trash-talking dude," Jones says, recalling one of their early staff games. "It might have been the first game we played. He told one guy he wasn't a good shooter. So every time he would get the ball, Shak would say, 'Back off him, he can't shoot.' That was a big part of our staff morale. He would lead the charge."

The lasting image for Jones was when the team and coaches came out of the tunnel in Houston, to take the court against Butler. After the team runs out, it's customary for the coaches to walk out together. Smart was so pumped up for the game that he left them in the dust in a combination walk-sprint on his toes. He couldn't wait to get out there.

"He's so fired up he leaves us. He takes off. He left [assistant coach Kyle] Getter and I in the dust. It was that confident, 'I can't wait until tip-off,'" Jones says. "He could have beat me running just by his walk he was going so fast. It's probably the best image I have of the Final Four, watching him sprint away from me and Kyle."

Smart has a swagger and a hitch in his step that fits neatly with the aura of the Rams, especially when the team plays at home in the Siegel Center. During last month's game against Richmond, the arena rocks like a raucous church revival. Since both made it — remarkably so — to the Sweet Sixteen in March (UR lost to Kansas), the Dec. 9 game has been circled on the hoops calendar.

VCU's popular pep band, the Peppas, leads the charge with pop tunes and swaying tubas while the student section boos and hisses creative, but sometimes vulgar, chants ("You suck" — then an about-face, hands tickling imaginary testes — "baaalls!")

Seating more than 7,600 people, the Siegel Center features pullout bleachers, like a high-school gymnasium, but the stands lay flatter than in typical arenas, so fans sit shoulder-to-shoulder, knees-to-back. The cheerleaders give away burritos, stuffed animals cascade down from the rafters with parachutes, there's a "havoc cam" surveying the crowd. The place rocks and sways, and reaches an ear-piercing pitch when the Rams pull away at the end. As the havoc sets in — the pressure defense is relentless — the Rams finally go on one of their patented runs, and wind up beating the Spiders by 22. It's exhausting to watch.

"To me, it was the most excitement I've felt in that building," says Stuart Siegel, the building's namesake and longtime VCU supporter, who attends every game. The place can get downright raucous, and has earned the Rams the nickname, Broad Street Bullies. "I don't particularly like that word," Siegel says. "But I think it's fair."

That the energy from March Madness has spilled over into this season is no accident. By staying put, Teague says Smart validated VCU basketball and, perhaps inadvertently, Richmond. That Chris Mooney, the coach at UR, also signed an extension after the season was no less significant.

If Smart had a difficult time initially selling the players he inherited to practice harder, play harder, and push the tire, he has no such problem now. After the Final Four run, this year's younger team — only one senior, Burgess, has returned to the starting lineup — is playing with even more intensity. In the last month, the Rams have rattled off seven straight victories, by an average margin of 16 points. While less experienced, Smart acknowledges that this year's team has the potential to be even better on defense.

"I haven't seen a team play that hard in a long time," Teague says. "I think that's why our kids play so hard now this year, because they know he's proven himself."

And practices are as brutal as ever. During the December win streak, they grew longer and more difficult. "When you win games, there can be a tendency to get complacent," Smart says of his rationale. "Development doesn't always occur on a linear path. It's not always that simple."

And that may be Smart's greatest gift. Getting to the Final Four, shocking the country — well, becoming the greatest little team that could in NCAA history just isn't enough. So he came back, only this time with a bigger tire.

"Last year it was probably an SUV tire," says Nixon, the senior guard from last year's team. "This year it's an 18-wheeler." S

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, Style misspelled Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College is located.

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