Bradford Burgess and David Hinton admit it’ll be strange Sunday when they look over to the opposing sideline and see former VCU Coach Anthony Grant. Emotions are sure to run high when the Rams visit Grant and his new team, 13th-ranked Alabama, Sunday night at 9 p.m. (ESPNU) in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“It’ll definitely be weird at first,” Burgess said. “I have to get over the emotions and realize it’s just another basketball game. It’s going to come down to being able to settle in.”
Both players chose to become Rams largely based on the relationship they built with the coach during the recruiting process. Burgess started every game for Grant as a freshman in 2008-09, while Hinton, a recruited walk-on, redshirted that season.
Grant left the Rams for Alabama shortly after the completion of the 2008-09 season. At the time, Grant was walking away from one of the most successful three-year stretches in school history. From 2006-09, the Rams were 76-25 with two Colonial Athletic Association Championships, two NCAA appearances and one program-changing victory over Duke in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
His name was floated in connection with a number of suitors during his tenure. He was all but set to replace Billy Donovan at Florida in 2007 before Donovan decided to return to the Gators after a brief flirtation with the NBA’s Orlando Magic. In 2009, deep-pocketed Alabama offered Grant a chance to return to his SEC roots (he was an assistant at Florida for 10 years), not to mention a reported $2 million-plus annual salary.
The news hit many of the players hard. Hinton said that Grant expected some emotional reactions.
“He called us into the Barkley room as a team and told us he was going to take the job down there and he knew that guys were going to be mad,” Hinton said. “But he said, ‘when you get older, as a man you have to make a decision that helps you and your family the most.’ This was just a better opportunity for him and his family.”
“I didn’t really know what to think,” Burgess said. “I didn’t fully understand it. I was an 18-year-old freshman and we just had a pretty successful year…I guess I was hurt.”
At Alabama, Grant has helped return the Crimson Tide to prominence. Last season, ‘Bama was considered a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament and ended up in the NIT, where it reached the championship game before losing to Wichita State.
Meanwhile, VCU reached the Final Four last season under Shaka Smart. The Rams also won a College Basketball Invitational title in 2010.
Despite his departure, Grant has kept in touch with many of his former players. In May, he attended graduation ceremonies at VCU for Brandon Rozzell, Joey Rodriguez and Ed Nixon. Burgess and Hinton saw Grant during that visit, and he’s also kept up with both players via the occasional text message and phone call. Grant still has a brother living in Richmond and when he visits, Hinton and Burgess say he makes sure to let them know when he’s in town. When Burgess sprained his ankle over the summer, Grant called to check on him.
“That’s the type of guy I was looking for and why I came to VCU to play for him,” Burgess said. “I still have respect for him. I appreciate him for getting in touch with me even though he’s in a different place and other things to do.”
“I talked to him a lot at graduation,” Hinton said. “I thought it was very thoughtful of him to come up and see the players he recruited make it through and graduate. That meant a lot to me that he still cares a lot.”
As per his VCU contract, Alabama is obligated to give the Rams a home-and-home series, just as Oklahoma did when Jeff Capel left for that school in 2006. Alabama will play the return game at the Verizon Wireless Arena at the Siegel Center next season.
In the time since Grant’s departure, Burgess has blossomed into a star. Hinton has become a solid big man off the bench for the Rams. On Sunday, they’ll look to lead the Rams past Alabama in a critical non-conference contest for VCU’s young squad. While they expect emotions, Burgess and Hinton are going to try to use some of the lessons they learned from Grant to earn a win, notably, block out distractions and focus on basketball.
“I have a great appreciation for Coach Grant…but also, it’s a business trip,” Hinton said. “He moved onto Alabama, and now Coach Smart is here, who is a great coach. We’re trying to take care of business.”