RICHMOND, Va. – Rest in peace, Shakawatch.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been fun watching this incendiary plume of Internet chatter gestate in just four short days into a series of cheeky Photoshops, faux insiders and a Shakawatch hashtag. Where’s Shaka? Here’s a photo of him riding the rollercoaster at Mall of America. Here he is in the VCU dining hall. Nope, here he is posing with two fans in another team’s colors. Never change, Internet. Never change.
But as quickly as irrationality drove message board hits through the roof and sucked up enough bandwidth to power NORAD, last night, they pulled the plug. Smart quietly agreed in principle to a contract extension that provides enhancements for the basketball program and allows VCU Basketball to reach his vision.
“Coach Smart has demonstrated through this process that he is loyal to VCU and his greatest concern lies with our program moving forward every year,” said VCU Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin in a statement. “Our goal was to present him with a revised agreement proactively rather than wait for another institution to step in with an offer.
Although that cut the legs out from under the Carmen San Diego-like @ShakaWatch Twitter account before it picked up much steam – it had just 47 followers as of this morning – it does allow Smart and VCU to move towards a milestone of significance. It’s probably one Smart or most fans aren’t even aware of.
Smart will be the first VCU Men’s Basketball coach to preside over the program for five or more seasons since Sonny Smith. The last three coaches, Mack McCarthy, Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant spent four, four and three years, respectively with the Rams. Since the Medical College of Virginia merged with Richmond Professional Institute in 1968 to form VCU, just three coaches, Chuck Noe (6), J.D. Barnett (5) and Sonny Smith (9) have lasted at least five years.
Five years was always the old standard. The idea was that a coach needed five years, a chance to cycle through a couple of recruiting classes, to get a program humming at full capacity. In his first three seasons at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47. In his first two years at Florida, Billy Donovan was 27-32. It took John Wooden 16 years to win a national championship at UCLA.
Although Smart inherited a successful program in 2009, it also takes time to institute a system, to recruit players that fit, to build a culture. The type of defense the Rams played Smart’s first two seasons in Richmond is drastically different than what we’ve seen on the floor the last two – and the Rams went to the Final Four in Smart’s second season. But Smart needed to get players to fully invest in “Havoc”, and he needed to recruit a stable of fearless, sprinting guards and gazelle-like, athletic bigs to make it happen.
In his first four seasons, Smart is 111-37 with three straight NCAA appearances and a Final Four. He is 7-3 in the NCAA Tournament. Next year, he’ll return three starters, including his top two scorers, as well as Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber. There will be preseason top 25 buzz. The charismatic coach is already an icon in Richmond and an increasingly transcendent figure elsewhere.
But Smart is just getting started.
For much of its history, VCU has enjoyed periods of great success, ones which coaches parlayed into a job at a school with a bigger name or a longer history or a bigger budget. It made VCU fans defensive. They wanted someone who could see what they saw: a vibrant urban university with a vibrant fan base to match, an underdog with guts, a place where you could win. Jittery VCU fans felt like the guy that took his date to a nice dinner at Olive Garden, and then watched her run off with the captain of the football team. All these years, perhaps the only thing they’ve craved more than victory was reciprocity.
It would be awfully arrogant for me or anyone else to judge the career and family goals of those coaches who moved onto other places. I can’t tell a man what path his career should take, and I can’t argue with the terrific opportunities they’ve been afforded elsewhere. But that’s their path. VCU fans hoped to find a coach willing to invest in VCU’s path.
Over the years, VCU has worked hard to meet the market, to build an infrastructure worthy of a top 25 program. The Siegel Center, built in 1999, was one of the first steps. Charter flights, staff salaries, weight and academic facilities and other programs have been enhanced. A practice facility is on the way. The school tried to ensure that when the right coach came along, it would be ready.
Wednesday’s news confirms what Smart’s been saying for years now anyway, that he’s happy here. He wants to win here. Havoc lives here. Smart is that guy.
Now we’ll have to go back to our normal offseason hobbies, pouring over recruiting news and hypothesizing rotations. Shakawatch has reached its conclusion. Shaka Smart is not at the Metrodome or the Hollywood Bowl, he’s on the road today, recruiting…for VCU.