“Who the hell is Shaka Smart?” I asked.
This was back in the wild days of 2009, when we talked about basketball in “94 feet, both ways” terms and Eric Maynor’s Duke Dagger was still freshly firing through our synapses.
I was conversing with Jeremy Shyatt, VCU’s then-director of basketball operations. Chaka? Shaky? Shaka Smart? Never heard of him. I wasn’t the only one. This was the heir apparent, some 32-year-old Florida assistant with a funny name? Shyatt assured me that this surprise hire – and it was a surprise – was a good one. His father, Larry Shyatt, worked alongside Smart at Florida.
“Shaka’s awesome,” he declared with nary a tinge of doubt.
When there’s a coaching search going on, a parade of names is trotted out, everybody from the high-major retreads to the hotshot recruiters. I hadn’t heard this Shaky Smart dude’s name all week, and it felt like a leap of faith. Was then-Athletic Director Norwood Teague trying to outthink the room?
We were riding pretty high on the hog those days. Three NCAA bids in six years? There was a feeling in the hallways that we’d arrived as a program. The man at the top, Anthony Grant, didn’t just resemble a statue. People were actually ready to build one of him outside the Siegel Center. How much better could we expect to do? We were mid-major darlings, and we were pretty darn happy about it.
It’s not like Smart immediately inspired confidence from afar. This is why your mother lectures you about reading books by their covers, that sort of thing. Grant looked like he’d been genetically engineered. Intense, laconic, sonorous, 6-foot-5 and sculpted from stone, he commanded attention. You could’ve mistaken Smart for the UPS guy. I just hoped he could keep VCU near the top of the CAA.
It’s funny to recall that moment six years ago today. We thought we knew, but we really had no idea where the VCU program was headed or the impact Shaka Smart would have on our lives. I know we didn’t expect what we got, five NCAA Tournaments, a Final Four, national prominence, 163 wins and 60-plus sellouts.
I always knew Shaka Smart would leave one day, and I’d have to write about it. I thought I’d spend more time talking about trophies and winning streaks and banners and prestige. But it’s different today than I imagined.
Smart did a whole lot of winning at VCU, but it’s not why he was beloved or why his tenure resonates with us. It’s not why it hurts a little more, why it feels a little more personal. The wins were merely the vehicle that allowed us to get close.
People win basketball games all the time, and while Smart elevated the VCU Basketball program to an unprecedented level in his six years, the emptiness in the air today has been created by the absence of a special person, not just a special basketball coach.
It’s not so much a reputation of grand gestures, but a collection of details that make him different. It made embracing VCU Basketball easy. To love VCU Basketball these last few years wasn’t just about basketball anymore, it was about something greater. He made caring about VCU Basketball feel good and right and just.
Let’s talk about a tearful Smart hugging injured star Briante Weber on the Barclays Center court after the Rams won the A-10 Championship this year. You couldn’t watch it live and not FEEL it, genuine appreciation. I can tell you that there were also real tears shed today between Smart and some staffers as he said goodbye.
How about Dianne Long, VCU’s longtime basketball secretary, who has worked for six head coaches. This March, for the first time in her career, she snipped a piece of net after the Rams claimed the A-10 title. How many programs involve their basketball secretary in a ceremony considered as sacrosanct as a championship net cutting?
Smart also implored team Academic Coordinator Sofia Hiort-Wright to climb the ladder that afternoon. At some places, there’s a visible divide between the basketball and academics, but not under Smart, who considered Hiort-Wright essential to the program’s success. There’s a big difference between a basketball team and a basketball program. A lot of coaches talk about a commitment to the program model, but few are ase serious about it as Smart. A couple of months ago, Hiort-Wright told me that Smart’s level of investment in academics was “uncommon”.
When VCU traveled, you know who was often the first guy in line to start pulling luggage off the plane or bus – a task usually reserved for managers and freshmen – rain or shine? Shaka Smart. I promise you that is also not common.
Smart began nearly every home press conference by thanking the Siegel Center crowd that night. VCU has sold out more than 60 games in a row, and you never wondered if Smart noticed. It mattered to him.
Even as he was crafting his final statement Friday morning with the help of Director of Athletic Communications Scott Day, he insisted on a revision to ensure he acknowledged the VCU Pep Band, The Peppas, by name.
Everybody wants to be appreciated, but Smart also wanted people in and around the program to make sure they knew he appreciated them.
As it became apparent Smart had a recipe for success, other coaches sought him out for advice, and he always listened.
In 2012, our son was born three months premature, and at one point was clinging to life. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that Smart called and texted encouragement. I missed two months of work, and the folks here took up a collection. They were by no means the only ones, but Shaka and Maya made a generous donation that helped us pay the bills in the most difficult time of our lives.
Smart’s relationship with his players? That was no illusion. The only thing is, you’ve only seen a fraction of the time he invested in his relationships with his players. The reverence with which they talk about Smart is very real, and unlike anything I’ve encountered.
What about stories like this:
There are hundreds of little details like this, and I’m testing your patience with my word count, but I think you get the point
Shaka Smart was beloved not just because he won basketball games, although he did that exceedingly well. He’s revered because through humanity, humility and appreciation, he became a part of this community. He wasn’t just The VCU Coach. To VCU fans, he was Their Coach.
There’s an eerie stillness in the air today. Yesterday, there was a palatable buzz outside the office. Fans gathered in the parking lot for an impromptu rally, a last-ditch effort to convince Smart to rebuff Texas. There were reporters camped out in Siegel Center parking lot and at the airports. Twitter unspooled an index card worth of information over 24 agonizing hours. It was nothing like we’d ever seen.
And then it was gone. Shaka Smart got on a plane to Texas this morning.
It was inevitable. We always hoped for one more year, but sooner or later, we knew he couldn’t keep saying no. I was told two years ago to worry about Texas, that they had the requisite resources that might be able to lure Smart away.
I don’t begrudge him. As I get older, I’ve learned that change is constant, and you have to learn to appreciate the good things while they’re happening, not after. There’s that word again: appreciation. I learned a lot about appreciation by watching Shaka Smart. I know some will be upset, but there’s never a good time for a coach to leave a school. If he left in two years or 10, there were going to be tears in the lockerroom and in the stands. We just witnessed six incredible years. Don’t forget to take a few minutes to appreciate that.
In the wake of this week’s tumult, VCU will search for Smart’s replacement. While Smart set the bar for success high, this is a different job than it was when he first accepted it in 2009.
Every day, I listen to the whir of power tools bringing a $25 million practice facility to life. VCU has sold out four straight seasons and has reached five straight NCAA Tournaments. The line of candidates waiting to talk to Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin will be around the block.
Who the hell is Shaka Smart?
He’s the guy who changed everything.