Thursday, April 2
The call from Richmond reached Ed McLaughlin’s cell phone at Mo’s Steakhouse in Indianapolis at 10:28 p.m. McLaughlin, in Indianapolis for the Final Four, was expecting the call, but the message was still a mystery. He was either going to enjoy a nice evening with colleagues or a long night of planning for the biggest decision of his professional career.
He was out the door within five minutes.
On the other end of line was VCU Men’s Basketball Coach Shaka Smart, who informed McLaughlin that he’d decided to accept the same position at Texas. Smart had just told his team of his plans and would be in Austin by the following day.
Despite the emotional demonstrations in Richmond, where fans gathered outside the Siegel Center in an attempt to convince Smart to stay, McLaughlin’s conversation with his now-former coach was businesslike.
“I congratulated him and said, ‘good for you’, and we talked about some logistical things,” McLaughlin said.
It was a quiet end to a week of rampant speculation in the media, a week where guesswork outpaced actual work. McLaughlin knew better. The real action lay ahead, not behind.
McLaughlin began organizing for what promised to be one of the busiest weekends of his life. Back in Richmond, Executive Associate Athletic Director Glenn Hofmann started calling VCU donors to inform them personally of the news. Meanwhile, Deputy A.D. Jon Palumbo, essentially in standby mode as Smart weighed his options, prepared to fly to Indianapolis to help McLaughlin conduct interviews.
The search to replace Smart, the most successful coach in VCU history, would begin the next morning in earnest.
While there was little certainty about Smart’s decision until late Thursday, McLaughlin and his staff had been preparing for this contingency for days, and in some ways, years.
‘The plan was in place,” McLaughlin said.
The first domino fell on March 29, when Texas officially fired Coach Rick Barnes after 17 seasons. While Smart had spurned overtures from N.C. State, UCLA, Marquette, Illinois and others, McLaughlin knew to watch Texas closely.
“There’s probably 2-3 jobs everyone says to themselves, ‘if this ever came up, then I’d have to listen,’” he said. “Shaka and I talked, and I sort of knew when I first got here that Texas was one of those jobs where he felt he’d have to listen and would want to listen.”
Even as speculation ramped up that Texas would be in play, McLaughlin says he and Smart talked often.
“It wasn’t as if I was kept in the dark,” McLaughlin said. “We knew what was going on. We knew he was going to have a conversation with them at some point. It took a long time for that conversation to happen, and then once it did, it was quick.”
Smart met with VCU President Dr. Michael Rao Thursday afternoon. Afterwards, McLaughlin felt as if Smart’s decision could go either way.
“It wasn’t inevitable. Shaka and I talked a lot about how much he struggled with the decision,” McLaughlin said. “I think Dr. Rao did everything he felt he could as well. We felt like we had exhausted all possibilities, which we definitely did, financially and otherwise.”
Once Smart’s decision had been made, McLaughlin and his team turned their attention to finding his replacement. There was much to be done and a compact time frame in which to do it. McLaughlin felt it imperative to complete the search quickly. Fans back home were restless, and he needed to give certainty to VCU’s current players, while also giving the new staff an opportunity to begin recruiting (the late signing period was set to open on April 15).
The Final Four, frequented by coaches every year, was the perfect opportunity to conduct a thorough search in a short period of time. At the same time, even though the city blocks in Indianapolis were packed with coaches, McLaughlin still had less than three days to track down the best candidates and figure out if they were the right person for VCU. He’d also be doing it without the help of search firms, which are often used to identify candidates and facilitate searches, but are viewed by some as redundant or unnecessary.
“Athletic directors hire coaches,” he said flatly. “That’s what we do.”
In the meantime, he’d have to fend off restless media, job seekers and fans that pondered what the future held without the iconic Smart.
“I felt like we had a good plan in place,” he said. “What I didn’t want to forget was a detail. It sort of kicks in that you have to stay focused in the moment and start lining up interviews for the next few day, but you also have to stay present in the moment. The other part was what type of communication we would have, because that’s obviously what would get our to our fans, and I thought that was a really important piece.”
For some time, McLaughlin kept an evolving short list of potential head coaches in his head, but now he worked to solidify a stable of candidates. Eventually, he settled on a list of 10 that was quickly whittled down to six. McLaughlin and Palumbo discussed the candidates with no one else.
“My wife didn’t even know,” McLaughlin said.
Under Smart, VCU had become known not just for winning, but for the way the Rams won. VCU’s “Havoc” style, an up-tempo offense and full court pressure defense, engaged longtime supporters in a manner previously unseen and ingratiated the program with legions of new fans. McLaughlin felt it important to maintain a style of play that was enjoyed both by fans and players.
Aesthetics were one thing, but McLaughlin says he hoped to separate a lead candidate during the interview process based on more than winning percentages and curb appeal.
“It was, can I see this person coaching our team? Does this person have the leadership qualities? Does this person have the human qualities?” McLaughlin said. “There’s that level of compassion and integrity and being able to be good in the community. You can tell when someone is really invested in the student-athletes or that they talk about being invested in the student-athletes. You can tell if they really are.”
Friday, April 3
The first candidate McLaughlin interviewed in the wake of Smart’s departure was Will Wade the following morning.
By now, McLaughlin’s phone was pinging nearly non-stop. Media members, donors and coaches all wanted a piece of him. Any public meeting with a prospective coach in Indianapolis, which was teeming with coaches, athletic directors and media members during the Final Four, would only ignite speculation, so interviews were conducted with Palumbo in McLaughlin’s room at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
McLaughlin says he interviewed Wade for more than three hours. The tone was conversational, and the interview covered nearly every facet of the program.
“We talked about basketball. We talked about academics. We talked about social behavior and recruiting and who you recruit and how you recruit and the student-athlete experience and leadership and how you grow leadership,” McLaughlin said. “I think something that’s been really important to our folks is to see the evolution of young men in our program as they grow up, how they’ve become the best version of themselves when they leave here, and we talked about ways to do that, and in what ways our coaches can take our current program to the next level.
“Here’s the reality. I don’t need people that are prepped on interviewing just to regurgitate information. I want to make sure that person can sit down with Stuart Siegel, with Dr. Rao, with a media member, and make sure it can be conversational and comfortable.”
Although the two men had worked together prior to Wade’s two-year stint as head coach at Chattanooga, he managed to distinguish himself.
“He’s just and impressive guy all-around in a lot of ways,” McLaughlin said.
At noon, McLaughlin talked with VCU’s players via Skype to reassure them that the search would be conducted quickly and with their best interests in mind.
“A lot of it was, move forward together. Coach Smart is gone, we’re happy for him, there’s going to be change, but we’ll move forward together, and it’s the same thing I told them [again] on Tuesday, that the most important people in this program are in the room. VCU Basketball is bigger than one person, and the most important people in the program are the ones who are sitting in the room,” he said.
McLaughlin also indicated that players would be involved in the process. He’d eventually meet individually with three current Rams to seek their input. A conference call with the media followed, where he outlined the direction of VCU’s coaching search. He later appeared on ESPN 950 radio in Richmond as well.
“In tumultuous times, I think folks need some sense of reassurance, and I thought that was really important that we give that reassurance. I think a lot of athletic directors would go silent,” McLaughlin said.
Later that night, McLaughlin would watch Treveon Graham play in the Senior All-Star Game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis before heading off to dinner with VCU donors.
He filled his time between appointments with phone calls and texts, as he and Palumbo worked out the logistics of setting up interviews and vetting candidates.
Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5
Between Friday morning and McLaughlin’s flight Sunday afternoon, he’d complete six interviews.
“Everyone did a phenomenal job,” he said. “It just speaks to the level of the job that we had such high-level people and people who did a really great job in the discussions. But I kind of knew after talking with Will that the rest of the group was going to be compared to him.”
By the end of Sunday, McLaughlin says he received phone calls and texts from more than 1,100 people – coaches, athletic directors, media members, search firms and donors – about the opening.
McLaughlin flew out Indianapolis shortly after noon on Sunday. He says he spent the entire two-hour ride back from Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport on the phone.
Monday, April 6
Although VCU’s head coaching position had been open for a little more than 72 hours, there was pressure to move the process quickly. McLaughlin and Hofmann says they sought certainty for VCU’s players, as well as the coaches and staffers impacted by the move. The sooner everyone had answers, the sooner the program and the people around it could move forward.
Coaches generally boast far-reaching networks. Everybody’s worked for some coach or worked for somebody who’s worked for somebody. They see each other on the recruiting trails; maybe they’ve worked each other’s camps over the years. With that in mind, McLaughlin says he had no qualms discussing the search with Smart, who had obvious ties to Wade (a former assistant) and other candidates.
“We had a discussions about a bunch of different people,” McLaughlin said. “I specifically said, ‘I don’t want you to pick someone’, because he obviously knew a lot of people, so I didn’t want him to pick favorites, but what I asked was to give me his best impression on people in certain ways, which he did, and it was incredibly helpful. He validated a lot of things that I thought as well.”
Tuesday, April 7
While the search was clearly heading towards a conclusion by Monday evening, McLaughlin says Wade was not offered the VCU job until early Tuesday morning, despite some media reports to the contrary.
“He was very, very excited, to say the least,” McLaughlin said.
Wade quickly accepted and preparations were made to fly him from Chattanooga to Richmond later that evening.
At 12:30 p.m. McLaughlin met with the team to inform them that Wade, who had recruited and coached many of them, would be VCU’s new head coach. A press conference was scheduled for the following day at 11 a.m. The remainder of the day was spent ironing out logistics for Wade’s arrival and the press conference.
“When we announced Will on Tuesday, that [student-athlete] leadership group spoke passionately about how great Will was going to be for the rest of the team. When you invite student-athletes into the process it can help a lot. They can carry out the message better than you can,” McLaughlin said.
At 12:40 on Tuesday, April 7, VCU officially confirmed it had hired Wade as its new coach.
On Wednesday, April 8, before a raucous crowd of 1,200 fans at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, VCU introduced 32-year-old Will Wade as the 11th coach in program history.