FROM SMART TO WADE: INSIDE THE VCU MEN’S BASKETBALL COACHING SEARCH

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Ed McLaughlin (left) introduces VCU Head Coach April 8 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Ed McLaughlin (left) introduces VCU Head Coach Will Wade April 8 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

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.

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LEARNING WILL WADE – MEDIA ROUNDUP

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New VCU Men's Basketball Coach made the rounds in a whirlwind 24 hours.

New VCU Men’s Basketball Coach made the rounds in a whirlwind 24 hours.

It was a whirlwind first day for new VCU Head Men’s Basketball Coach Will Wade. He completed the media car wash that included a throng at his press conference, then his own coaches show, plus in-studio appearances at other locations. He was truly a man about town. What did we learn on day one? Well, I listened to a bunch of his interviews in case you didn’t have the time. Some nuggets.

  • He’s obviously happy to be back. “One thing that happens when you leave here, you appreciate it more. You take for granted when you’re here sometimes the sellouts, how fanatical the fan base is. All those people at the press conference yesterday, half our road games in the Southern Conference didn’t have that many people at them.”
  • Wade originally hoped to become a world geography teacher and was once a substitute teacher.
  • One of his favorite memories from his first VCU stint was beating Drexel in the 2012 CAA Championship, one year after the Rams reached the Final Four with a senior-laden team. “I thought that really jump started the program in terms of consistency. That season we started out….we were on the bus on the way back from Charleston. I told one of the assistants on the bus, we’re going to be lucky to win 20 games with this crew.”
  • On keeping Havoc: “I think it gives us a national brand. When people think of VCU Basketball, they think of Havoc.”
  • He had plans to meet with incoming recruit Kenny Williams on Thursday.
  • His coaching staff will take shape quickly. If Wes Long, one of his assistants at Chattanooga, doesn’t get that school’s head job, he’ll join Wade in Richmond. Long, like Wade, is a Clemson grad. He served five seasons as head coach at Queens University in Charlotte.
  • In addition, Wade on plans on bringing a math student from Chattanooga that handled much of the team’s analytic data, likely as a graduate assistant.
  • He loves the food in Richmond. It sounds like Comfort is his favorite restaurant. Good choice.

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WADE’S WILL: A LITTLE CHAOS, A LITTLE HAVOC

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Will Wade was 40-25 in two seasons as head coach at Chattanooga.

Will Wade was 40-25 in two seasons as head coach at Chattanooga.

RICHMOND, Va. – Amid one of the most tumultuous weeks in VCU Basketball in some time, Will Wade restored order with a declaration of Havoc.

“Havoc still lives here!” Wade – the newly minted coach of the VCU Men’s Basketball program announced before 1,200 fans at the Stuart C. Siegel Center at an introductory press conference.

Change is afoot at VCU, but fans can still find comfort in some of their favorite, familiar things.

Wade was referring to the moniker for VCU’s aggressive style of play, coined by Shaka Smart, that helped steer the Rams to national prestige and five NCAA Tournaments in six years. Over the years, the terms VCU Basketball and Havoc have become synonymous. When Wade, who served as an assistant for the Rams under Smart from 2009-13, took over as head coach at Chattanooga in 2013, he brought with him many of the same concepts, as well the same marketing savvy. He called it “Chaos”.

Wade says the Rams will still play with the same aggressive flair for which they’ve become known, and they’ll still get out in transition. You don’t have to say goodbye to the full-court press. It’ll still be there.

Like Smart, Wade is cerebral with a heavy focus on analytics. Both men are big believers in the data of Ken Pomeroy, with Wade noting that he subscribes to additional Ken Pomeroy scouting reports on opponents and that he “had an analytics guy” at Chattanooga who will join him in Richmond in some capacity.

“I’m a spreadsheet guy,” Wade said with a smile.

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WILL WADE PRESSER HIGHLIGHTS

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Will Wade was introduced as the 11th coach in VCU Basketball history Wednesday.

Will Wade was introduced as the 11th coach in VCU Basketball history Wednesday.

Say hello to the 11th coach in VCU Men’s Basketball history, Will Wade. Great turnout at the Siegel Center today for Wade’s introductory press conference. There were somewhere around 1,200 in attendance, and it was more of a celebratory atmosphere than anything else. But that’s what we’ve come to expect out of this fan base. A great day for VCU Basketball.

Check out some highlights from today’s presser, plus thoughts from Melvin Johnson and Jarred Guest.

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Edit: The full press conference is now available as well.

TOTAL COMMITMENT: WILL WADE (REPOST)

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Will Wade, a VCU assistant from 2009-2013, will be introduced as the 11th head coach in Rams history Wednesday.

Will Wade, a VCU assistant from 2009-2013, will be introduced as the 11th head coach in Rams history Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: This feature on Will Wade originally ran in April of 2009. Wade was named VCU head coach Tuesday. 

Distance from Boston to Richmond: 555 miles.

Approximate cost of one-way flight on Jet Blue: $200.

Time to pack: Five hours.

Chance to work with Shaka Smart at VCU: Priceless.

On April 1, the day before his introductory press conference, Shaka Smart gave Will Wade, an assistant coach at Harvard, the opportunity to join his staff at VCU. Wade didn’t need long to think it over.

“He called me around noon and said, ‘It’s done’, and I was on an 8:40 flight that evening,” Wade said. “I think I landed about 11 p.m., and then we met until 3 a.m.”

It wasn’t completely a blind leap of faith. The 26-year-old Wade and Smart had known each other for years. Although they had met previously, Smart and Wade forged a close friendship during the 2006-07 season at Clemson. That year, Smart was serving as an assistant coach, while Wade was the director of operations on Oliver Purnell’s staff.

“We hit it off,” Wade said. “We were both very involved with our players, so our paths just crossed a lot. We have a lot of the same core beliefs and many of the same ways of doing things.”

For Smart, the decision to make Wade his first hire at VCU was a no-brainer.

“There’s that saying, ‘don’t work harder, work smarter.’ Well, Will works harder and smarter,” Smart said. “He struck me as the hardest working guy I knew. His attention to detail is second to none, and he’s really good at developing relationships. I knew that Will was someone we had to have on staff here.”

During their days at Clemson and in the years since, Wade and Smart would occasionally kick around the idea of working together again if one of them secured a head coaching job.

“We’d joke about stuff like that, but I don’t think we’d ever take it seriously,” said Wade. “This is a crazy business. You never know what’s going to happen down the line. But we had a mutual respect for what each other did.”

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A LASTING IMPRESSION

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Shaka Smart won 163 games and led VCU to the 2011 Final Four, but his tenure was about much more than wins and losses.

Shaka Smart won 163 games and led VCU to the 2011 Final Four, but his tenure was about much more than wins and losses.

“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.

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PUT A BOW ON IT

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VCU finished 26-10 and won its first Atlantic 10 Championship in 2014-15. The Rams were ranked No. 25 in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

VCU finished 26-10 and won its first Atlantic 10 Championship in 2014-15. The Rams were ranked No. 25 in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

Sorry for the dearth of correspondence since Portland. I promised I’d return to comment on the season that was, but had some family stuff to address.

I’m back now, and in my stead, I see that Mike Litos, as he often does, has succinctly summed up many of my own feelings on the 2014-15 season and the NCAA Tournament, but better:

The loss of Weber was a tectonic shift. Gone was the frenzied piranha havoc defense. Gone was the senior point guard. Factor in the number two scorer and number five rebounder in school history suffered a significant injury.

This was not November and we were not playing Bethune Cookman with months to figure it out. This was February in the A10, and they didn’t blink.

While Shaka kept us a preoccupied with coaching vagaries like the process and the plan, he and his staff was busily re-crafting where the chess pieces would go. Roles would change.

It got worse before it got better, but to the credit of the players they never lost focus. They believed.

And it came together over those four days in Brooklyn.

Before he dove into the underground, mid-major Pied Piper Kyle Whelliston used to tell us, “It always ends with a loss”, a cold reality for all but the national champion (or NIT/CBI, but even those are pretty hollow).

That last loss is always the toughest, and has the power to skew the impact of the previous 35 games. Although I would have selfishly loved to stay two more days in the Pacific Northwest because I love Portland and I love basketball, the legacy of this team is not one afternoon in Portland against Ohio State. No, it’s four days in Brooklyn.

I’m sure VCU’s 1996 and 2004 CAA Championships, which ended extended NCAA droughts, were emotional nights. Those who were there can feel free to share their stories. But I can’t imagine it approaching what we felt at Barclays this March, watching Briante Weber hop to center court in celebration, then climb that ladder. For me, it’s right there with Eric Maynor’s Dagger and the Final Four. Chills. All of it.

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PORTLAND NOTES: RUSSELL OFFICIALLY CRAFTY, BROOKS BREAKS OUT FOR VCU

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Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell is averaging 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Much of the talk surrounding VCU’s NCAA Tournament Round of 64 match-up with Ohio State has centered on Buckeyes’ star guard D’Angelo Russell, and for good reason.

Russell, a 6-foot-5 freshman, was recently named All-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The Louisville, Kentucky native ranks first nationally among freshmen in scoring (19.3 ppg) and is third in assists (168). Should he declare this spring, Russell is likely a top-five NBA Draft pick. NBADraftExpress.com has him third in its most recent mock draft.

VCU’s game plan will likely dedicate a chunk of attention to slowing down Russell, who has shown little difficulty adjusting to college basketball. A deft ball handler, Russell has also hit 90 three-pointers this year and leads Ohio State in rebounding (5.6 rpg). But it’s his passing skills that have people talking. From one-handed, laser bounce feeds to eye-popping spin passes in traffic, Russell’s vision, and the ability to get the ball into small spaces makes him especially dangerous.

VCU’s Michael Gilmore can vouch for Russell’s skills. They were AAU teammates with Each1 Teach1 in Florida. Gilmore soon realized that Russell wasn’t like other point guards.

“There would be times [in the huddle] where he’d just yell at me, roll, roll, roll after I set screens for him because after a couple of times where I didn’t think I was open,” Gilmore said. “I started trusting him with it. He’s a very good passer.”

Gilmore also has first-hand knowledge of how Russell’s scoring and passing ability play off of each other.

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VIDEO: RAMS HEAD TO PORTLAND

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FIXED IN A SNAP; RAMS FULFILL PROMISE TO FALLEN STAR

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VCU senior Briante Weber celebrates after the Rams topped Dayton 71-65 for the Atlantic 10 Championship.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Amid the chaotic celebration, Briante Weber hobbled over to the ladder. With the help of his teammates, he ascended toward the rim for the first time in weeks, and snipped the last remaining loop of the net. With the snap of the scissors, he freed the net from the metal rim and officially cut VCU loose of its late-season quagmire.

Weber’s symbolic act punctuated a dizzying VCU sprint to its first Atlantic 10 Championship. The Rams, preseason favorites relegated to the No. 5 seed after losing six of their final 11 regular season games, shocked the league with four wins in four days to claim the title. The final victory came Sunday, as the Rams held off Dayton 71-65 in a thrilling A-10 Championship Game at Barclays Center.

At the final buzzer, Weber, his right knee immobilized following season-ending knee surgery, hopped to midcourt to celebrate before breaking down in tears as he was mobbed by teammates.

It capped a week that redefined VCU’s season. Last week, the Rams were a team struggling to find an identity in the long shadow cast by Weber’s Jan. 31 torn ACL. For four years he had been the engine of VCU’s high-energy brand of basketball and the emotional backbone of the program. But as abruptly as Weber’s career was cut tragically short, VCU found its championship form.

“Words really can’t explain how proud I am of these guys,” said Weber, the first player to win three A-10 Defensive Player of the Year awards. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for us, when I went out with an injury, and then us winning, losing, everybody hopping off the bandwagon and so forth.

“But just know behind closed doors we had our talks and all our emotional stuff; when we step in between those lines, from March to the last bit of February, we kind of found ourselves again and that’s what we need to keep building on that right now.”

Weber’s loss was devastating to VCU, which was ranked 14th at the time. But Sunday’s victory – one that seemed improbable as recently as Wednesday – allowed the Rams fulfill a promise they made to their fallen point guard.

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