By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, March 21, 2009
The moment Virginia Commonwealth's season ended here late Thursday night with Eric Maynor's missed shot at the buzzer, the basketball caretakers at the University of Virginia should have been dreaming of the possibilities.
The Cavaliers are in search of a basketball coach, and Virginia Commonwealth has a really, really good one: Anthony Grant. He's good enough that Georgia is interested. Maybe Kentucky, too. Grant, at the moment, is what's called a "hot candidate." Schools want to hire him. Young assistants want to work for him. Truth is, VCU cannot keep him if one of the big conference schools come calling, and one of them will. Maynor, who with Grant led VCU on a wonderful three-year run, is a departing senior, so the getting is good for Grant right now.
Grant, 42, is smart, composed, strategically creative, a terrific recruiter. His résumé has it all. He spent 10 years at Florida helping Billy Donovan build the program that won back-to-back national championships. Grant was with Donovan at Marshall before that and was a high school coach in Miami before that. You think Virginia couldn't use a coach with those kinds of recruiting ties? We're talking McDonald's all-Americans and NBA first-round draft picks that he recruited. The players Grant brought to VCU come from D.C., Richmond, North Carolina, Cameroon, Russia, and all parts of Florida.
I'm not about to suggest that the search should end with Grant. Word is out Virginia is interested in Tubby Smith, a man whose national championship and stature would undoubtedly give Virginia basketball an immediate and much-needed shot of energy. But indications are that Tubby is quite happy in Minneapolis (though Virginia is much closer to home), where he has taken the Gophers from laughingstock to the NCAA tournament, and that people there (unlike at Kentucky) are quite happy with him, too.
But Grant is 15 years younger than Smith, and Virginia needs to find a 10-year solution, not just a three- to five-year fix. Of course, if the Oklahoma athletic department is led by people too dumb to get along with Jeff Capel and that leaves an angle for Virginia, all the better. Capel and Grant have to be at the top of any school's wish list, and the fact that both have worked in the state and know the regional recruiting ground could be the Cavaliers' basketball salvation.
The bet here is that somebody in Oklahoma, though it is definitely a football school and an unbelievably arrogant one at that, will be smart enough to keep Capel happy in Norman. That would put the spotlight back on Grant, who according to those around him wants the opportunity to compete for a national championship. Sadly for VCU, playing in the CAA isn't going to afford that chance.
A big-conference school, such as Georgia of the SEC, would be a step up resource-wise, both financially and human.
The Virginia job isn't easy. Dave Leitao's work at DePaul proved he can be a good coach, but winning in Charlottesville is a different sort of challenge, when you're competing at a disadvantage with North Carolina and Duke and often Maryland and Wake Forest. Then, there are Virginia's demanding academic requirements and all of the eccentricities that Wahoos think are charming but which can be annoying and restrictive when it comes to recruiting and coaching basketball. (I've earned the right to say this, being married to a very active Virginia alum.)
It was disturbing to hear it suggested here Thursday night that Virginia might not want to "sink" to the level of hiring a VCU coach. Surely, that's a joke. Virginia is coming off the school's worst record in 40 years or some such, while VCU is coming off two NCAA tournament appearances in three years. Virginia has won 128 games the last eight seasons while VCU has won 176. Virginia's winning percentage in those eight seasons is .525 while VCU's is .698.
I trust this is just alumni and booster talk coming out of Charlottesville, because Athletic Director Craig Littlepage is way too smart for that nonsense. If one of Thomas Jefferson's kin can recruit a couple of studs to live on the lawn, then Virginia can look down its nose at VCU. Otherwise, the Cavaliers would be wise to dispatch someone to talk to Anthony Grant.
Maynor, who will be playing in the NBA next year, said after the game that he figured he would leave VCU after his freshman year when Capel left for Oklahoma.
"Coach Capel got me here, so I thought I was going," Maynor said. "But after my first one-on-one conversation with Coach Grant, I knew I was staying. I knew I was in the right place. He's a great coach and he's able to communicate with his players how much he cares about them as people, which I think makes guys play harder for him. He's been the key to my success. I'm gonna take a lot of what he taught me away from here."
Grant, who as a player helped lead Dayton to the NCAA tournament in the mid-1980s, took Thursday's loss hard. He blamed himself for a strategic decision on the final possession. Without a dozen other decisions Grant made during that game, VCU wouldn't have even been in position to score another NCAA tournament upset.
That was of no consolation to Grant as he stood by himself in a small hallway niche outside the VCU locker room. But it might be of great interest to Virginia fans who would love their program to be where Grant's is right now.