Ed McLaughlin knew the day he was hired in July 2012 as athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth what his first real crisis on the job would be: the day Shaka Smart told him he was leaving.
That day came last April. McLaughlin was at a Final Four dinner in Indianapolis with friends when Smart called him at about 10:30 to tell him he had taken the job at Texas. It wasn’t a shock: Smart frequently had been sought after by Power Five conference programs since his second year at VCU, when he took the Rams to the Final Four. He had turned down — among others — UCLA and North Carolina State.
But after six years, Smart knew it was time, and Texas was offering a lot of money. Austin was a great place to raise a family.
McLaughlin walked outside the restaurant to take the call. When he walked back inside, Old Dominion Coach Jeff Jones, who had worked with McLaughlin while both were at American, read the look on McLaughlin’s face and said simply, “Over?”
McLaughlin nodded sadly and said, “Over.” Then he ordered another drink.
McLaughlin recovered quickly. By the time he left the restaurant, he had an idea who he wanted to hire — not surprising, because he had known for a while that he might be looking for a new coach.
Less than a week after Smart had headed to Austin, McLaughlin introduced Will Wade as his new basketball coach. Wade was 32 — the same age Smart was when he got to VCU in 2009 — but looked closer to 22. He had been one of Smart’s assistants for four years before becoming the head coach at Chattanooga in 2013. The Mocs had gone 40-25 in two seasons, including 22-10 in 2014-15, and McLaughlin liked the idea of hiring someone young — a VCU trademark since the hiring of Jeff Capel at age 27 in 2002 — and someone who was part of the Smart legacy.
“I knew whoever we hired was going to face a huge challenge, especially the first year,” McLaughlin said. “To begin with, Shaka was an icon in Richmond. If he’d ever run for mayor, he’d have probably won by acclamation. What’s more, we were losing two of the best players in the history of the program.”
Treveon Graham was the second-leading scorer in program history, and Briante Weber had the third-most steals in NCAA history. Throw in the fact that Terry Larrier, expected to pick up a lot of the offensive slack this season as a sophomore, transferred to Connecticut and that Kenny Williams, a guard whom Smart had beaten out North Carolina and Michigan for, decommitted and went to UNC, and it was pretty clear life wasn’t going to be easy for Wade.
“I know what I’m walking into,” Wade said last fall. “I knew it the day I took the job. I expect some bumps, but I think we’ve got the pieces in place to be pretty good — this year and beyond.”
He was right, as it turned out, about the bumps. Some of it was to be expected: Even though Wade had worked for Smart, his style wasn’t the pure “Havoc” system that had become so much a part of VCU under Smart that the school trademarked it. He wanted pressure but not necessarily every possession for 94 feet. He wanted his players to dig in more in their half-court defensive sets and — perhaps most of all — he wanted JeQuan Lewis, the talented junior who took over for Weber at point guard, to become a better decision-maker.
Lewis was in much the same situation as Wade: He had to follow an icon. Weber, with his long arms and remarkable quickness, became the symbol of Havoc during his four years as a starter even though his career ended prematurely last January after a knee injury during a loss to Richmond. He had 374 steals when he went down — 11 short of the all-time NCAA record set by Providence’s John Linehan.
Lewis stepped in after Weber’s injury and played well. The Rams won the Atlantic 10 tournament and reached the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season. This season, though, with a new coach, a new style and new responsibilities, Lewis struggled early.
In the second half of the season’s fourth game, against Wisconsin in New York, Lewis didn’t move from the bench. In fact, Wade pared his normal 10-man rotation to six in what turned out to be a one-point loss. Lewis didn’t start either of the next two games against American and Old Dominion.
When he met with the local media two days later, Wade said there were some players on his team who “weren’t hungry enough,” who needed to work harder.
Apparently the players agreed. “Don’t let the baby face fool you,” Melvin Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, said of Wade. “He’ll get after you. He’ll let you know what he thinks.”
VCU played a tough nonconference schedule, with losses to Duke, Wisconsin, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati. But that schedule has paid off since the start of conference play. On Jan. 16, the Rams went to Richmond and gutted out a 94-89 overtime win, with Lewis playing 42 minutes and scoring 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting. On Wednesday, they routed Duquesne, 93-71, for their ninth straight victory to move to 6-0 in the A-10 and 14-5 overall going into Sunday’s scheduled game against St. Bonaventure. The December fears that the NCAA string might end have, for the most part, dissipated.
“I think we’ve gotten some answers to the questions I had before the season,” Wade said on Wednesday before the Duquesne game. “JeQuan has come a long way since November. He’s preparing a lot better, spending more time looking at film, being ready mentally for practice every day.”
Wade grinned. “The best thing about that is he can see the results in the games. That’s good for me because it means he doesn’t think I’m completely crazy to be telling him the things I’m telling him.”
Wednesday night was the Siegel Center’s 77th straight sellout since 2011, the year the Rams stunned college basketball by advancing from the play-in round to the Final Four. Smart is gone (though certainly not forgotten), but life has gone on just fine at VCU.
Havoc may not reign here anymore, but Wade’s Rams certainly do. And the color has returned to McLaughlin’s face.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.