PORTLAND, Ore. — To answer one of the most puzzling questions in college basketball, start with one of the worst days in Shaka Smart’s life. He was 19 years old, raised by a single mother in Madison, Wis. He uprooted to Kenyon College in Ohio because the coach, Bill Brown, became a father figure during his recruitment. And then, after Smart’s freshman season, Bill Brown left.
What is Shaka Smart still doing at Virginia Commonwealth? Why does the coach who led a mid-major to the Final Four four years ago spurn UCLA and Marquette and Wake Forest and anyone else who asks? Start at Kenyon College, and then look here: The VCU media guide includes each player’s parents in his profile. For five of them there is a mother or grandmother listed and no father. Smart will not make his players feel the way Bill Brown made him feel.
“That experience had an influence in my life in general,” Smart said. “That was one of the worst days in my life, to be honest with you. It really shook me up.”
On Thursday evening at Moda Center, Smart will be back on the VCU bench in the NCAA tournament, leading the seventh-seeded Rams against No. 10 Ohio State. In a profession obsessed with career ascension, Smart has become a fixture in March while remaining a fixture at VCU’s Richmond campus. He’s one of three mid-major coaches to lead his team to the Final Four since 2006. Jim Larranaga jumped to Miami and Brad Stevens coaches the Boston Celtics.
Smart coaches the Rams. Rather than leaving for a top program, Smart molded VCU into one. Smart has won at least 26 games in all six of his seasons at VCU. The Rams have become a fixture in the top 25 rankings and made five consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, winning seven games there in the past four years.
The accomplishments, he notes, are how he will be judged. He derives his greatest enjoyment from how well he knows Briante Weber, Treveon Graham and Jarred Guest, three seniors he has known since they were high school recruits. He moved around as an assistant so often he never followed one of his players’ careers from start to finish.
“I’m the same as any other coach, for that matter any other person in any other line of work,” Smart said. “You owe it to your family to do the right thing for your family, and do what you think makes the most sense for the people closest to you. As coaches, I consider us to be really close to our players. Obviously they’re a big factor in any type of decisions we make.”
Coaches are, by nature, strivers. Smart is, by nature, a man who rejects convention. When VCU hired him, other coaches recommend he fire the basketball secretary and bring in his own. VCU’s secretary had been there for 31 years. Smart met with Dianne Long, and he thought it would be ridiculous to fire her. “Thank God he just did his own thing,” VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin said. “Because Dianne is great!
“He and I both subscribe to the thought that the only person who knows what makes you happy is you,” McLaughlin added. “A lot of people have opinions of what should make you happy.”
“He’s always been one of my favorite people just because he’s truly himself,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. “He doesn’t try to be anybody that he isn’t.”
In March 2013, UCLA attempted to lure Smart. Minnesota lurked, too. McLaughlin had been on the job for one year, and the prospect of losing Smart petrified him. Upon his arrival, McLaughlin heard from Smart how much he enjoyed VCU. Now it would be tested. Smart signed a new contract that paid him at least $1.5 million a year, plus bonuses and raises for his assistants, through 2028.
“I was a little more nervous,” McLaughlin said. “Now I look at it, and it’s not a question of us having a fighting chance. It’s going to have to be something really good to take him away now. He loves the place, and we’ve put a lot into it to make it a good job for him.”
His players expect rumors to follow the end of every season. “That was one of the first things I asked him,” sophomore guard JeQuan Lewis said. “He pretty much gave me his true word.” His teammates knew already that Smart would remain true to it.
“Ever since I got here my freshman year, they were saying he was going to leave,” said Graham, a senior guard. “It’s that loyalty he has for his team and players that’s a big thing for me. After every year that he gets the calls, he always lets us know he going to be here longer than a lot of us. I mean, it give us that confidence to know he’s going to be here after every year.”
“Once news comes out there’s a job offering, he calls us immediately, with a smile. You can hear it in his voice,” junior guard Melvin Johnson said. “He has a lot of humor behind it. He’s not going anywhere. He always says he’s going to be here long after we leave. We’re pretty confident he’s a loyal guy. If anything were to happen, I’m sure he would let us know.”
Freshman forward Michael Gilmore speaks with friends who play for other Division I schools. They demean their coaches in practice. They rarely see them outside of the gym. “Really?” Gilmore asks. Smart will sometimes walk across campus to run into them, or even visit them in their dorms. “He shows us what type of person he is just by being there,” Gilmore said.
“It shows the type of person he is, not even being a coach,” freshman forward Michael Gilmore said. “He’s a person you can actually trust. It shows a role model you want to be in your life.”
Although VCU plays outside the five major conferences, it should not be mistaken as a minor program. It may lack historical prestige, but Smart possesses an enviable job, certainly in the Atlantic 10, perhaps the only conference that has managed to improve its standing after football-driven conference realignment.
“We may not be in a power conference,” McLaughlin said. “But I certainly think we’re a nationally elite program. We put the resources into it.”
Richmond is the 99th-largest city in the United States by population, and Rams basketball is the most popular sports team; no major professional teams vie for attention. More importantly, VCU has an enrollment of more than 30,000 students but no football program. Smart is arguably the school’s most essential employee.
On the sideline opposite Smart on Thursday night will be Ohio State’s Thad Matta. No matter how far Matta takes the Buckeyes this season or any other, he will never return to Columbus and become the most important coach even on his own campus.
“He just never will be,” McLaughlin said. “He could win the national championship at Ohio State, and what they’re going to be thinking of is when they play Michigan in football.”
When the next big job comes up, Smart will receive another call from another athletic director. By this point, McLaughlin finds it “laughable” that Smart would leave.
“He’s so grounded. He’s so genuine. He is who you see,” McLaughlin said. “What matters to him is, when push comes to shove, am I going to be able to get something from our guys? And he knows he can get it.”