RICHMOND — There was a time in his life, Shaka Smart admits, when he took losing so hard that he would go home after a game, sit, stare into space and wait for the phone to ring. Almost inevitably, the person on the other end of the line was Oliver Purnell, his boss.
“Just want to make sure you’re okay,” Purnell would say.
“I’d tell him I was, even if I wasn’t,” Smart said this past week, able to laugh now at his former self. “I mean, at that point, I was an assistant coach. The losses didn’t go next to my name, they went next to Oliver’s. But I had nothing else in my life. I was single, and my job was pretty much all I had. Oliver was the one who caught the heat when we lost, but he handled it a lot better than I did.”
That was when Smart was an assistant to Purnell, first at Dayton and then at Clemson. Now Smart’s in his sixth season at VCU as the person whose name is tied to the wins and the losses. And he’s got things under control. Almost. Maybe.
“The good thing about my wife [Maya] is she just doesn’t tolerate me moping or sulking,” Smart said. “She basically says to me, ‘Put it behind you. Move on.’ That’s sometimes easier said than done, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it.”
There’s also his 3-year-old daughter, Zora. “The best thing about her is she could care less if we win or lose,” Smart said. “That really makes it hard to mope.”
Of course, Smart and VCU don’t lose very much, which also makes life a lot more pleasant around the Smart household. After an 89-74 victory Saturday over Saint Joseph’s, the 20th-ranked Rams are 13-3 overall and 3-0 in the Atlantic 10. The numbers next to Smart’s name since he arrived at VCU in the spring of 2009 are 150-49. In his first five seasons, VCU has been to a Final Four in 2011, won at least one NCAA tournament game in three of the last four seasons and has never won fewer than 26 games. That isn’t likely to change this season. Barring a catastrophe, the school will make the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season come March.
On Wednesday, when VCU beat Davidson, 71-65, on a frigid night, a crowd of 7,637 packed the Stuart C. Siegel Center — known to most in town as “the Stu” — marking the 58th straight time the building has been sold out. That includes last February’s win over George Washington on a night when a 10-inch snowstorm shut down most of the city.
“My toughest day as athletic director will come the day Shaka leaves,” VCU’s Ed McLaughlin said. “I hope it never happens, but you have to be realistic and understand that it’s almost inevitable. When that day comes, it will hit our fans really hard, not just because of all the wins but because of what he means to the entire city.”
Smart is 37 and will make about $1.5 million this year, depending on how many performance bonuses kick in. He could have had the North Carolina State job four years ago and has had chances to perhaps go to UCLA, Marquette, Illinois and Minnesota — where Norwood Teague, who hired him at VCU, is the athletic director. Smart is still at VCU.
“This is a great place to coach for a lot of reasons,” Smart said. “We don’t have football at VCU, which means we’re the main attraction. Homecoming is a basketball game. The school and the city are invested in us emotionally — which does bring some added pressure, especially when you’ve been good.”
In fact, almost any VCU loss is greeted by incredulity from much of the fan base. The Rams’ losses this season are to third-ranked Virginia, eighth-ranked Villanova and 25th-ranked Old Dominion. After the loss to Virginia, VCU was 5-3 and the reaction around Richmond was simple: What’s wrong with the Rams?
Smart is very aware of the expectations. Before the conference home opener against Davidson, he was concerned about his players feeling weighed down by the notion that any time the Rams play a conference game at home, a win is supposed to be automatic.
“I think the guys have felt that weight in conference games the last couple years,” he said. “I wanted them to go out and feel spirited, to enjoy playing against a good team. We did that well at times, but there were some other times where we might have been trying too hard.”
Smart is, by his own admission, a tape-watching junkie. “I probably do it too much,” he admitted. “Sometimes I’ll watch a tape of a game and instead of looking for things I can use to help us get better, I’ll get caught up in the frustration I felt during a loss. I tell the players all the time that frustration is the worst thing you can feel in basketball because all it is in the end is being upset about the past — which you can’t change. Then I fall into it myself.”
The balance in his life comes from Maya and Zora. He met Maya on a blind date while he was an assistant coach at Akron. She was a graduate of Harvard and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and Smart was smart enough to understand that a bright woman who wasn’t going to live and die with every basketball game was probably just what he needed.
Last month, Maya was the youngest woman to chair the Richmond Times-Dispatch Christmas Mother Fund, which has raised money for those in need in the city for 80 years. The Fund raised more than $300,000, boosted by $19,000 in donations made by fans at a VCU game before Christmas. Those donations were matched by the Smarts.
Saturday’s win over St. Joseph’s was the eighth straight for VCU. Smart intentionally put together a very tough nonconference schedule because he wanted his players to understand how hard it is to beat good teams. “You schedule a lot of easy wins, it’s like fool’s gold,” he said. “Your players need to find out what it takes to beat good teams — even if you don’t always beat them.”
Two key seniors will graduate this spring: Briante Weber will almost certainly become the NCAA’s all-time steals leader before season’s end; Traveon Graham will probably be no worse than the third-leading scorer in school history. Even so, Smart loves this freshman class and thinks next year’s group will be as good or better.
And, for the moment, he isn’t planning on going anywhere. “What’s the old saying?” he said. “Don’t run from happiness? You never know what life will bring, but right now I’m very happy right where I am.”
He’s even learned to deal with losing. At least a little bit.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.