Commentary

Another Smart move for VCU?

Originally Published: July 1, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The candor was so refreshing it was disarming.

No attempt to gloss over reality. No poor-mouthing the truth.

"Basketball here," Virginia Commonwealth athletic director Norwood Teague said, "has got to be good."

Teague knows well the importance of hoops. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and a former marketing man in the Tar Heels' athletics department.

VCU is not UNC, and the Colonial Athletic Association is not the ACC, but the roundball fever in Richmond has a Tobacco Road feel to it these days.

Without football to complicate the flagship-sport equation, hoops reigns supreme on the VCU campus, attracting such a faithful following that Teague worries his 8,000-seat arena soon won't be able to accommodate the rabid student following.

In the past six years, the Rams have won 155 games and made six trips to the postseason, establishing themselves as one of the most feared Davids in the perennial showdown of Goliaths known as March Madness.

[+] EnlargeShaka Smart
Courtesy of VCU AthleticsAmong the 343 Division I head coaches, Smart will be the fourth-youngest during the 2009-10 season.

So when Teague had to find himself a new head coach, a man he could entrust with continuing that success, he did what many among his athletic director brethren would never do: He hired Shaka Smart, an unproven young assistant.

"It is a risk, I admit that," Teague said. "There were a number of head coaches interested in this job, but we've had a model here and I really didn't want to break away from that."

Hard to blame him. The VCU model has turned the mid-major program into a major hoops player. In 2002, the Rams made Jeff Capel, then just 27, the youngest head coach in Division I. He rewarded them with 79 victories, one NCAA ticket and one NIT berth in three seasons.

When Capel left for Oklahoma, VCU stuck to its pattern, tabbing Florida assistant Anthony Grant, 39 years old but another rookie head coach.

He chipped in 76 more wins and two tourney appearances, including a thrilling first-round win over Duke in 2007.

If it ain't broke …

When Grant left for Alabama, Teague didn't just hold onto the model -- he tore from the identical page in the handbook, going back to Florida and the Billy Donovan well to grab Smart.

"As a coach, you always put a level of expectation and pressure on yourself," Smart said. "But I've also got so much respect for what Jeff and Anthony did here. I know what I've been charged with, to not just do what they did, but to build on it."

Only 32, Smart has been cruising down basketball's fast lane. Living up to his surname, he graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon College, earning Academic All-America honors while there.

But the books he was most interested in studying were playbooks. Smart took his first step on the coaching ladder at the oddly named California University of Pennsylvania before jumping to Division I with stops in Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida.

Smart said he is the perfect hoops mutt, stealing pieces from all of the coaches who have mentored him -- especially the last one.

"Billy is different from anyone that I've ever worked for," Smart said. "He wants everyone to think like a head coach and take that sense of accountability. The experiences I had under him were invaluable."

Smart wasn't a stranger to Teague. They knew each other through the Villa 7 Consortium, a Nike-sponsored event at VCU that invites top young assistants to a conference where they can meet and network with the athletic directors who may one day look to hire them.

Knowing Grant would leave one day, Teague said he'd been considering Smart as a head-coaching candidate for some time.

So he didn't simply pluck the next young assistant sitting alongside Billy Donovan.

"There's really nothing to that more than coincidence," Teague said. "But I think Billy is one of the top five college basketball coaches in the country, so if people think there's something there, I don't exactly mind it."

Smart knows, however, that coming in as Donovan's former assistant doesn't give him pixie dust and a magic wand.

Yes, VCU returns five of its top six scorers from last year's team, including guard Joey Rodriguez, who initially considered transferring after Grant left the school. But it's the one who's missing who matters most. Point guard Eric Maynor has graduated, leaving the Rams without their floor general and go-to player, arguably the best player in school history.

Smart could be John Wooden and not be able to make up for the absence of Maynor.

"It's a good problem in that we have good players who can step up and assume a new role," Smart said. "But we don't have an Eric Maynor waiting in the wings. This isn't something you can script. It's something that's going to have to play itself out."

Ordinarily that wouldn't be a problem. Most rookie coaches get a mulligan their first year. But there's that tricky first point made by Teague: Basketball at VCU needs to be good.

"I think our fans have incredibly high expectations for our team every year," Teague said. "So the bar is high, but I want the bar to be high."

Answered Smart: "I know the expectations of a first-year coach, but my expectations are simple. I want to win."

Sounds like Teague made the right choice -- the Smart choice, even.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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