- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
An exhausted Norwood Teague woke up to catch an early flight out of Oregon. As he headed toward the door, he saw a piece of paper sitting on the floor.
It wasn't there in the wee hours of the morning when he turned in after a day's worth of meetings. Yet now, at just 6 a.m., there it was.
"It was a note from Shaka, just telling me how much he appreciated having some time to speak with him,'' Teague said.
Four years and one coaching change later, Teague would tab the author of that note as his head coach and that head coach would lead VCU on a magical ride to the Final Four.
Shaka Smart earned his stripes the old-fashioned way, climbing through the coaching ranks as a young assistant, but he is convinced that it was one fateful decision that led him to where he is today -- four years ago Smart accepted an invitation to participate in Villa 7.
That's where he met Teague, Virginia Commonwealth's athletic director, and that's when he left the note.
"It did get me this job, no question,'' Smart said. "It didn't make me qualified for the job, but it provided me with the relationship to get the job. It's all about the who, who you know and who you have relationships with. And without Villa 7, I don't have the relationships to get this job.''
What sounds like some sort of secret society -- "we sort of like it that way, like it's Skull and Bones,'' joked Mike Ellis, VCU assistant athletic director and the brains behind Villa 7 -- is actually a consortium designed to introduce young assistant coaches to athletic directors who may later be in the market to hire a head coach.
Since Villa 7's inception in 2004, 59 of the coaches invited to participate have moved from the assistant's chair to head-coaching jobs.
"What Mike Ellis has done for coaches, it's like the basketball gods are smiling down on VCU right now because of how much they've given and done for coaches,'' said Charlotte coach Alan Major, a former Ohio State assistant who participated in Villa 7's events in 2007. "The ball is bouncing their way because of how many guys they've helped, selflessly.''
Ironically, the roots of Villa 7 are selfish, not selfless. Seven years ago, then-VCU head coach Jeff Capel was Shaka Smart, the hot young coach on everyone's wish list. Worried that he might lose Capel -- he did a year later to Oklahoma -- Richard Sander, the athletic director at the time, got together with Ellis.
Once a coach, Ellis had slid easily into an administrative chair at VCU and was as well connected as anyone in the business. But as his school pondered and fretted over needing a new boss for its flagship program, he saw a void: For schools like VCU, where the next head coach is often an assistant somewhere else, there was no way to recognize who the top assistants were, short of picking up the phone and calling people.
"We talked and talked and after about four hours, we came out with an idea to put something together for schools like ours, schools that had to be good and make good decisions because basketball is the driver,'' Ellis said. "We wanted to create something so that when you have a job opening, you have a more informed process; so that both sides know more about the other and it leads to better hires. It just makes sense.''
Using VCU's Center for Sports Leadership as an umbrella and partnering with Nike for financial support (Villa 7 is not just available for coaches who wear Nike gear; it's open to everyone), Ellis hosted the first Villa 7 in Las Vegas during the July recruitment period.
The meeting was held at Villa No. 7 at The Mirage, hence the mysterious name.
"There was such a buzz that year because we all heard about it but no one knew quite what it was,'' Smart said. "It was unclear whether it was something anyone could go to but everyone was talking about it.''
Now it seems everyone knows about it. Ellis has gone from a quiet administrator to the most popular kid in school. His phone rings almost daily with "casual 'how-you-doing calls'" from assistant coaches, and at the Final Four this week in Houston, he will be feted and greeted like a king.
That's because he and Eric Lautenbach, Nike's college basketball director, only extend 60 invites annually (plus 40 more for women's assistant coaches).
"It's not an exact science,'' said Lautenbach, who said Nike's involvement is in keeping with Phil Knight's roots of developing relationships with coaches. "It's a challenge, especially now, because you've got head coaches calling to recommend their assistants but we don't go with old crony favors. We keep it tight.''
The two "look under stones'' to find coaches they think will be up-and-comers in the profession.
They cull from the obvious spots, pulling assistants from the benches of premier programs but they look well beyond the power six. Matt Graves, currently an assistant at Butler, is part of Villa 7, and so once was Matt Matheny, then Bob McKillop's assistant at Davidson and now the head coach at Elon.
"Being invited is like getting that sword tap from the Queen of England,'' Major joked.
No one is naive enough to believe that Villa 7 alone gets a coach hired. Sitting next to Thad Matta for six years certainly helped raise Major's cachet and it didn't hurt that Smart's résumé also included stops as an assistant at Florida and Clemson.
But both did meet their ADs initially at Villa 7. Major ran into Judy Rose four years ago there while she was waiting for a cab.
The two-day meeting in May includes all sorts of professional development seminars -- interviewing skills, presentations from current head coaches on how to run and build a program but it's the time with the ADs the coaches want the most. Their favorite thing is probably the goofiest: Villa 7's version of speed dating, where one coach gets five minutes with nine ADs.
"It's like being back at basketball camp, all this testosterone flying around because everybody is competing,'' Smart said. "Some guys probably try too hard. You're not going to get a job that day.''
Although that has happened.
Five years ago, New Orleans athletic director Jim Miller came to Villa 7 to meet specifically with Buzz Williams.
A month later, he hired him.
"They're really on the cutting edge of a lot of different things,'' Williams said. "I don't think there's any other movement that's based on helping you grow and having a vision once you become a head coach. There's nothing else like it.''
Now, of course, it has its poster boy.
Plenty of outsiders thought Teague took a leap when he tabbed Smart. Yes, like his predecessor, Anthony Grant, Smart was an assistant at Florida but was young, not terribly well known and VCU had become a very good and desirable mid-major job.
But Teague felt comfortable with Smart because he knew him and more, knew what he was about.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity to help you develop relationships,'' Smart said. "Once you have that relationship, it's up to you to take it from there. But without it, it's very difficult for an assistant coach to pick up a phone or show up at an office with a cold call and sell yourself. There's no way I'm here right now without it. None.''
So who looks smart now?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.