Shaka Smart a great hire for VCUShaka Smart's rapid rise to a Division I coach started with an early desire to master Xs and Os
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Winning Hoops, shortly after Smart’s hire at VCU.
In junior high school, he was writing up zone offenses. In high school, he set the Oregon High (Wis.) school record for career assists and did it by more than 100 over the next-closest player. In college, he received his first coaching offer while still just a sophomore.
Shaka Smart seemed destined to be a big-time basketball coach since early in life and he has taken that destiny, combined it with an incredibly hard work ethic, determination and competitiveness to become the new head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, replacing Anthony Grant who left to become the head coach at Alabama.
“The Xs and Os part of the game is something that always has interested me. I always wanted to play the game but I also looked at the game from the coach’s perspective, says Smart, who is the first, and only, player to have an article published by Winning Hoops (see sidebar). I was writing up zone offenses in junior high school, so, obviously, my interest in the game was somewhat different from the other kids on my team.”
“I describe Shaka Smart as an overachiever with talent, says Bill Brown, the head men’s basketball coach at California University of Pennsylvania, who coached Smart at Kenyon College and offered him a future job on his staff during his sophomore season. When you put those two ingredients together, you have something special. You always knew he was going to be successful in life because he focuses on the small things but keeps them in the big picture.”
“Everyone talks about work ethic but no one will outwork Shaka, says Kevin Bavery, Smart’s high school coach and current head coach at Middleton High School (Wis.). And, he’ll do it the right way. He will get character guys that do the job in the classroom as well as on the court. You can bet that ‘student-athlete’ won’t just be lip-service at VCU.”
Student of the game
Smart was the epitome of the term “student-athlete” while playing basketball at Kenyon College (Gambier, Ohio). After spurning acceptance into some Ivy League schools, Smart decided on Kenyon so he could play basketball. As a player in high school and college, Smart took over the role of “coach” on the floor as the unselfish point guard was always looking to create shots for teammates while possessing an unmatched love for the game.
“He was always a pass-first guy and the ultimate team player. He seemed to get more satisfaction in the assist than points for himself, recalls Bavery. Shaka’s junior year we lost at the buzzer in overtime in the sectional semifinals. His senior year we were upset at sectionals and that may have been a potential state championship team. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a player take a loss harder.”
Smart graduated magna cum laude from Kenyon earning Academic All-American honors. Most agree that he was going to be successful in anything he pursued. Lucky for the game of basketball, he opted for coaching.
That job offer from Brown came just after Brown left his job coaching Kenyon to take his current job at California University of Pennsylvania. He saw something in Smart and wanted to push him toward coaching before most players start thinking about their time off the court.
“When Coach Brown left Kenyon I was heart-broken. He was like a father-figure to me. When he offered me the opportunity to coach with him when I was done playing, it sparked something inside of me and confirmed my desire to coach. And, he gave me an opportunity to do a job and I appreciate it, Smart says. I always have been fortunate to have tremendous mentors. I have played and worked for some great people who are great coaches who have helped me get to the next step in my career.”
Smart took Brown up on his early offer and joined him at California after graduation. From there, he worked as an assistant at Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida. In 2001, Smart was named a member of the Winning Hoops Editorial Advisory Board.
“I learned about full-court pressure from two of the best — Oliver Purnell at Clemson and Billy Donovan at Florida, explains Smart. They taught me quite a bit and I am going to use it here at VCU. And, all of my former coaches taught me how to prioritize what needs to be done today and how to work with assistants to get as much done as possible.”
His own program
Now with his own program at VCU, Smart says he is drawing on his previous experience and set three priorities from the day he was introduced as the Rams’ head coach on April 2, 2009.
1. Develop Relationships. Smart says one of the hardest things for a new coach is to step in and form relationships with new players. “This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work, he explains.
2. Build A Staff. This has to be the most important decision a new head coach makes. Smart says the assistants are the foundation of the program. When searching for his assistants, he looked for work ethic, loyalty and personality. A strong work ethic is essential to what we do in this job. There is so much to do that, as an assistant, you need to be fanatical about accomplishing things, he says. I also wanted people with loyalty to the program here at VCU and I wanted to bring in people who have a personality that meshes well with players.” Smart chose Will Wade who had spent the last two years as an assistant at Harvard. He also selected Mike Rhoades, who had spent the last decade as the head coach at Randolph-Macon College and Mike Jones, an assistant at Georgia for the last six years.
3. Recruiting. “I knew I had to hit the ground running here in terms of recruiting. We had some needs and I signed a couple of good players to fill those needs, Smart says. Of course, recruiting at VCU is a bit different than at his previous stop at Florida.
Recruiting is different and challenging everywhere you go, Smart explains. I have seen recruiting methods at all levels of college coaching, which is great experience for me.”
While at Clemson, he says 95 percent of all recruits come from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. But, at Florida, it’s a national recruiting scene.
He says there are a great deal of skilled players within a three- to four-hour drive of VCU and with the recent success of the program, it’s much easier to pull them to the school. Plus, Grant recruited well in Florida and with Smart’s time with the Gators, he points to the Sunshine State as a place where VCU could pull some bigger recruits but the Rams must stay strong in Virginia. “There are niches in places to recruit but you have to take care of your school’s home area first, he says.
Smart plans to take care of home by running the high-paced, up-tempo style of play he learned under Purnell and Donovan. As a former point guard, dictating pace and forcing the action come naturally.
I want to play an extremely exciting, fast-paced style of play that is fun to run, fun to coach and fun to watch…of course, that’s what every coach says when first taking a job, he adds with a chuckle.
Rookie coach, big-time program
Smart has little room for error despite being a rookie head coach as VCU has racked up 155 wins in the past six years under Jeff Capel (now at Oklahoma) and Grant. Expectations are high in Richmond but that seems to have no effect on Smart. There are expectations here to build on the success but it excites me, I don’t see it as pressure. The pressure I feel is the pressure I place on myself, he explains. I have some big goals in mind but the most important thing right now is to get the process correct. On the court, I want us to play hard, play smart and think team-first. If we do that, success will come.”
Success always has been a part of Smart’s life and his former mentors expect the same of the young coach despite this being his first head job.
“Your first head-coaching position is challenging, says Brown. You have to come in with no ego and include a lot of people. You also have to rely on the information you have gathered as an assistant. Shaka isn’t going to have all the answers right away but he’ll find them out. He’s surrounded himself with quality people. His mind always has been open and his willingness to learn is unmatched.”
Bavery added that to watch Smart work to develop his game as a player provides him with the basis to know Smart is going to work and succeed as a head coach. “Shaka did anything and everything to improve as a player. He did things in workouts all by himself like lane slides and throwing a ball out to the wing, chasing it down, knocking it down with the proper hand and converting the layup. These were things no one else was willing to do. He was hungry and he had a vision.”
Smart’s desire to soak in as much basketball knowledge, combined with his unrelenting work ethic, has been complemented by a 10-year assistant coaching career. Sure, Smart only may be 32 years old and in his first head coaching job, but his experience is strong. Plus, having a youthful look with a strong background is the perfect combination for an up-and-coming program like VCU.
“I try to utilize my age as a strength. I’m 32 and not too far removed from what this group of players is going through, Smart explains. I don’t see age as a big deal. It really comes down to how much you demonstrate you care about your players and how you care about their success in their endeavors off the court as well.”
In addition to being around some of the best coaching minds in the game, Smart’s experience also comes from working a great number of camps and clinics as he started to make job connections while teaching the younger generation how to play the game.
“When I was an assistant I realized early on that the No. 1 way to move up was to do a great job in my present job. From there, I spoke at a lot of coaching clinics and tried to get my foot in the door.
“That would be my recommendation to the younger coaches out there. Work as many camps as you can to build relationships. When I was a graduate assistant, I worked camps at both the University of Dayton and at the University of Florida…those relationships I built with the staff helped me in my career.”
“When he worked our youth camps, it was like having the Pied Piper around! During breaks or prior to the start of the session, he would start playing 1-on-1 with a young camper, says Bavery. Pretty soon, it was 2-on-1, then 5-on-1, then the entire camp was chasing him all over the gym trying to guard him. That is just all the more evidence of his No. 1 trait in regard to basketball — his extreme love of the game.”
Brown also has borne witness to Smart’s passion and desire, which has enabled him to quickly ascend the coaching ladder. When talking to peers, Brown says he always thought he was “over-selling” Smart’s abilities. But, he found out, the exact opposite was true.
“I always told people that he has a chance to be an outstanding coach at a young age. I thought I talked too much about him. Then, once those people met Shaka, they said I undersold him. He was even more impressive in person. It’s a testament to him and a testament that he is going to thrive in any situation, especially where he is now at VCU.”