When the buzzer sounded at Barclay's Center on a warm Brooklyn Saturday this past March, VCU had dispatched GW in the A10 tournament semifinals with a strong finishing kick. Notably, with the win, Shaka Smart became the school's alltime winningest coach. Smart's 137th win surpassed Sonny Smith's total from more than a decade past.
It's a remarkable number considering Smart was finishing his fifth year and it took Smith nine seasons, but that's really just a data point. A number. Now don't get me wrong. Becoming your school's alltime winningest coach is impressive and worthy of note and it's how we score success in college basketball, but boiling down the impact of Shaka Smart on VCU to math is a mistake.
Those are the results, the product, of what he does, what he' leading, what he's building. Those numbers matter greatly, but what occurs in the weeks and days and hours that lead up to the games that provide those numbers matters more. There's emotion and thoughtfulness and guidance and meaning that's wrapped up in everything he does.
You see there's nuance to Smart, interesting tidbits he drops into conversations that makes you want to continue to try to understand the deeper meaning. It's nuance like winning one more game the season after the Final Four than in that special season. That's a number but it also carries a deeper meaning. It's nuance like a rhetorical from a recent discussion we had. He asked:
"What is the standard for what's enough winning?"
And you think about that statement. And then he tells you what he means, and you think "holy crap."
In the good way.
I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT ANY SPECIFIC MOMENT, BUT IF YOU ARE SITTING NEXT TO YOU FROM FIVE YEARS AGO, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR JOURNEY AT VCU? WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU WOULD TALK ABOUT TO THAT GUY?
Shaka Smart: I think anytime you make the transition from assistant coach to head coach, there is hopefully a level of preparedness that goes into that, and hopefully you’ve done a good job being organized as an apprentice for another head coach, but you’re never fully ready and you know that. You know there’s going to be an adjustment. The number one thing is making sure that mentally and emotionally you do a good job of handling all the things that come with the job...the interactions, the highs, the lows, the feedback, the adjustments with relationships because they are really different when you are the head coach. Inside the program, outside the program, with the media, just the things that are part of the job are different.
As I told Will when he got his job, as long as you stay in a good place in terms of your mental health you’re going to be highly successful and I believe that about all the guys that have gotten head coaching jobs.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD WARN FIRST YEAR SHAKA SMART ABOUT, OR THINGS YOU WARNED WILL OR MIKE ABOUT?
Shaka Smart: Well the generic advice is that everyone gives is be yourself and don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be your heroes as a coach growing up or the guys you worked for. Truthfully, you are yourself and that’s good advice, but sometimes it’s easier to tell someone else that than to do that yourself because you're still trying to figure out who you are as a head coach. Even for Mike Rhoades. Who he is as a head coach now is going to be different than who he was as a head coach at Randolph Macon before he got here.
People told me that, and I got that advice, so I would not go back and warn myself but I would remind myself that that's okay and to enjoy the journey a little bit more. I’m someone...I don’t particularly like change. I like familiarity, so there were growing pains, not just personally as a head coach but that go along with starting your own program. I was fortunate that I came in following a very successful coach, but it doesn’t matter who you follow, when you come in you have to start certain things from scratch. There’s a reason they call it growing pains.
I WANT TO ASK ABOUT SATISFACTION. WE ALL HAVE THAT PLACE WE GO TO TALK ABOUT THINGS WITH OURSELVES. WHEN YOU GET TO THAT PLACE AND THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT'S HAPPENED, THE SUCCESS, THE WINNING, TROY IN THE NBA, THE ASSISTANTS GETTING HEAD COACHING JOBS, A KID LIKE DARIUS BLOSSOMING AS A YOUNG MAN. ALL THE PROGRESS YOU'VE MADE, WHAT ARE YOU MOST SATISFIED BY IN TERMS OF 'THIS IS THE WAY WE DO THINGS AND WE GOT THE DESIRED RESULT?'
Shaka Smart: The stuff you mentioned, but I'm not satisfied with anything. I want Troy to do better. Troy had 22 points the other night and he should’ve had 30. So I’m not satisfied. But I truly enjoy seeing those guys' success. Troy, Darius, Mike Rhoades, Will Wade, Mike Jones, Jamion Christian, other guys that have been here and moved on and had success. David Hinton is about to join the secret service. I feel good about the fact that every senior we’ve had has graduated but I'm not satisfied with anything.
There’s a little bit of a disconnect between what we are viewed on externally, and what we believe our actual mission is. And that’s okay. It is what it is and I'm not criticizing the system, but sometimes you wish people would understand the connection between moving people forward and winning but I understand it's not always a linear path. There are steps forward there’s steps backward. There's peaks and valleys.
CAN YOU ARTICULATE THAT CONNECTION, OR DISCONNECT?
Shaka Smart: It's like, first of all how much winning is enough? I mean...one question I used to hate that I’ve learned to, uh, that's kind of how people are, is 'how many games are you guys going to win this year?' It comes from a good place but we’re trying to win every game, but the only game we really are focused on is our next game, especially when that next game is a day, two days, or three days away.
So again it’s how many? What is the standard for what's enough winning? You used the term satisfied. For us, we're not going to be satisfied from a winning standpoint unless we go win that game. And then we want to go win the game after that and we're not going to dwell on the last game much. Once the game is over and you’ve won or lost you’re not getting it back and you have to move on.
Certainly in our situation at VCU that standard for winning has been raised, probably over the past 10 years. I look out the window all the time, I look at the banners out there in the Siegel Center. Ten years ago Jeff Capel did a terrific job in winning the CAA and he went to the NCAA tournament. Started a very, very successful 10-year run at VCU. But before that, there were several years with no NCAA tournaments and not as much success.
You go back to 1996 and that was the only NCAA tournament in the whole decade of the 90s, and in fact if you look before that the last NCAA tournament was 1985. So you know in any program there’s going to be ebbs and flows and what you want to do as a coach is keep moving forward, and that’s why our primary goal and mission is to move forward. But it's all relative to who you're playing and the situation, so we choose to focus on the things that we can control and we choose to put our guys in the best possible position to have success.
You look at a guy like Troy Daniels, a guy like Darius Theus, a guy like Juvonte Reddic and you say 'those guys were very, very good players and they won a lot of games and had great careers at VCU but man I wish Troy would've done this or done that, or Juvonte had done this'--not me but people from the outside that look at this.
This is not the end of their journey. They are 22 years old when they leave here. I don't know where you were at 22 but it’s just the end of their time wearing a VCU uniform. No, they aren't going to score any more points or get any more rebounds here at VCU, but I do feel good that those guys made great progress while they were here, that they did help us win a lot of games and they’ve continued to grow afterward.
WHAT WOULD YOUR MOM LOOK AT AND SAY 'I'M MOST PROUD OF SHAKA FOR THIS?'
Shaka Smart (laughing): She’s probably more about the winning than I am. She likes winning. She likes winning. She, uh, gets almost disgusted. She’s probably more like some our hardcore fans.
But if she really took time to think about it and contemplate that question, what she would be most proud of is that when I was 21, 22 years old, when I decided to start this journey in coaching and a lot of people around me were critical of that decision, she was always extremely supportive because she knew it's what I wanted to do. She would be most proud that I’ve never wavered in my passion and my work ethic and drive to get better in coaching and to create good experiences.
LET'S BACK UP TO THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WINNING AND WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO DO. ARE THERE CONCERNS THAT THE HAVOC BRAND IS GETTING BIG ENOUGH TO OVERSHADOW WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO DO HERE OR IS IT A PART OF WHO WE ARE AND EXTERNALLY PEOPLE WILL RUN WITH IT HOW THEY WISH?
Shaka Smart: No. I think the concern, if there was a concern, would be that people don’t understand what that means. There tends to be an oversimplification sometimes about what people are trying to do. I'm not being critical; that's just how things work. So that would be the concern.
I’m not really worried about someone from the outside really knowing every detail about what we're trying to do to help move JeQuan Lewis forward as a person. It's not really their concern, but that is the most important thing for us, to move him and our other players forward and our team forward.
I was speaking to a group of students in the school of education earlier this week and a student asked a really good question. 'What do you do when moving the player forward goes a different path than moving the team forward?' And that does happen occasionally, you hope that what's best for the team is also what’s best for the player and vice versa, but I was obviously hired here to help this program continue to grow and do good things.
I do believe that at the end of the day if our guys buy in and follow the plan and really do what we ask them to do, and sacrifice, there’s going to be a great reward for them. Troy Daniels and Darius Theus are great examples of that. BUT sometimes it's delayed gratification, sometimes it’s not going to happen when you want it to. Look at Troy. To be honest there are very, very few guys that have been here or are here now that we’ve coached that would be able to do what he did from his freshman to sophomore to junior years. Not in terms of making shots or physical transformation, but in terms of the mental part of it.
THE FAME, WINNING SO MUCH, YOU GET PULLED IN 80 DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS. GIVE ME A FIVE YEAR VIEW OF HOW YOU'VE MATURED. HOW DO YOU APPROACH THE RELATIONSHIPS AND THE DEMANDS WHEN YOU HAVE TO TALK TO ROTHSTEIN, PARRISH, AND YOU HAVE TO BE AT A DIFFERENT PLACE AND YOU HAVE TO BE A DAD AND MAYA WANTS YOU TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH AND YOU HAVE TO HIT THE ROAD RECRUITING. ALL THOSE THINGS TOGETHER.
Shaka Smart: It’s a balance that you've got to strike and organization helps with it. I need to continue to get more organized with that. Maya is very big on creating systems so that you don't have to think what to do next in a specific area. You just know 'this is the system this is the process' and it’s in writing.
This time of year is a great example. Everybody asks me 'you getting some off time,' and NO this is much busier now, April, than during the season, from this standpoint. Obviously we're working a lot during the season and we're putting everything we can into our team. But during the season it's literally make sure guys are ready and prepared academically, practice, games, preparation for games, recruiting, spend time with the guys.
That list is so much longer now. It's not as much fun now because it's fun being on the court and fun playing in the NCAA tournament. That stuff is fun and now a lot of this stuff has less to do directly with playing basketball, but it obviously indirectly impacts our program and what we do.
To balance that stuff is still a work in progress. I need to keep getting better with organization and you’ve got to have a little bit of feel for it. Unfortunately sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the oil and I guess that's just how things work.
HOW DO YOU PROCESS OR APPROACH WHEN YOU WANT TO GO HOME AND HANG OUT WITH MAYA AND ZORA BUT CAN'T. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN THE STUFF YOU HAVE TO DO IS DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU WANT TO DO?
Shaka Smart: I'm lucky in that I have a job, a lot of this stuff that I have to do I want to do and that is something I appreciate about coaching. There are a lot of jobs out there that are "important" jobs or high paying jobs but they probably aren't as much fun.
But you have to look at it as a process that you enjoy, and I really enjoy the interaction with the staff. That makes it a lot of fun. But would I like to spend more time with my family on most days? Yes, but I think there is quality time that we are able to spend and continue to spend and that’s what’s most important.
WHAT IS ONE THING YOU USED TO DO MORE OF BUT DON'T GET A CHANCE TO DO MORE BECAUSE OF ALL THE STUFF? MAYBE MORE THAN ONE BUT YOU GET THE POINT.
Shaka Smart: There are a lot of self-improvement things that I need to and want to do more. At different times in the year it can fall by the wayside, so I just have to force myself to carve out the time to do those things.
One thing I learned from Billy Donovan...he’s the best I've ever been around, in any walk of life, at constantly challenging himself to get better and organizing himself to grow and pushing himself; but at the same time making sure he’s in a good place mentally, physically, and spiritually to do his job, specifically as it relates to his players and his team. So that’s something that I want to keep doing better and more.
It isn't necessarily that five years ago I did a great job of it. But there's so much growth for all of us that can occur, but sometimes, ironically, all of our daily tasks or weekly tasks and job stuff gets in the way of that. When you think about it that doesn't make sense, that you wouldn’t be doing the things to make yourself better at your job and your interactions because those things will obviously lead to more good things. It's something we'll keep working on.
Outside each VCU basketball coach's office, center-hung above the door, is a placard. Each placard has a single word inscribed on it. Above Jeremy Ballard's door the placard says REALITY. Above Mike Morrell: STALWART. Above Jesse Bopp: ATTACK. And above Dwight Perry's doorway the placard reads ENERGETIC.
Down a short hall from the assistants is where Shaka Smart resides. He doesn't have an office; it's more of a laboratory. Oh it looks like an office from the outside and that's where Smart does office-type stuff.
However the inside reminds you of that scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind when John Nash has numbers and equations written all over the walls, a mass of information that seems to make sense only to him. Nash is constantly trying to figure out how it all fits together in the best possible way.
That's what Smart's office looks like. There are statistics, equations, words, names, diagrams on every surface. The back of his office door has been coated with the marker paint that turns it into a de facto white board, and it's so full you couldn't write a grocery list on it.
There is remarkable organization among the seeming chaos, the apparent havoc. Five years ago everything had its place in Shaka Smart's office, and it's no different now even though the job is very different.
It's a nuance, an irony, a consistency to the way Shaka Smart leads this program and moves people forward. It's been that way since November 2009, when a 77-51 win over Bethune-Cookman was win number one. But even that isn't the most interesting facet about Smart and his five years at VCU. Those are all just numbers.
The sign above Shaka Smart's door: LOVE.