Smart fuels VCU's crazy run with characteristic conviction (cont.)
Teague had been impressed -- as Donovan was, and Oliver Purnell was at Clemson and Dayton before that -- by many things about Smart, but mainly his level of preparation and ability to articulate a vision. Smart talked, at length and in detail, about style of play ("Havoc," he calls his frenetic press); the staff he wanted to hire (Teague, who'd been scoping out assistants as potential candidates, already knew many of the names); and what Smart considered his own strengths in recruiting, leading to the unveiling of the one object he'd brought with him to the diner. Smart handed Teague a 31-page tome that he calls his recruiting philosophy, a document constructed over his time at Florida and Clemson. "[Teague] probably never even read it all," Smart would tell me later. "It's really long and boring."
Such a document, though, is vintage Smart, and not even the thickest tome the coach has assembled. That honor goes to the constantly updated collection of quotes on his computer, started while he was an assistant to Purnell at Clemson. It is currently over 100 pages long, and includes aphorisms that exhort him to "Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals" (James Naismith) and "Dwell in possibility" (Emily Dickinson).
It might seem cheesy, but when you look at Smart's path to Houston you can't deny that such words have taken hold. Smart, the son of a white mother and black father (his dad left the family when he was a teen), was a barely recruited former point guard out of Oregon, Wisc. He was admitted to Harvard and Yale but chose instead to play basketball at Division III Kenyon College, where he became the school's all-time assists leader and graduated magna cum laude in history. In 1999, when Smart opted to become an assistant to his former coach at Kenyon, Bill Brown, at tiny California University in Pennsylvania, his former professors lamented a squandered future in academia. "But I think everybody's pretty bought in now," said Maya, a Harvard grad with a degree from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, who met Shaka when he was an assistant at the University of Akron in 2005. "He's still teaching. It's just a different setting."
And his players aren't the only ones being forced to listen. "I tell you what," Smart would say. "I love those guys on TV. But if those prognosticators were judged on their record picking games the way that coaches are judged on their record winning games, they would be fired. I'm not calling for anyone to be fired, at all, but let's take a look at what's happened here."
His current employers already have. "Someday," Teague said, thinking back to that early morning in Gainesville, "we're going to have to put a plaque in that booth."
By necessity, though, Teague's mind has been occupied this week by the unfortunate flip side to his school's historic run: namely that Smart -- like Grant, who just led Alabama to a second-place finish in the NIT -- will be lured away to the next, bigger job. In only two years, after all, Smart has done more than make Rams history (reaching the school's first Sweet 16, his initial goal). He's also pulled off a feat that no other coach has even conceived of: going all the way to the Final Four from the First Four.
George Mason's 2006 run to the Final Four as an 11 seed was mind-blowing, yes, and seminal. But VCU's five-game streak is, if nothing else, longer by a game and that much more impossible. Smart, who is 24 years younger than Jim Larranaga was in '06 -- young enough to "bop his head to rap music," Rams forward Bradford Burgess noted -- is the 1-in-30,000 shot come true. And one day soon, the coach will be handsomely rewarded for it.
"But I think this may help keep him here," Teague says of the Final Four berth, with no small trace of hope in his voice. "He values a basketball school. He's talked to me incessantly about how the stuff we do supporting basketball at VCU is special, even compared to high majors. Heck, he and I have already talked long and hard about things we want to do after the season. A lot of it hasn't been about him, because he's so selfless. But there's going to be a lot done about him, brought on by me."
In fact, what has happened is so dramatic that one must wonder if the tide has turned. Will America now pick VCU against Brad Stevens' Bulldogs tomorrow? Do people finally believe that the recently mediocre Rams can win a national title?
"I really don't care," Smart said. "If they pick against us, we will use it as motivation. And if they pick us?" Here the coach paused and laughed -- and it sounded as if, for the first time this entire month, he was unprepared. "Uh," Smart continued, "we'll figure out another form of motivation."
Which brings us to the best day in Smart's life. At this point on Sunday night his assistants and managers had all gathered in the locker room's rear area, scrambling to pack up for the victorious flight back to Richmond. But it became plain that even now, during our interview, Shaka Smart could still work a room.
"These guys don't even know this," he had said. "Best day of my life was a couple months ago."
"I found out my wife's pregnant."
The VCU assistants and managers who could overhear their boss talking stopped what they were doing, collectively staggered. The child, Smart said, was due in September. "[Shaka] was the one who wanted to keep it a secret," Maya would tell me later. "I was like, I think people can tell ..."
Yet no one ever did, of course, and suddenly word spread. The back area of the locker room exploded in a new hail of whoops and cheers and hugs. "CONGRATS! WAY TO GO! BIG GUY'S GETTING IT DONE!"
A while later I'd watch Smart walk out into the Alamodome hallway with Maya, only about 60 feet ahead of defeated Kansas coach (and former national champion) Bill Self. Both Shaka and Maya wore big grins, his arm interlocked with hers, and the regional final net was back around his neck.
This had been an unequivocally great day in a month full of them. But for the coach who shocked the world, another, even crazier thing was clear, too: The best is yet to come.