NCAA Tournament: VCU coach started small
By Ray Fittipaldo
Shaka Smart is the hottest coaching prospect in NCAA basketball. This 33-year-old head-coaching prodigy has taken Virginia Commonwealth University to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history after an improbable run as a No. 11 seed.
The first person to notice Smart had the makings of a great coach was California University of Pennsylvania coach Bill Brown, who has known him longer than anyone else in college basketball. Smart got his coaching start under Brown in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, earning his coaching stripes as a graduate assistant for the Vulcans from 1999-2001.
Brown and Smart have known each other for 15 years. Before becoming Californiaís head coach in 1996, Brown was the head coach at Division III Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He recruited and signed Smart to play basketball at Kenyon, winning recruiting battles against Ivy League schools that wanted Smart.
Brown was able to sell Kenyon to Smart with academics and basketball.
ěThe unique thing about Shaka is that he had a near-perfect SAT score coming out of high school,î Brown said. ěHe always had his backpack on his right shoulder, and he always had a basketball in his left hand. He carried that basketball with him around campus, to the cafeteria, everywhere he went. I used to joke with him that he slept with that basketball. He had a passion for the game. He took basketball very serious. He was like a sponge. He took everything in.î
Brown knew he had a special recruit when he watched Smart playing in a high-school all-star game with other major-college prospects. It was then that he first saw Smartís leadership abilities.
ěHe was in this all-star game with all of these other high-major players, and he was the focal point because of the way he handled his team,î Brown said. ěHe was like the Pied Piper out there. He had this very high basketball IQ. He was determined to learn every position on the court. And once he did that he was able to communicate with everyone on the court.î
When Brown left Kenyon to become the head coach at Cal after Smartís freshman season, he made a promise to his prized pupil. Should Smart wish to pursue a coaching career, Brown would have a position on his staff for him.
So it came to pass in 1999 when Smart graduated from Kenyon after a four-year career as a starting point guard. It was the first of six stops over 10 years. Smart coached with Brown for two years before moving on to Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida. He was named VCUís head coach before the 2009-10 season.
Saturday night, the Rams will play Butler in a national semifinal game, one step away from the national-title game. Brown, who speaks with Smart by phone once a week, will be there to watch in person.
It was only 10 years ago that Smart was assisting Brown and helping the Vulcans prepare for the PSAC tournament. Now he has a chance for his one shining moment on the biggest stage.
ěIím very proud of him, but I think the best is yet to come,î Brown said. ěIf you watch his teams play itís always a ëweí game, not a ëmeí game. He has taken bits and pieces from all of his experiences at every place heís been. His team hasnít changed its style all season. Theyíre playing as well as any team in the tournament. Theyíre prepared for the opportunity.î