Coaching Spotlight: Shaka Smart

Coaching Spotlight: Shaka Smart

words // Jordan Hagedorn

images // Scott Brown Photography – VCU Athletics

When it comes to college sports, a lot of the time it’s the coaches who help shape the athletes into team players and the men they will become in life. Virginia Commonwealth University head coach Shaka Smart is a prime example of that.

Growing up in Oregon, Wisconsin Smart developed a love for sports and eventually gravitated towards basketball. Smart played basketball in high school and eventually went on to play at the next level at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. After his freshman year of college, his coach Bill Brown left to go to another school but told Shaka when he was done playing college basketball, he could work for him if he wanted to.  After Smart finished his college career as the all-time assists leader at Kenyon College, he took Brown up on his offer and became an assistant coach at California University of Pennsylvania. After two seasons at Cal U, he took a job as Director of Basketball Operations for Dayton University and then from there took Assistant coaching jobs at Akron, Clemson and Florida before being named the head coach at VCU in 2009.

As the head coach at VCU, Smart has taken the college basketball world by storm. In his first season at VCU, he led the Rams to a 27-10 record and won the 2010 College Basketball Invitational. Last year, in his second season, the Rams’ finished with a 23-11 record, just barely squeaking into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed. They ended up going on a run that captured the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere, knocking off USC, a fellow 11-seed, Georgetown (6), Purdue (3), Florida State (10) and the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. While they eventually lost to Butler in the Final Four in Houston, it was a run that VCU will never forget.

Coach Smart was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with us last month for the cover of Eastbay Team Sales:

Jordan Hagedorn: Can you talk about your experience with Eastbay?
Shaka Smart: I’ve been looking at the Eastbay catalog for years and years. It goes back to high school and college when I was at that age that our players are at when basketball shoes and athletic apparel was like the coolest thing in the world. In college we would countdown the days until the catalog would arrive and then we’d fight over it. I had one roommate in college who probably ordered just about everything that there was to order out of Eastbay.

JH: Do you have any favorite shoes from back in the day?
SS: My favorite shoes were Jordans. I didn’t have a lot of Jordans. I only had a couple different pairs, but I remember as a senior in high school getting my first pair. The shoes I had were the white/black/red Jordan X. I didn’t even wear them for about a month. I just had them in my room. It was like I had a shrine to the shoes and then I wore them that season.

JH: What are the qualities you look for in a VCU player?
SS: We try to encourage our guys to play extremely hard and to play, excuse the pun, but to play smart and to think team at all times. Those are really our three rules on the court, play hard, play smart, think team. We want guys that are very unselfish. We encourage our guys to always have a high appreciation level for all of the good things that they have in their life. All of the good people and privileges they have. It’s a pretty sweet deal to be a Division I college basketball player and to have literally 10-20 people whose full-time job it is to help you grow as a person, as a player and as a student. We encourage our guys to take advantage of that.

JH: What are three things that make you a successful coach?
SS: Energy. I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm because I have a passion for what I am doing. I really enjoy it. I wake up every morning excited about going to work. I don’t consider it a job. I consider it a privilege to be around our guys to help make them better so that’s hopefully a strength of mine. I spend a lot of time with the players. That’s something that is important to me. Just trying to be around the guys as much as I can to really develop a strong relationship with them that’s deeper than just basketball because I really think that it’s all connected on the court and off the court. If we can help these guys become the best version of themselves, the basketball part will take care of itself. I really don’t have much else going on in my life besides my family. I’m pretty single-minded when it comes to what I do with my time.

JH: What coaches do you admire and respect the most and who do you look up to? Do you have a mentor?
SS: Yeah. I have a lot of mentors. Some of whom I worked for and some whom I followed from afar and just enjoyed the way they do things. All of the guys that I worked for were terrific mentors. Bill Brown is a coach at California University of Pennsylvania. I played for him at Kenyon College and then worked for him at Cal PA. Oliver Purnell who is now at DePaul, I worked for at Dayton and Clemson is a terrific mentor. Both of those guys are also father figures for me. My dad really wasn’t a strong, positive influence in my life so those guys are like fathers for me. Keith Dambrot, who I worked for at Akron, is a great friend and a phenomenal coach. He’s someone I look at as a mentor. He’s someone I talk to probably more than anyone in the business. I worked for Dan Hipsher who is just a phenomenal offensive coach and really taught me a lot. And, obviously, Billy Donovan, who is the last head coach I worked for. I consider him to be the foremost authority on offensive basketball in college basketball. He’s a genius. He’s got a brilliant mind for the game.

JH: Growing up did you see yourself as a coach?
SS: I saw myself as a player. Like a lot of kids, I just wanted to play basketball as long as I could. I played a lot of sports growing up. I played baseball and soccer and a couple other sports. Basketball was something I got into a little later than some of the other sports. It just developed into the sport I liked the most and I just wanted to play as long as I could. Late in high school I started doing some coaching. I coached my younger brother’s teams in basketball and soccer. It was more just amusing than anything else. I just got a kick out of it. It wasn’t something I took too seriously but when my college coach left to go to another school after my freshmen year, he said to me when I got done playing, if I wanted to work for him I could. So that was kind of the first time I thought about getting into coaching.

JH:You were sought-after after this season. A lot of schools love your passion and ability. Why did you choose to stay at VCU?
SS: It’s just a great place to be. It’s a terrific University with a good tradition of winning and a very good support system for me, our players and our coaching staff. Honestly, I just got here so it’s not a situation where I have any type of urgency to go anywhere else. I really like being here and I really like the players we have. I couldn’t see myself leaving them.
JH: What are some coaching fundamentals that you take pride in?
SS: Trapping. Our full court press and sometimes in the half court is something that’s really important to us. Shooting the ball (laughs) is a big one because we sure fling it up there a lot of the time, that’s a big one. That’s sometimes the hardest thing to teach. It’s not like we turn guys into phenomenal shooters. I would say more than anything we hopefully provide them with the confidence to let it fly to take big shots and make big shots.

JH:What three pieces of advice do you have for young coaches?
SS: Get to know yourself as a coach and learn what it is that drives and motivates you. I think a lot of time that can inform the decisions you make along your path in coaching. Work hard. That has to be the foundation. That’s what gets you in the door. Having an extreme work ethic is not for everybody. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s never-ending and it’s something that you have to have a tremendous passion for. Remember to have tremendous loyalty — and that loyalty is a two-way street. It’s something that you have to remember as an assistant coach as you’re working for a head coach. Your most important job is to serve the head coach and to serve the program. As a head coach, the most important job is to serve that university where you work and the players you have.

JH: What did you keep in mind on your journey?
SS: Probably the biggest thing that I would tell myself is “you don’t know what you don’t know.” There’s so many times in life where we look back on situations and we say, “If I only knew then what I know now.” But we also see that there were people along the way that were trying to give us the answers to the test before we took it. But a lot of times as young people — and I certainly was one of them — we don’t always listen and we have to learn the hard way.
JH: What does it mean to be on the cover of Eastbay Team Sales?
SS: It’s always an honor any time our team or players or coaches are put on the cover of anything or highlighted in any way, but you always remember it’s certainly a direct reflection of the team’s success. It’s why I’m there because of what our team did.

JH: What do you have to say to the world?
SS: Thanks for everyone that supported us last year and that continues to support us. Our style of play at VCU is defined by one word: havoc. And it’s a lot of fun to play and to watch and to coach, so I just encourage everybody to follow our team, support our players and see what happens.