Beyond the Boxscore
VCU coach Shaka Smart's rap & video games way: Forget Lombardi, young Final Fourcoaches embrace players
On the eve of the biggest game in the history of Virginia Commonwealth University, point guard Joey Rodriguez settled in for a video game against a familiar foe. His coach Shaka Smith.
"We played 2K11," Rodriguez says of the NBA basketball game. "That's the game of choice on our team"
Think UConn coach Jim Calhoun played Xbox with Kemba Walker the night before the Huskies faced off against Arizona for the right to go to Houston for the Final Four? The 68-year-old Calhoun doesn't even know what 2K11 is. Let alone possess the game controller (joystick) skills to challenge a college senior in the game.
Say hello to the new face — or should we say, the new fast-twitch video game reflexes — of college basketball.
"Shaka's just like one of us," Rodriguez says of his 33-year-old head coach. "You get in his car and he's got the rap music blaring, just like we do."
There's no doubt that Smart and almost-as-young and even-more-established 34-year-old Butler coach Brad Stevens are changing the way athletic directors will look for college basketball coaches in the future. Half of the Final Four field is coached by guys who weren't even alive the last time Houston hosted college basketball's mega event. These are coaches who never saw iconic influencer John Wooden coach a game, who only know Bill Walton as a TV commentator.
And they crashed the Final Four party with the two underdogs, the two non-power conferences teams, 11th-seed VCU from the Colonial Athletic Association and eighth-seed Butler from the Horizon League.
But just because they're here, doesn't mean it's easy to be young and in command.
Rodriguez thought so little of Smart when he first met him that he walked out on the coach and the entire VCU program. When Anthony Grant — the imposing coach who recruited Rodriguez to VCU — left to take the Alabama job and Smart was hired to replace him after Rodriguez's sophomore year, the point guard decided he would transfer.
To a Division II school near his parents' Florida home. That's how unimpressed Rodriguez was with Shaka Smart at their first meeting. And it took Rodriguez almost two months to change his mind and pull back the transfer request.
"He's this short guy with a big nose," Rodriguez says of Smart. "Then, you compare that to Coach Grant who was this big guy who had his own aura around him. I was so bent out of shape. I just couldn't see how Shaka could take us where I wanted to go."
Rodriguez pauses. "Shows you what I know about basketball," he says.
When asked what his coach would think of him saying he has a big nose, Rodriguez doesn't hesitate. "He'd probably laugh," he says.
Shaka Smart (whose father-figure grandfather died on Tuesday) tells reporters that his single-parent mother didn't set any rules for him as a kid. He never had a curfew. He didn't have to make his bed. His mother only demanded that he bring home good grades.
How he managed his time to get them? Well, that was on him to figure out. He had to take ownership for his own actions.
Smart seems to have taken a similar approach with his team. The Rams were granted by far the most freedom of any of the teams in San Antonio for the Southwest Regional. Smart let them walk around the city, visit the Alamo, employ a schedule that worked for them.
"I haven't been getting much sleep at all this week to be honest," Rodriguez explained on the eve of VCU's shocking upset of No. 1 Kansas. How much sleep had he squeezed in? "I went to bed at 2:45 a.m. and got up around 11:45," Rodriguez said in the earnest way of a college kid who truly does believe that only nine hours of shuteye is an unfathomably tiny amount.
But Smart let his team snooze. Sleep in till noon? Sure, just make sure you steal a Final Four berth from one of college basketball's storied superpowers the next day.
Stevens comes across as a much more traditional coach than Smart in many ways. The Harry Potter look-alike will make a flying leap into his players in the locker room after a big win (which the CBS cameras love to show) sure, but at his heart, Stevens is a tactician, forever breaking down the game. This Indiana native who grew up idolizing Reggie Miller analyzes everything for an edge.
Not that Stevens is necessarily focusing on the same things in that analysis as a Calhoun. What other coach in America can rattle off the number of hits his school's official website has received in an instant? Stevens — who gave up a career in marketing at Eli Lilly to take a wild shot at coaching — did just that in this week's Final Four coaches teleconference.
"The two years prior to last year's Final Four run our website had 3.5 million hits a year, last year we had 111 million hits on our website," Stevens says. "Who knows what the impact will be? The positive attention it brings to your school and city is immeasurable."
You really think you're going to out plot this guy? Forget about opposing coaches like Florida's two-time national champion Bill Donovan (who Stevens absolutely schooled in the regional final), you don't want to be an athletic director going against Brad Stevens in a contract negotiation. Or probably a car salesman either.
The man will kill you with numbers.
Knight & day
It's easy to think that Smart and Stevens represent a new way of doing things. But in truth, college basketball's been shifting away from the draconian dictator for years and years. There's a reason that Bobby Knight went the last 13 years of his coaching career without winning a national championship and only got to one Final Four in that span, one less than Stevens has been to in the last two years.
The very best players had no interest in being berated by Knight. These days, it's relate to your players or become a dinosaur. The Vince Lombardi stuff is best left for HBO documentaries.
Kentucky coach John Calipari may be 52, technically closer in age to Calhoun than either Smart or Stevens, but he's long been a player's coach. Calipari took UMass to the Final Four at age 37 and he's never lost the attitude of letting players be (in fact, he's become the king of encouraging his college stars to jump to the NBA and chase their dream) or really much of his youthful demeanor (even if he did wear a grandpa's sweater to his Final-Four-clinching-win press conference).
Cal is still thought of as cool by the McDonald's All-Americans of today. He tweets and just ask any sports writer who's ever written anything critical about him, how fast his grown daughters will attack on social media in defense of their dad.
Not that any new-way coach — no matter how hot his rep — is immune from the barbs of youth.
"Coach Smart is one of those guys who thinks he's hip, but isn't really hip," VCU senior guard Brandon Rozzell laughs. "He says things a certain way, where you can still tell he's old."
Just a 33-year-old geezer in the Final Four, trying to keep up with those crazy kids.