RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart smiles with a told-you-so look that is part amusement, and part frustration.
Two years after leading VCU to the Final Four and becoming one of the stars of college basketball, Smart has gone through his third consecutive offseason where he was mentioned as a candidate for job openings at major programs. But he’s still writing on dry erase walls in an office overlooking the Rams’ home court, trying to find overlooked gems on the recruiting trail and tweaking the aggressive defensive style he calls “havoc.”
On the expanding urban campus, with a contract extension this year that now pays him $1.5 million a year and runs through 2023, along with fundraising well under way for a basketball practice facility, the 35-year-old Smart, a former California University assistant coach, seems more than content.
“I’ve always said, I think that there is an overly simplistic view of when people leave and go somewhere else. They’re all about being greedy and all about money, and all about going to the highest level. On the flip side, if someone stays, they’re the most loyal person in the world,” he said.
“I’m the same as you or anyone else in that I want to work at a place where I really enjoy it,” he said, a view he’s uttered many times. “I want to take care of my family just like everyone else does. I want to work with people that are fun to be around. I’m just fortunate that I have that at VCU.”
The school’s administration would say the same of Smart, whose record is a glistening 111-36.
On the weekend the Rams played in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011, the school had 11 million visitors to its web page, VCU President Michael Rao said, noting that he was talking about the university web page, not the athletic site. By 2012, VCU received almost 1,700 more applications than it had in 2010.
A conservative estimate of the exposure value of the Rams’ stunning Final Four run, Rao said, is $15 million to the university. The team’s success continues to pay huge dividends.
Ten years ago the Rams never appeared on national television, according to athletic director Ed McLaughlin. This past season, when they climbed into the Top 25 for the first time in nearly 30 years and led the nation in steals, they had 21 national TV appearances.
“You can’t pay for that type of advertising,” McLaughlin said.
Yet there is a price to pay. VCU has reworked Smart’s contracts after each season, likely helping to stave off interest in Smart from North Carolina State, Illinois and other BCS conference schools that came calling.
Retention of Smart became paramount to making a statement about VCU, Rao said, particularly after their relentless style produced the five victories that made them the top story of the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Rao had arrived on campus just two years earlier.
“It became clear to me that it was time for VCU to stop being a stepping stone for people like Anthony Grant and his predecessor with Shaka,” Rao said Wednesday. Grant became the coach of Alabama after replacing Jeff Capel, who left for the Oklahoma job.
“I wanted this to become a destination,” the VCU president said.
In four years, Smart’s salary has jumped from $350,000 to $1.5 million, and the school has already raised about two-thirds of what it needs to build a practice facility with a price tag near $15 million.
In an academic community, Rao said, there are other ways he can think of to spend the kind of money they are paying Smart, but none that bring the return on investment the school and athletic programs get in return for success on the court.
“I’ve never spent more money at an institution and gotten more thank yous for it,” Rao said.
Those thank yous also come in the form of donations from alumni and boosters that feed academic initiatives and other programs, he said, much like football is credited with doing at other schools.
Smart, meanwhile, is learning of the issues that arise as a program maintains a certain level of success, the kind that has seen the Rams finish in the top 40 of the RPI ratings two years running.
On the plus side, there’s players like Terrance Shannon, who finished his degree work at Florida State this year and opted to transfer to VCU, where he can play right away while doing graduate work.
On the down side, finding teams willing to play a home-and-home series has become the challenge Gonzaga coach Mark Few promised Smart it would be if the Rams continued their winning ways. Smart wants VCU to become one of those programs – like Gonzaga and Butler – with winning reputations larger than their conferences suggest.
Few “told me scheduling is the last thing to come around, and to be honest with you, that’s something that we’ve really struggled with,” Smart said, particularly since he and McLaughlin feel like the Rams have elevated their profile enough so teams should be willing to play on the Rams’ floor, too.
“I’m not saying they’re afraid,” Smart said. “They just won’t play.”