One coach’s departure is another’s opportunity

It’s a new era for the Rams, and that’s quite all right. Unless it isn’t. But you never know with college basketball. Aaron Williams has high hopes for legit reasons.

Photo by: Will Weaver

On April 2nd, Richmond’s most iconic resident donned an orange polo, threw up a “hook’em horns” sign, and took a one way flight to Austin. Coach Shaka Smart leaves behind a program on the rise, a fanbase full of nervous anticipation, and an opportunity–an opportunity for someone with equal potential and charisma to capture the hearts of minds of Richmond. Meet Will Wade.

Replacing Richmond’s First Family

VCU has been here before —a lot. The modern era of Ram basketball began the afternoon of March 18th, 2004 when 13th-seeded VCU came within one shot of beating Chris Paul and 4th-seeded Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament. The team was led by 29-year-old head coach Jeff Capel, who two years later would move to Oklahoma University where he’d partner up with a young forward named Blake Griffin1.  

Enter unproven assistant coach Anthony Grant. Three CAA titles, two conference tournament championships, and two NCAA Tournaments later, Grant moved to Tuscaloosa to coach at University of Alabama. How can a fanbase top Eric Maynor’s game-winner over Duke in 2007 and Larry Sanders’s 18 point, 20 rebound, 7 block domination of George Mason in 2009?

Shaka Smart’s success needs no context. It needs no explanation. His persona is so far-reaching, that even after the experience of losing Capel and Grant, the departure of Smart feels unprecedented and overwhelming. 

Anything can happen in college basketball, but there is a high probability that Ram fans will be able to find solace in Will Wade. He has just enough in common with Smart to soothe any unease and add continuity, but just enough uniqueness to be his own coach and own personality.

Wade was Smart’s first hire when the latter joined VCU in 2009. Both met at Clemson in the mid-2000’s where their coaching skills brewed under pressing-guru Oliver Purnell. Smart became an assistant at Florida while Wade moved on to Harvard. 

Wade spent two seasons in Cambridge as an assistant coach and director of recruiting under Tommy Amaker. The two arrived at a program that had never won the Ivy League and hadn’t been to the Big Dance since 1946. Wade landed a top-25 class– unthinkable at Harvard–and helped lay the foundation for a team that has won five straight Ivy Leagues and gone to four straight NCAA Tournaments. But Wade didn’t wait long enough to see the success play out before joining Smart in Richmond.

During his four seasons in Richmond, Wade had the dizzying task of tracking VCU’s steals in different pressing defenses during games. He also played an important role in recruiting many of VCU’s household names–a recurring theme in his young career.2 VCU was 111-37 (.750) with three trips to the NCAA Tournament and a Final Four with Wade on the bench before he returned home to Tennessee to rebuild Chattanooga. 

The Mocs started off 4-8 (with three wins against non-DI schools) before Wade went to the drawing board around Christmas to revamp his own brand of HAVOC!, “Chaos.” Despite a lack of talent, the team reeled off ten straight wins, finished 18-15, and Will Wade was named the 2014 Southern Conference Coach of the Year. 

Last season, Wade added former VCU big man Justin Tuoyo and several other athletic recruits and ran out to an impressive 22-9 start but fell short in a disappointing loss to Furman in the Southern Conference Tournament. Less than a month later he was (re)introduced in the Siegel Center. 

Will Wade Wants to Talk About Basketball

Not many people can arouse cheers from a crowd by talking about 2-2-1 zones and 2-3 matchup zones like Will Wade did during his opening presser at VCU. Wade’s eagerness to talk basketball is infectious. Trained as a high school history teacher and the son of a high school principal, he’s a teacher’s teacher of the game. Earlier this month he invited members of the media up to his office so he could circle us up around his white board and talk X’s and O’s – it felt like he was just doing it for fun. 

I think this is where the differences start. Coach Smart was a transformational leader who could have coached any sport. His skills would have lent themselves to just about anything including government or private industry. 

Under Smart, VCU thrived with an unwavering commitment to the dogma of HAVOC! This meant playing one speed and embracing aggressive, confident, loose (ACL) basketball. When a team believes that much in themselves, each other, and their style, why would they ever bother playing any other way? His players would have run through walls for him. It was transcendent. It was electrifying. Sometimes it meant beating Kansas in the Elite 8 and sometimes it meant losing by 25 points to Michigan.

Not for better and not for worse, Coach Wade is going to be more flexible and methodical. If the press isn’t working then he’ll try something else. He’s already mentioned using zone defense 30% of the time, something Smart used only as a victory cigar after Briante Weber came to town, and adding more big men to complement Mo Alie-Cox. 

The offense is going to be more sophisticated. Instead of revolving around tweeners like Treveon Graham and Bradford Burgess who were too quick for forwards and too strong for guards, the offense will rely on more traditional forwards like Michael Gilmore and Justin Tillman. Both sophomores are primed to make big leaps and they will be involved in almost every play whether they’re setting ball screens, scoring in the post, or passing out to 3-point shooters Melvin Johnson and Doug Brooks. 

It also means VCU could be more consistent in the 18-game slugfest that is conference play, because while Smart is the greatest to ever coach in Richmond, he also never won a conference title.

This isn’t to say Coach Wade can’t be found expounding Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” or reciting acronyms that include words like “appreciation” and “togetherness,” but the tactics of basketball will be emphasized more than psychology. 

HAVOC! Still Lives Here

…but it will be a little different. VCU won the trademark in 2012 and stalled Texas’s attempts to take the brand along with Coach Smart. This will be awkward when Smart brings Texas to Broad Street in 2017 or 2018, but after time the brand could begin to represent the program instead of a style of play. And there is plenty outside of the coach’s offices that changed VCWho to VCU: overachieving players, unmatched pep bands, unrelenting fans–and now a $25 million practice facility

The history of VCU is more Game of Thrones than True Detective. It’s more the same story told from multiple perspectives than individual chapters that stand alone. Capel laid the foundation. Grant won with Capel’s players. Smart won with Grant’s players. Each took stylistic cues from their predecessors. 

Will Wade knows the stories of his predecessors well enough to grasp the plots and themes, but he also has the perspective to create something Capel, Grant, and Smart could have never imagined. And this could be the greatest gift of all: a revolving door instead of a career coach. For fans of basketball, leadership, and/or all things VCU, this transition will be interesting and entertaining at worst. 

Just like Capel and Grant before him, Coach Shaka Smart will never be replaced, but his success can be a foundation for VCU’s many coaches to come. Will Wade has always had the potential and charisma to thrive as a coach and an ambassador for VCU and the city of Richmond. Now he has the opportunity. Welcome (back) to RVA. 

  1. If you don’t know him from basketball, you know him from KIA commercials.  
  2. Days after Smart’s defection, Tevin Mack (#58 in the 24/7 Sports Composite), Kenny Williams III (#97), and Jordan Murphy (#166) all de-committed from VCU. Will Wade wasted no time soothing the recruiting naysayers by signing De’Riante Jenkins (#52). 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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