It doesn’t take an ESPN analyst to figure out that Shaka Smart has developed a winning recipe since taking over the VCU men’s basketball program in 2009. But even with a 131-44 overall record, Smart believes that success on the court starts in the classroom, and he has established strict guidelines to ensure that his team thrives academically.
Sofia Hiort-Wright, Ph.D., is the driving force behind the men’s basketball team and their academic performance. Her title is the associate vice provost of student services and senior associate athletic director for academic support, but her main duty is to help Smart’s players achieve their academic goals.
Hiort-Wright begins meeting with recruits before their freshman year, and becomes a familiar face throughout the players’ college experience. They are required to meet with her at least once a week throughout the semester and face repercussions if they miss their appointment — but that is a rare occurrence.
“Coach Smart sets really high expectations when the players come in during the summer,” Hiort-Wright said. “He tells them up front that you kind of do what Sofia tells you to do, and it works.”
In a time where academic scandals in other schools have put college sports under a microscope, Smart and Hiort-Wright work together to make sure their program is administered the right way.
“Our relationship is incredibly important,” Hiort-Wright said. “Without his support and the support of the other coaches, I could never do my job as well as I do. We are a team and they treat me as a part of their staff. I don’t think it would work otherwise.”
The results are astonishing.
None of the basketball players have earned failing grades since Hiort-Wright has been at the helm, and all but Larry Sanders, who left for the NBA following his junior season, have graduated.
Hiort-Wright says that the program is designed to push the student-athletes and set them up for success.
“Class attendance is mandatory, turning in assignments on time is mandatory,” she said. “I think we do a good job of giving you all the resources so you should not fail.”
And when she says mandatory, she means it. If VCU plays in a late away game and returns to Richmond at 3 a.m., the players are still required to attend their 8 a.m. class.
Hiort-Wright says that the typical athletes’ day begins at 6 a.m. and often doesn’t end until roughly 10 p.m., which requires great time management skills.
Although tennis was her passion growing up, Hiort-Wright has developed a love for basketball. She said she didn’t know much about the game before, but hasn’t missed a Rams game since she began working with the team.
“It’s part of me now,” she said. “It’s what I do.”