I can’t come here and try to be like Shaka Smart, the previous coach, that’s not me. I’m Will Wade.
The silent thrum of energy pulsed through a fourth floor classroom in the Honors College last Wednesday. Eight students, relative strangers to one another, sat at their swivel desks in a haphazard crescent as their professor, who sat facing them from his identical plastic seat, facilitated the discussion for their first day of class.
Perhaps the nearly tangible throb of electricity was a function of the florescent lighting on an otherwise bleak afternoon. It could have been the quiet apprehension of the four students who had come to class unprepared on the first day. Or maybe it was the students’ fidgety anticipation as they awaited the arrival of a tenth stranger. When the screeching elevator signaled a visitor, eight curious heads turned in unison to get a better look at their guest.
VCU men’s basketball coach Will Wade walked into the classroom with only one other person–a member of his staff at VCU who he had brought with him from his prior coaching post at Chattanooga. Wade broke into a wide smile when he saw the students’ professor, VCU President Emeritus Eugene Trani, and the two men shook hands before settling into swivel desks facing the students.
“This is Alex,” Wade said, gesturing at his companion, Alex Wharton, who was leaning back in his seat up against the wall. Wade and Wharton, although the center of attention, seemed comfortable–and had they not worn patent leather shoes, could have almost passed for students themselves.
Eight pairs of eyes played ping pong as they assessed the situation. “What?” Wade asked, smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth, “we don’t bite.”
And as a chattery giggle swept the collective, anxious verve from the room, it seemed as if all at once the eight students realized that Will Wade was human.
For the next 90 minutes, the coach addressed his audience of HONR398 students taking this semester’s “Leadership” module.
He didn’t read off a script or stutter. There were no awkward responses. Wade spoke with flowing, candid conviction about the principles he holds himself to, and how that philosophy changes and grows and challenges him every day.
He became especially excited when he talked about how much he loves Chick-fil-a, and blushed when he mentioned his wife, or spoke about how he grew up wanting to be a high school history teacher because of his mom’s 30 years of service as a principal.
Everything seemed grounded in the roots of Wade’s own humble life narrative — and by the time he wrapped up his remarks, the class was so ensnared in Wade’s contagious energy that not one student realized class had almost run thirty minutes over.
Electricity pulsed through the room again as Wade and Wharton waved goodbye, but this time because the coach — a man usually reduced to a talking head on a screen — had inspired even the most apathetic Rams to believe that Havoc was still very much alive, it was human and it was hungry for more.
ON TEAM EXPECTATIONS
We’re going to be active, we’re going to be committed, we’re going to be thankful. That’s what my values are. Of all the stuff I believe in that’s what it really boils down to.”
Number one, and I believe this is the most important, is you got to lead by example. So I can’t ask somebody in my organization to bring energy if I’m not willing to bring energy. You can’t get mad at someone for missing class here today if you’re not in class.”
Number two is you got to lead vocally. You gotta be willing to step out, you gotta be willing to say things, you gotta be able to be vocal about things. Now, some people aren’t as vocal, so if you’re not as vocal you need to lead through an acknowledgment, through a touch, you need to have those moments.”
Three, lead through work ethic. If you hear one thing from me, I think you gotta work. I think as the leader in the organization, or as someone who is looking to be a leader in an organization, you should set the tone with your work ethic. In our program I set the tone with me work ethic. Nobody ever beats me to the office — not one day . . . You never know who is looking.
“When I went to Clemson University I was a student manager for the basketball team and I was the graduate assistant after that, so I got my grad school paid for and I was on staff. It’s a good gig if you can get one somewhere.
But everyday I used to get to work at about 4:30 in the morning because our head coach wanted these newspaper articles printed out — this was right on the edge of when you could email everything and email was becoming big — it was like eight or nine years ago. But he liked paper copies, so I don’t know if you know, but newspaper websites used to update at midnight or at 2 a.m.
So it was my job to print out all these things and put it in a packet on his desk. So I’d have to check every newspaper, every team that was in the ACC. So I would get there at 4:30 and it would take me 45 minutes, then I’d go copy them, then I’d put the packets together, then I’d go workout.
Well unbenounced to me, I never knew this, and I worked there for two years, there was an associate athletic director who was obviously somebody way above me in position, way above me in title, and he got to the office around 5 a.m. every morning. I had no idea because I parked across the street and there is a back lot where all the big-wigs parked, so he had his own little private parking spot in the back and over two years he had noticed that I was there every day. I was working every morning.
And it just so happened that the first person who hired me when I got my first full time job knew the associate AD and had called the associate AD without me knowing and asked about my work ethic and asked about what was going on.”
This is really hard for leaders to do: you gotta lead by doing and saying what others will not. Simply put, you gotta call people out. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, if they’re not doing what you want them to do you gotta call them out and let them know and it needs to be sooner rather than later. A lot of times people let things simmer too long or sit too long — it needs to be immediately. What should be done eventually needs to be done now.”
Be within the chain of command of where you should be. “You might not always like what they have to say, but that’s your job.
I’ve really never regretted when I’ve had to make a tough decision and make a move on someone, but I’ve regretted the ones I’ve tried to help out another year or it’s really put a strain on the system. If you feel it in your gut then you gotta do it.”
As a young leader, as an emerging leader the best thing you can bring is energy. That’s why people are going to want you.”
ON THE TRANSITION FROM TENNESSEE
The best people are the people who believe in what you believe in. I made a big jump in level from Chattanooga to VCU — In the basketball world that’s a pretty good jump in level. And I brought my whole staff from Chattanooga with me. Why? Because they know exactly what I want. Are there better people out there? Yeah. Are there are better people for the VCU job than me? Yeah . . . But they knew what they were getting.”
When you bring new folks in it’s a chance to upgrade. If you do a good job they’re going to think you’re irreplaceable when you leave. You’ll realize that things move on pretty easily when you leave, but if you do a good job . . . But I’ve had assistant coaches get better jobs and every time I look at it as a chance to upgrade, this is a chance to hire someone even better, it’s a chance to go out and get someone who can take us even further.”
Even as a leader you gotta fight complacency, you gotta fight lack of motivation every day. As a leader you gotta be aware when those things creep in. You get selfish people in there, when the communication breaks down, when complacency sets in — you have to root that out immediately.”
“We’re ahead of about 90 percent of college basketball, but also behind about 10 percent, so I gotta keep my eye on the 10 percent, but also make sure I keep healthy margins with those other 90 percent. I think your culture and what you bring is the way you can close that gap with the more established folks. For me that’s the top 10 percent: You better figure out what you can do to compete with those guys, you better figure out what you can do to drive that market.”
ON MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS
When you gotta get rid of people you gotta make sure you have all the right information. One thing I’ve learned is — and this is important if you ever have to do it — you don’t get in there and pander to them. You say, ‘look we’ve had a disagreement. This is not going to work here. We appreciate your time. Go see Linda in HR, she’ll help you out.’ And cut it off. No discussion. It needs to be a minute to a minute and a half and move on.”
Executive Editor, Sarah King
Sarah is a junior in the honors college studying political science and philosophy of law. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for “CQ Researcher” and “SAGE Business Researcher” in Washington, D.C. Her independent work has been published on platforms including the Huffington Post, RVA Magazine and alongside her peers at Harvard, Brown and Columbia on knowyourix.org. Sarah’s primary nutrient is Redbull. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn