Press Box: Personnel, or precedent?

Personnel, or precedent?

Relax, RamNation — coaches change, while culture is forever.

By Zach Joachim

Sports Editor

Illustration by Julie Wang

VCU Men’s Basketball (23-6, 13-3) once again appears positioned to receive an invite to the NCAA Tournament, a feat the Black and Gold have accomplished every year since 2011 when they became the first program in history to dance all the way from the First to the Final Four.

Despite the team’s sustained success, it has become a VCU tradition for coaching rumors to accompany postseason hype this time of year — every season, without fail.   

Relax, RamNation — we’ve been here before.

The Rams have fans, resources and name recognition that have persisted regardless of who patrols the sidelines.

Shaka Smart, VCU’s head coach during the legendary run in 2011 and the man who receives a lion’s share of the credit for raising the mid-major Rams to the national stage, is now employed by one of the richest athletic programs in the country, the University of Texas.

Before Smart arrived, Anthony Grant led the Rams to two NCAA bids and three seasons of 24 or more wins before departing to take the helm at the University of Alabama.

Prior to Grant, Jeff Capel steered the Black and Gold to 19 or more wins in each of his four seasons to go along with one NCAA bid before departing to coach the University of Oklahoma. Capel is now an assistant coach at Duke University, where he is widely perceived as the likely successor to the Blue Devils’ mythical head man, Mike Krzyzewski.

And now, the March Madness party on Broad Street is once more being subdued by rumors of a coaching change, as VCU’s Will Wade garners speculative interest from big-time programs with coaching vacancies or question marks, such as the Universities of Tennessee and Clemson.

The Black and Gold have bounced around conferences since making the move to Division 1 basketball in 1973. After a brief stint as an independent, VCU has played in the Sun Belt, Metro, CAA and Atlantic 10 conferences — winning 870 games and nine conference tournament championships.

Despite drastic changes of scenery and frequent regime transitions, VCU has established a program with a precedent that outweighs its personnel.

In the two years since Smart’s departure, the Rams and their beloved former coach have moved in opposite directions.

Under Wade, VCU is 48-17 and looks hell-bent on reaching its second NCAA tournament in as many years.

Meanwhile, Smart’s Longhorns are 30-29 since he arrived in Austin. They would need to win the Big 12 tournament to make the postseason this year, given their 10-16 record.

This divergence of fate, however, is nothing new to RamNation.

Grant went 117-85 at Alabama, a respectable record in the competitive SEC, but made only one NCAA tournament during that span, and lost in the first round. He was fired in 2015 after six seasons in Tuscaloosa. Grant made two NCAA tournaments in just three seasons at VCU, and led the Black and Gold to a tournament upset of 6-seeded Duke in 2007.

Capel went 79-41 at VCU and led the Rams to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. He was similarly successful in five seasons at Oklahoma — going 83-69 in the elite Big 12 and winning four tournament games — but the program he left behind blossomed under Grant and Smart’s leadership.

The Sooners let Capel go in 2011 after a 14-18 debacle of a season, and he was forced to watch VCU, a program he was instrumental in building, make its magical run from afar. Since then, Capel has been an assistant at Duke, his alma mater.

Despite seeing three consecutive “up and coming” coaches depart for bigger programs with deeper wallets, VCU basketball has not skipped a beat.

The VCU athletic department has a lot to do with this sustained success. The program has lifted its brand nationally, signing a $200,000 annual sponsorship deal with Learfield Sports in 2015.

Smart may have left for greener pastures, but the infamous ‘HAVOC’ brand he fostered was trademarked by VCU and remains synonymous with Broad Street Basketball.  

VCU’s $25 million practice facility is nationally recognized as a state-of-the-art establishment which figures to keep big-time recruits interested in competing for RamNation. The Black and Gold’s 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are both ranked among the nation’s 45 best, despite a mass exodus of commits following Smart’s departure.  

From a local perspective, the Rams have sold out 98-straight games at the Siegel Center, which is widely regarded as one of the most electric arenas in college basketball.

VCU is the big-time local sports attraction in the greater Richmond area — a top-50 national market with more than 1.2 million residents lacking a professional franchise closer than Washington D.C.

VCU and the University of Kansas are the only D1 schools in the country to win at least 24 games the past 10 seasons — a win Wednesday night at the University of Dayton could make that tally 11 for the Black and Gold.

VCU has made six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances — it is one of only eight schools in the country who can boast that statistic, and looks well on its way to stretching that mark to seven.  

Relax, RamNation — we’ve been here before.

Basketball on Broad Street has set a precedent and established a culture of winning that has persisted, and will persist, regardless of the man at the helm.

Coach Wade knew that when he took over for Smart.

“Havoc still lives here,” Wade said repeatedly on his first big media day.

“Havoc still lives here,” echoed Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin.

Rest easy, RamNation — ‘HAVOC’ will always live here.


Zach Joachim. Photo by Julie TrippZach Joachim
Zach is a junior pursuing a dual degree in print journalism and English. A proud Norfolk-ian, he enjoys long walks on the beach, English literature of the romantic period and anything pertaining to Harry Potter or baseball. Zach is an avid Red Sox and Patriots fan who can usually be found working at the Student Media Center or running along the James.
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