Rise of a Mid-Major–the Virginia Commonwealth story
So this week, as mid-major darling Gonzaga took its place on the top of the polls, I was left thinking about the journey of another small school that is reaching the basketball big-time and the journey that it took to get there. Virginia Commonwealth University is an urban institution that has seen its basketball program become a consistent part of the March Madness equation in recent years. In doing so it has helped to give a university that lacked identity national recognition and given a city that can be pretty ambivalent about sports a team to rally around. With one of the most exciting young coaches in basketball VCU is ready to make noise in March once again, but the journey to how they got there is a pretty interesting story in itself.
Last Saturday some people paid up to six hundred dollars to get tickets to the VCU vs. Butler game, which is a far cry from what the VCU program would have been able to muster for any game even ten years ago. The VCU story is one that talks about the importance of brand identity in establishing a program but all of that begins with one essential component that the VCU athletic administration understood–in college basketball coaching is the key.
I am an alum of VCU, having gone to school there on and off for most of the nineties. I arrived at VCU at a time when there was a lot of hope around the VCU program. Coach Sonny Smith had arrived from Auburn a couple of years before I did and VCU entered the Metro Conference, which meant an annual game against powerhouse Louisville and some other pretty solid games as well. In 1990 VCU had landed a national recruit out of the Richmond area named Kendrick Warren who had offers from much larger schools but chose to stay close to home. The program played its home games in the cavernous, off-campus Richmond Coliseum, which holds around 12,000 for basketball. Tickets were cheap and plentiful as VCU basketball was an afterthought to most Richmonders, typically drawing 1200-1500 for most games. A small Greek community could be counted on to turn out, but unless VCU was playing Louisville or one of their cross- town rivals from University of Richmond or 1-AA Virginia Union, the Coliseum stayed far less than half-empty.
The Smith era was marked by inconsistency. Smith was one of those coaches that would recruit pretty well and put a competitive team on the floor, but they were always uneven and lost games they should not lose. The occasional upset of Louisville or the good nineties Tulane teams would keep him around but the team never really thrived. Warren’s tenure at VCU is a textbook example–a 6’8″ forward Warren arrived at VCU as a guy with a solid post game and he was a good rebounder. He never developed the mid-range jumper that is essential for a guy like that to really excel at the next level, and his college career free throw percentage was somewhere around fifty percent. Had Warren had better coaching there may have been more there, but as a senior there was nothing really different about the player from when he had arrived as a freshman and as a result he went undrafted by the NBA.
The school itself was not very friendly to athletics. Located in an eclectic part of Richmond known as the Fan near Richmond’s downtown, VCU had a number of issues to overcome in trying to build a successful athletic program. First of all it was an urban commuter school. Most students came to campus, went to class and went home. There was very little connection to an overall VCU community. The school was also most well-known for its arts programs and the students that made up that portion of the student body cared very little about athletics in any capacity.
Richmond as a whole is also a town that embraces winners but quickly forgets about teams when they are not at the top of their game. VCU had not been relevant for a long time and they were mostly forgotten about in Richmond even among sports fans. The basketball people in Richmond obsessed over Dick Tarrant and the cross-town University of Richmond Spiders, who had already achieved notable NCAA tournament wins including huge upsets over Indiana and Syracuse. VCU was a team without a fan base and really a team without a town.
During Smith’s tenure and that of his immediate successor Mack McCarthy, the Rams managed one NCAA tournament appearance in thirteen years. That appearance was in their first year as a member of the lower-echelon CAA, which the Rams joined as the Metro Conference disbanded in 1996. Things began to change with the arrival of former Duke point guard Jeff Capel III. Capel’s father was the coach at state rival Old Dominion and the younger Capel had served as an assistant on his father’s staff prior to arriving at VCU. At the time Capel was the youngest head coach in college basketball and that became something that would be a hallmark of VCU coaching hires going forward. Capel was also given the gift of the Stuart Siegel Center which was a beautiful on-campus 7,500 seat basketball facility that made the games more accessible to students.
The demographics of the VCU student population had also undergone a subtle shift. The expansion of the university had included a big investment in their marketing department through creation of the ad canter and the addition of an engineering school. The school also added more on-campus housing and more parking through massive land grabs in the area surrounding the traditional campus. The VCU that Capel came into was almost ripe for the creation of a successful athletic program and this was by design. The athletic department was being led by Dr. Richard Sander, who put the focus on quality coaching, increasing on-campus access to sports and re-branding the VCU athletic programs to emphasize winning and pride in the school.
Capel was at VCU for four years and took the team to the NCAA tournament once in 2004 when they nearly upset Wake Forest. Capel was hired away by University of Oklahoma which also set an important precedent for VCU; if you could come here and do well young coaches knew that bigger schools were watching. It was at that point that VCU would make a game changing hire.
In March, 2006 VCU watched its conference rival George Mason go on an improbable Final Four run and show the nation that small conference schools could now compete on the national level. Most big programs were only keeping their players for a year or two before losing them to the NBA while small schools could put together veteran groups. It was a couple of weeks after that Final Four when VCU announced the hire of Jeff Capel’s replacement, Florida assistant coach Anthony Grant, fresh off of the Gators win in the NCAA title game.
I was filling in on our local afternoon drive sports radio show the afternoon that Grant’s hire was announced, and I was actually the first member of the Richmond media to have a one on one interview with him. I remember arriving at the studio that day and having my producer hand me the press packet that VCU had sent out about their new head coach, and after fifteen minutes on the phone with the guy I was already impressed. His results as head coach would be even more impressive.
Grant was a student of Billy Donovan and brought with him the style of play that made Donavan famous. Pressing and running, tempo, tempo, tempo became the model for VCU. They attacked the basketball on both sides of the floor and as a result they started winning. With winning came increased student interest and increased interest among the sleepy Richmond sports fans–something was happening at VCU and people were finally interested.
The problem with playing in the CAA is that it was typically a one-bid conference, so even if you had a good year you had to win the conference tournament to get the invitation to dance. In his first year Grant did exactly that. In doing so he set up the classic David vs. Goliath battle against Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Richmond stopped that day. People that had never shown an interest in basketball put down what they were doing to see what would happen. It was probably the most important moment in VCU sports history to that point and the Rams delivered. They upset Duke 79-77 courtesy of Eric Maynor to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1980’s. Richmond was now officially VCU country as the win gave the program a signature win to hang its hat on and it made the Rams the biggest show in town.
Grant hung around for two more years before being hired away by the University of Alabama. He won the regular season conference title in the CAA twice more, but a disappointing loss in the tournament in his second season kept VCU out of the tournament. They advanced to the tournament again in his third year but lost a first round nail biter to UCLA. VCU was again at a crossroads looking for a new head coach to lead its growing program, and the leaders of the school were determined not to lose any of the ground that they had gained under Grant.
VCU had established a track record of hiring young coaches and given the success they had under Grant they went back to Billy Donavan’s staff to find his replacement. Shaka Smart took over the reins of the VCU program in the spring of 2009 and brought with him a philosophy that took the Grant attack to another level. HAVOC was born; the Smart style is really like the old Nolan Richardson Arkansas “40 minutes of hell” philosophy, with a physical pressing defense as the centerpiece on the defensive side. The offense is similar to the Grant and Donavan style, with lots of shooting from the three point arc and lots of fast break attack off of turnovers. After a first year in which the Rams won the third-tier CBI tournament things would again change forever at VCU.
In Smart’s second season, the Rams had a pretty good year but lost a number of conference games and also lost in the conference tournament which in the CAA typically meant no shot at the NCAA tournament. The basketball gods (or the NCAA selection committee) shined down upon VCU and gave them a birth in the recently added “First Four” for a shot to get into the regular tournament. The Rams beat USC to get into the tournament before eliminating Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the final four, before losing to another mid-major in Butler. In a year where the University of Richmond had reached the Sweet 16 as well, Richmond, Virginia had become the center of the basketball universe.
VCU learned from its previous mistakes and followed the example of Butler, the team they lost to in the Final Four in locking up its great young head coach to a long term deal. VCU played its last season in the CAA last year and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament in Shaka’s third season at the helm. This year the Rams entered the Atlantic 10, where they were supposed to suffer a setback due to the tougher competition, but minus a little glitch mid season when they lost a couple of games they probably should not have they really have not missed a beat.
Last Saturday VCU played a home game against Butler in a rematch of the National Semifinal game that it lost. VCU tickets are not that easy to come by any more but the Butler ticket was especially difficult. VCU has crossed the threshold and is now saddled with the burden of great expectations. Richmond simply expects them to win. Fortunately they have lived up to those expectations. In its blowout win over Butler last weekend VCU entered the top 25 for the third time this season, and looks to be a lock to return to the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year.
VCU is one of those stories that show the relationship between a university, its students and the town they grow up in. It’s much easier for people in Richmond to connect to the public university that is still in many ways a commuter school with lots of non-traditional students, as opposed to the University of Richmond which is private, expensive and largely populated by students from the northeast. We see our working class selves in the Rams’ program and their ethic that they can win by just flat-out playing harder than their opposition. As a college athletic program VCU sends the important message that if you continue to hire quality coaches, even if they are young, good things will happen.
VCU has become a big-time basketball program. It has brought a national identity and recognition to a university that needed it. I rarely have to explain to people where VCU is or what it stands for anymore when I am asked where I went to college. The building is full every night, students camped out for Butler tickets and Coach Shaka Smart showed up with pizzas to thank them for their devotion to the team. All of this came from nothing–a school that drew 1,200 people a night in a 12,000 seat stadium has become a mid-major powerhouse. Nobody is happy to see VCU on its schedule, in the NCAA tournament they are the guys that every big time program wants to avoid.
The program is not resting on its laurels either. It recently announced the construction on a new, ultra-modern basketball facility that will serve as the hub of all things VCU basketball. Large corporate donors are lining up with money to help the school, including a recent three million dollar gift from MeadWestvaco which has been dedicated to construction of the new hoops facilities. Donors were also very generous in helping to raise money to extend Coach Shaka Smart last year and raise his base salary to 1.3 million per year plus incentives to stave off offers from bigger conferences.
There is a palpable change in the atmosphere of the Fan area on a VCU game night. The area’s many bars and restaurants buzz with excitement after wins and disappointment after losses. It was eerily quiet last Friday before the Butler game, as if people stayed home to rest up for the noon tip. This team has united the city, even people that would self-identify as hipsters who make their practice of not caring about things a way of life get caught up in VCU. VCU is bringing people to basketball in this town, from time to time that means having an inane conversation with someone that knows very little about basketball outside of the Siegel Center, but it’s a learning process so I am patient with them.
VCU is a program that appears to be headed in the right direction. It is striving to become the Gonzaga of the east coast. As a guy in awe of what the Rams have accomplished in the last 20 years, count me among those that would not bet against them in the tourney this year.