Practice for a new basketball season officially starts this month, meaning that it's almost time to see what the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University have planned for an encore, seven months after UR earned a spot in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, and VCU made it all the way to the Final Four.
To get some insight on the season to come, we decided to profile the architects of March's magical tournament runs, VCU Coach Shaka Smart and UR Coach Chris Mooney. Both men ignored overtures from bigger schools, signing contract extensions to stay in Richmond, and fans' expectations are high, despite the graduation of standout players such as VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez and UR forward Justin Harper.
Starting a new season with less-experienced players on the floor, both coaches will be even more crucial to their teams' success.
Get ready for tipoff.
Playing It Smart
As VCU looks to follow up its Final Four run,Coach Shaka Smart aims to prepare student-athletes for life after basketball
By Kate Andrews
Coaches and players often are shy about discussing rituals, and VCU men's basketball coach Shaka Smart is no different. His voice drops in volume, and he says he probably shouldn't be saying this, but he reveals that his NCAA tournament song of choice was "F--- You," by Cee Lo Green. He listened to it five or six times before every game.
You may know the song as "Forget You," the radio-friendly alternate version, but Coach Smart prefers the original. He doesn't say if the song was directed at anyone (cough, Jay Bilas, cough), but fans who followed the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball team's stupendous run to the Final Four know how much mileage the Rams got out of being underdogs.
"You don't want to go to war with the Rams," the coach says. Southern Cal, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas — yes, top-seeded Kansas, whose Marcus Morris infamously said before the game, "I don't even know where Richmond is" — all bear the scars of the Rams' horns.
As do ESPN's Dick Vitale and Bilas, two of the loudest critics of VCU's inclusion in the tournament's 68-team field after a fairly pedestrian regular season. The team's AV coordinator played the pundits' dissing on a video loop in the Rams' locker room throughout the tournament, "until the walkout" on the court, according to senior Bradford Burgess.
It was all kindling for the fire, started on March 1, when Smart symbolically put a lackluster February behind the team by ripping the entire month off a desk calendar and burning it. At 5 feet, 10 inches, shorter than most of his players, Smart walks with the casual grace of an athlete but moves dramatically at times. He and other coaches participate with players in a drill called "Taking the Charge."
As Smart demonstrated for TV cameras at Final Four practice, Taking the Charge involves running, diving onto the floor and pretending to shoot the ball, all at a high speed.
"It's a pretty physical practice," notes Burgess, who has seen one coach chip a tooth, while another had to get stitches in his knee.
Not Coach Smart, though.
After losing five of the last eight games of the regular season, the Rams went on to reach the finals of the CAA Championship, which they lost to Old Dominion by five points. The Rams had rallied, but none of them expected to reach the Big Dance, as was clear by several of the players' activities during the announcement broadcast: eating at Great Wraps and Five Guys, or lying in bed watching the show, as point guard Joey Rodriguez was doing.
"It was surreal at first," says Rodriguez of the moment when he learned that VCU would be heading to Dayton, Ohio, to face USC. "It felt good."
Of course, it got even more surreal as March Madness started. After playing their way into the Southwest bracket as the 11th seed by beating USC, then defeating sixth-seeded Georgetown, the Rams started making headlines — as did Smart, at 34, the second-youngest coach in the NCAA tournament.
Soon came the T-shirts, the songs celebrating the team and the impromptu parades down Broad Street, not to mention the interviews on national TV, the magazine covers and ultimately the ESPY awards broadcast on ESPN. The whole country saw Smart and his four graduated players, plus the only remaining 2010-11 starter, Burgess, in fancy suits, walking up onstage to accept the prize for "Best Upset," awarded for the team's defeat of Kansas.
"They knew who we were," Rodriguez says of the crowd of sports luminaries, which included everyone from the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki to Brian Wilson, the crazy, bearded pitcher from the San Francisco Giants. "It's kind of awkward," Rodriguez adds about the trip to the stage. "[Maria] Sharapova's up there."
The coach relished this last chance to spend time with his players as a group, before the graduates scattered to Europe to play ball professionally. Jamie Skeen signed with a team in France, Ed Nixon is in Macedonia, and Rodriguez is playing for a Turkish squad; Brandon Rozzell was expected to sign with a German team sometime in September.
Six months after reaching the Final Four, where the Rams' run ended with their defeat by fellow mid-major Butler, Smart can't walk down the street in Richmond without interruption. He's uncomfortable with the attention, never mind the new shirts licensed by the university that say "Shaka the World," but it comes with the territory, he says.
"I'm a pretty boring guy. I coach, and that's about it."
Shaka Smart was born on April 8, 1977, and he lived for a while in Madison, Wis., before moving to the suburb of Fitchburg in seventh grade. He has two half-brothers, one four years older and a second five years younger, and a third brother who's the same age as Shaka, adopted when they were both teenagers.
"My mom raised my brothers and me pretty much by herself," Smart recalls. His father moved out when he was a toddler, and they are not in contact.
Monica King taught health classes at school and Lamaze classes at night, cooking dinner for the boys in between shifts. She also made it to their games, which included soccer, track, tennis and baseball, as well as basketball. King says her worst nightmare would have been leaving one of the boys stranded after practice. "It was crazy," she says. "They were all jocks."
"I remember distinctly my brother and me being home alone when he was 10 and I was 6," Smart says. "I think things are more complicated now. It was just OK. In retrospect, there were a lot of demands on my mom's time. It's amazing what she did."
Smart got his college degree in history at Kenyon College, but math was his first strength. His mom brought home yellow arithmetic workbooks when he was 3 or 4 years old, and he took to them. "It came easily," he says. "Math was always about seeing the shortcuts."
In seventh grade, Smart won a statewide math meet against hundreds of kids (he's a little worried about divulging this fact, in case someone thinks he's setting himself up as a big math genius).
Although his older brother, Josh Tyree, was the leader of the boys by virtue of his age, Shaka was the brother who kept everyone grounded, his mom says. When he was 4, he asked to have a party for all of his preschool teachers because he appreciated what they were doing for him.
"He was very thoughtful" as a child, King says. "He was mature beyond his years and had an innate sense of his relationship toward others," a trait he inherited from his maternal grandfather, who passed away during the tournament this spring.
"I got along pretty well with other people," Smart says. "Maybe other people have a perception of me before they meet me. I think I was a pretty conscientious kid. I learned that from my mom."
Alfie Olson and Smart became friends when they were 13 and shared the same homeroom. They were a little competitive over basketball, and Olson was more of a mischief-maker than Smart, but the two boys had plenty in common.
"We were the only two black kids," says Olson, a part-time actor and stuntman who lives outside Hollywood. He and Smart are both of mixed races, black and white, which would make them a rarity even today in the village of Oregon, Wis., where they went to school. In the 2010 U.S. Census, only 140 residents out of 9,231 there identified themselves as of two or more races.
In 1993, Olson moved into Smart's household because his had become unstable, and he was legally adopted into the family.
The boys encountered prejudice, Olson says, adding that he would often leave the classroom when someone made an ignorant remark. They also encountered occasional threats. Smart tended to stay more stoic than Olson, although he was still bothered by the racism.
"I was always pushing the envelope," Smart says. "I asked a lot of questions and challenged a lot of statements."
His mother was also very proactive in her sons' education, "constantly in the school, meeting with the teachers, meeting with the principals," Smart says. "I was taken out of my class and allowed to work on my own projects."
She also intervened when Smart, then 17, was sent to detention hall for questioning his sociology teacher, who was reading off a list of "racial characteristics" — in essence, racial stereotypes. When the teacher said that people always marry others of the same race, Smart stood up and asked, "What am I, a potted plant?"
After the teacher sent him to detention, saying he was disrespectful, King flew over to the school and got the mark off of his record.
She discussed enrolling Olson and Smart at a more diverse private school in Madison, but the boys refused, telling her, "‘If we leave, then the school wins,'" King recalls. "I really, as a mother, have seen them suffer. I was so proud of them. We went on to do a lot in that school." King worked on a curriculum committee that introduced more points of view into classes, and the boys teamed up with a group of Latino and gay students to create a two-week-long multicultural celebration.
"It was hard," King says of the changes her family brought to the school system, "but it was good."
Olson says Smart was always a confident person — a good athlete and an intelligent student, as well as a motivator. "People find it interesting that he's so smart, but he doesn't flaunt it," Olson notes. "He's a do-it-all, Renaissance kind of guy."
Smart's dad, who was from Trinidad, stopped living with the family after his son was 2, but he'd occasionally make an appearance. He was smart but volatile, criticizing his ex-wife's parenting style and once cutting the television set's cord, Olson recalls.
So Smart found father figures among his teachers and coaches, including Bill Brown, the basketball coach from Kenyon who led him to pick the Ohio school over Harvard.
"My father was pretty much absent by that time, and [Brown] was a really good mentor," Smart recalls. "Terrific people skills, he could relate to all different types of people. He always wanted to teach life lessons." Brown often had the team over to his house for dinner, which helped the freshman adjust to college life, but the coach left for another college after that first year.
Smart says he was a good player for a Division III school, often leading the team down the court and excelling in passing, as well as defense. "I wasn't really a great scorer," he says, even though he achieved double figures in his senior year. He still leads his high school and college in assists. During his undergraduate years, coaching was already on the horizon for Smart, even though some of his professors envisioned a career in academia. He graduated magna cum laude in history, with an emphasis on race and the Great Migration.
After graduation in 1999, Smart was hired as Brown's graduate assistant at California University of Pennsylvania, before moving on to be director of basketball operations at the University of Dayton. In 2003, Smart became an assistant coach at the University of Akron, then Clemson and finally Florida, before his 2009 hiring by VCU.
Brown's influence is apparent in Smart's ways with the Rams, who have been invited over for feasts at the Bon Air home the coach shares with his wife, Maya Payne Smart, a Harvard-educated journalist and writing coach. They even hosted a dinner for 30 on Labor Day, the day after their power came back on after Hurricane Irene.
"I warmed the food," says Maya Smart, who was nine months pregnant at the time. "We try to create a family environment," she adds, noting that because her husband demands a lot of his players, he tries to provide some respite off the court.
The couple met in Akron, Ohio, her hometown, on a blind date in November 2004, when they watched a Cleveland Cavaliers game. She was impressed that he not only talked about the players' athletic skills but "what a winning person was on and off the court."
"We went out, and we've been together since," Smart says. King calls her daughter-in-law "lovely, absolutely lovely," as well as an intellectual match for her son, which Shaka considered important.
During a vacation, King recalls, "Shaka called me up and asked, ‘Mom, do you think there's any reason not to seal the deal?' " She had no objection, and the couple became engaged; they've been married since 2006. Their daughter was due in September.
Maya Smart says she was surprised by the NCAA run coming in her husband's second season with the team, but she has no doubt he will eventually lead the Rams to a tournament victory. "He's pretty focused about his goals," she says. " ‘Pretty focused' is an understatement."
The Smarts like Richmond, which is a good thing, as his new contract says he will be coaching here for at least the next eight years. Bigger names — N.C. State and the University of Maryland among them — came calling after the tournament, but VCU made Smart an attractive offer: $1.2 million a year before bonuses. A new, $9 million training facility is slated to be built next to the Siegel Center, replacing the un-air-conditioned Franklin Street Gym, where the team now practices. Also, there's the unparalleled thrill of playing in front of devoted Rams fans, with season-ticket sales seeing a 20 percent bump from last year.
Leaving VCU after just two seasons "wouldn't have felt right," Smart adds. "We went to the Final Four. We did this as a team, a city, a university. It would have just devalued the experience for everyone."
Stuart C. Siegel, a member of the VCU Board of Visitors and primary donor to the Siegel Center, says that money is an important factor in recruiting and keeping good coaches, but it certainly isn't the only factor, especially with Smart.
The coach has the opportunity to build an impressive basketball program here, one with a strong foundation of integrity, Siegel says. Sitting in potential recruits' living rooms and kitchens, Smart can say, "I'll see to it that your son graduates," Siegel notes, pointing to the fact that last year's four seniors all got their degrees. "It means a lot to have the evidence to prove it."
King says she wasn't at all surprised that her son chose to stay in Richmond, despite N.C. State's offer of $2.4 million a year. "He has never been one to be lured by money."
Olson says that his brother has named Maryland, the University of North Carolina and Ohio State as his top three coaching jobs, but Smart has more freedom here than at major-conference schools — and definitely more forgiveness if the team takes a dip in the win-loss column.
Not that you'll be seeing that happen if the coach can help it. Smart says winning the CAA tournament is one of his goals this season, despite the loss of Skeen, Rodriguez, Rozzell and Nixon.
"Our team is full of teenagers. I'm the only one who's 21," notes Burgess, who was a standout in the tournament and is an obvious team leader entering this season. "I think we will surprise a lot of people."
Smart is straightforward about his team's status; he doesn't call this a rebuilding year, but he acknowledges that this fall is a new start for the Rams.
"We know that the Final Four team is no more," the coach says. "It's over."
The Final Four still brings one major advantage, though: Recruiting gets a little easier, especially outside the mid-Atlantic region. VCU hasn't been a tough sell, Smart says, in part because his predecessor, Anthony Grant, coached the team to significant victories, including the famous NCAA first-round upset over Duke in 2007.
But now, he says, "when we call [recruits], we're more likely to get a call back."
In 2009, when Smart took on the job as head coach, he didn't have the team we associate with the Final Four run. Nor did he have a high profile, since this was his first time as a head coach.
Two weeks after Smart's arrival at VCU, Joey Rodriguez said he was going to transfer to a school in his home state of Florida. Smart says he wasn't surprised and figured he'd just move on from the then-junior's decision. But Rodriguez got curious.
"I came to the workouts and watched Brandon [Rozzell] and all those guys," Rodriguez says. He liked what he saw in the energetic young coach, who often challenges players to a game of H-O-R-S-E after drills. "He accepted me back with open arms."
Smart says he just told Rodriguez he could return "as long as he had both feet in the circle." After that, neither man discussed the decision, except when the media asked about it, Smart dryly notes.
"He came in, in a tough spot," Siegel says of the coach. Grant, who moved on to the University of Alabama, was popular with players and fans. But Siegel says that even at his first meeting with Smart, "it was pretty easy to see he was a guy who was a great communicator. I don't think it took very long for Shaka to earn [the players'] respect. They would tell you they traded up."
And of course, Rodriguez is really happy he came back to VCU.
"It's been one big family," he says. Everyone, including players, coaches and managers, gathered regularly at the Smarts' home for meals where Maya Smart would put out a full spread of chicken, fish, macaroni and cheese, and other dishes. Rodriguez says that the coach always claimed to cook the food, but they all knew better. "Maya runs things," he says with a laugh.
Smart's practice routine changes during the season, depending on which opponent the Rams are facing next, but the team starts with stretches and warm-ups. In so-called "peer pressure" drills, the players must complete three or four basics like passing and running in an allotted time without messing up. Then they're ready for real practice, Burgess says: five-on-five, four-on-four, three-on-three and so on. Smart mixes it up, with underclassmen competing against upperclassmen, and other pairings.
Smart kept his players grounded yet confident during the tournament; constantly running the video of sports analysts' shock at VCU's inclusion did much of the work toward firing them up, Burgess notes.
When it was time to face Kansas, "he just tried to make us believe we could beat them," Rodriguez says. "All we needed was to be better than them for 40 minutes."
"I could tell they were on a mission, and they came through," says King, who attended games between visits to her father's bedside in Chicago.
Scholarship is as important to Smart as athletic prowess; he says his aim is to develop a player as a whole person.
"It's easy to say, ‘I want to get better,' " whether on or off the court, he notes, but his players have to back up those statements with action. "It's hard for a young player to understand [when] things have come pretty easily."
Every day during the season and summer workouts, Smart and his assistant coaches, trainers and managers take an "almost fanatically intense approach" to developing the players. So when Smart is recruiting, he has to project a high school junior or senior's impact on the team.
First, a player needs to be interested in graduating from college, but he also has to have a strong work ethic and accept "what goes into winning," Smart says. "It's a reason why we got to the Final Four."
"He just wants us to be successful on and off the court," Burgess says. "Basketball is not going to last forever."
More than a little guesswork goes into the recruiting equation, Smart acknowledges. "Our guys now are unformed, let alone a 15- or 16-year-old kid."
Of course, the coach is getting ready to have one more kid under his care now: his baby daughter.
"My goals are to spend a lot of quality time with my daughter and future kids," he said a couple of weeks before his daughter's birth, "also to teach them life lessons. The best traits are appreciation, confidence and humility. Those are some traits I hope to cultivate in my daughter."
Sprouting from working-class roots, UR's Chris Mooney has risen to the challenge of turning college hoops teams into top performers
By Jack Cooksey
In a blue-collar neighborhood of northeast Philadelphia — it's the mid-1980s — a Catholic schoolboy and his band of friends play hoops day and night on a makeshift court on the street outside their close-packed row homes.
The backboard hangs on a telephone pole, right over the street curb, so that a driving move to the basket or a soaring rebound could end with a sprained ankle or a crash to the concrete.
"It was dangerous and a terrible idea," the Catholic schoolboy, now a grown man, recalls years later, the memory sparking in his eyes.
Annoyed by the constant ruckus, some neighbors deliberately park their cars under the hoop to discourage the games, but the boys simply switch to H-O-R-S-E and keep playing.
In a futile attempt to protect their playing privileges, the street ballers work hard to keep their cheap rubber ball from hitting the car beneath the basket. Inevitably, though, the ball and the car will meet. A neighbor will report the boys, and days later, a telephone worker will show up to take the hoop down. But before long, the kids will hoist it up again and rejoin their cyclical battle. All in the name of basketball.
If every athlete has his or her own personal mythology of how they came to love their sport, the Philly street game has its place in Chris Mooney's ascent from a middle-school basketball player, the youngest son of working-class parents who both drove buses to support the family, to his current position as a steadily rising star among college hoops coaches.
One of the youngest Division I basketball coaches when he arrived at the University of Richmond in 2005, Mooney has built the program into one with a core culture — emphasizing a selfless style of play and a minimum of karma-killing drama — that makes each victory appear as almost an afterthought of player development.
In addition to a record-high 29 wins, highlights of the Spiders' 2010-2011 season include UR's first Atlantic-10 Conference men's basketball championship (in 10 years of membership) and a trip to the NCAA's Sweet 16, for only the second time in school history.
Along with their crosstown rivals — the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams and head coach Shaka Smart — Mooney and the Spiders basked in a citywide lovefest last March after drawing the NCAA spotlight to Richmond's hometown teams.
At 39 years old, with no sign of gray in his coiffed brown hair, the 6-foot-6 Mooney comes ready-made for the prime-time media crush. His handsome mug, with hints of the college boy still intact, makes him an easy target for TV interviews, including repeated appearances on ESPN's Rome Is Burning. His hardscrabble upbringing and string of odd jobs on the way to Richmond have made rich fodder for recountings of Mooney's budget-stricken wardrobe as a Prince-ton frosh — he became known as "Dr. Sweats" — and his part-time position, alongside his first college coaching job, working as the school's facilities coordinator and sometimes wedding planner.
On camera and in person, Mooney is the practiced speaker: articulate and expressive. His eyebrows and forehead add emphasis to the flow of his baritone voice, and perhaps to conceal a native Philly accent, he shapes words deliberately, as if a diction coach is grading each syllable that passes through his perfect rows of teeth.
Mooney's rising stock no doubt lends increasing value to UR's fundraising efforts, and UR President Ed Ayers says that he sometimes taps the coach to appear before alumni, speaking opportunities during which the coach is just as likely to talk about his time as a high school English teacher as he is about Spiders basketball.
"I'm a little suspicious because he's as close to what you'd want as your dream coach," Ayers says. "He doesn't come from a wealthy family himself. He embodies a lot of what the university is about: applying ability and hard work to make opportunities."
Former player Justin Harper, who graduated in May and was drafted over the summer by the Cleveland Cavaliers and then traded to the Orlando Magic, says his coach's background resonated with him when he was being recruited from Meadowbrook High School. "He's a working-class guy, like a lot of us," Harper says.
Forget the idea of recruiting a powerhouse player who's 7-foot-4 with a suitcase full of attitude. Instead, Mooney says, "It's very important to us to bring in good guys."
Dick Tarrant, UR's winningest basketball coach, who retired 18 years ago, puts it more bluntly: "He doesn't recruit bad apples."
Since his first days coaching basketball at Lansdale Catholic High School in Pennsylvania, when Mooney was just a few years older than some of his players, he has shown a knack for consistently shocking programs back to life and leading them to record seasons.
By Mooney's side for most of his head-coaching stints, beginning at Lansdale, has been assistant coach Kevin McGeehan, also a Philadelphia native.
McGeehan notes that Mooney's success is a product of cultivating relationships between the Spiders' coaching staff and players. "We all know why we're here and what we're trying to get accomplished," McGeehan says, "so when it's time to do what we're supposed to do, we're all in and we're all focused."
Mooney came to Richmond after just one season as head coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, following four seasons there as an assistant coach. He was 31 years old — the fourth youngest Division I hoops coach at the time, he says — when he took over in Colorado Springs and led the Falcons to their second-best record in school history, in addition to leading the nation in fewest points allowed per game.
Mooney already had Richmond on his radar when the school came calling after his inaugural head-coaching season at Air Force. Before ending up at Princeton, Mooney had been recruited by UR's then-coach John Beilein, now at the University of Michigan.
The move to UR was one that Mooney described at the time as his "dream job," partly because it dropped him back on the East Coast between his native Philadelphia and his wife's hometown, Miami.
Despite the comfortable trappings of his new job, the head coach had a mess to unravel before he could even start to dream big.
"He was dealt a pretty lousy hand when he got here," says Tarrant.
Inheriting a roster from the previous coach, Jerry Wainwright, Mooney and his staff immediately found themselves losing players from the team — some were asked to leave, some left on their own. It was a housecleaning before a construction project, and Mooney quickly recruited walk-ons to augment the lineup.
The Spiders coaching staff had already started the overhaul by Mooney's second season with new recruits, but the team was still young and unformed. They posted an abysmal 8-22 record.
Amid the frustration, Mooney found himself buoyed and supported by UR Athletic Director Jim Miller, who recognized that the slow work of an inside-out transformation was in progress.
Those two seasons tested Mooney's ability to tune out negativity, stay patient and stick to a vision, the coach says.
McGeehan says that several tough losses have allowed Mooney and the staff to approach solutions creatively.
Case in point, McGeehan says, goes back to last season's pair of losses in nationally televised games. In the second, a late-season face-off with Temple, the Spiders lost by 20 points. "When you lose, you try to figure out things that you can do to change it, and that comes in all shapes and sizes," he says.
At the next practice, a stone-faced line of coaches faced a group of discouraged players expecting to be punished with suicide sprints.
At that moment, Mooney pulled a hand from behind his back and held up a football. Mooney and the coaches challenged the athletes to a game of touch football.
"Chris has some of those moments that you'll never forget," McGeehan says. "It had nothing to do with basketball. It was about the people. Chris has a really good sense of timing."
That one change of routine proved to galvanize the team, he says, and led to a nine-game winning streak — the streak that carried the Spiders into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament and ended only when they met No. 1-seeded Kansas.
Following that run, Mooney was courted by Atlantic Coast Conference school Georgia Tech; the Miami Herald reported that Mooney was also on the short list of candidates to coach the University of Miami, another ACC program.
Just as it did following the 2009-2010 season, when Mooney interviewed with Boston College and drew interest from Seton Hall, UR quelled the speculation of Mooney's departure, this time renegotiating his contract through the 2020-21 season.
Although Miller will not discuss specific salary terms of any UR coaches, news reports have suggested that Mooney's extension after the 2009-2010 season raised him to a salary level of approximately $700,000.
Miller says that the most recent contract between UR and Mooney, after the Spiders' Sweet 16 appearance, offers increasing incentives the longer Mooney stays and is successful. "Chris was probably offered bigger and better deals. … We were able to be very competitive in the marketplace, and I think he was happy to stay here."
Once upon a time, Mooney says, he had a clear vision of exactly how his career would play out. "The more you experience and see what college basketball is all about, that becomes a little hazier," he now concedes, deflecting any notions that he's thinking beyond anything but the here and now and agreeing with the way his bosses, Miller and Ayers, mutually describe his role at UR — a very good fit.
Despite the high marks for his solid management of UR basketball, Mooney's program hasn't been without its blemishes.
In November 2007, an internal review by the UR athletics department discovered that both the men's and women's basketball programs had violated NCAA recruiting guidelines in 2007 by exceeding allowable limits of phone calls and text messages with recruits. An NCAA rule change in August 2007 prohibited text messages from coaches to potential recruits. In the months after that change, one of Mooney's assistant coaches was flagged for sending the majority of prohibited messages between UR men's basketball and recruits. The assistant resigned from Mooney's staff and now works at another university.
UR officials self-reported the violations to the NCAA and pre-emptively imposed recruiting penalties on the programs through the 2008-2009 basketball season. After months of investigation and negotiations, UR and the NCAA settled the matter in October 2008 with an official agreement on the details and penalties of the case.
Mooney says the experience has sharpened his awareness of the day-to-day dealings of his program and how it can affect long-term success. "We had made a mistake," Mooney says, "and certainly paid a price for making that mistake."
As the Spiders kick off this year's team practices on Oct. 15, Mooney has last year's triumphs to boost him into the promise of a new season and a new crop of recruits. Several of the team's starters graduated in May, leaving Mooney and his staff with the challenge of transforming last year's backups into this year's standouts.
For fans and the team alike, the momentum and expectations are palpable.
Off the court, Mooney and wife Lia are occupied with their own sense of momentum and expectations, their 2-year-old son, Danny. The couple, who live in the West End close to UR's campus, met in the early 1990s at Princeton University, where Mooney was a four-year starter in basketball under legendary coach Pete Carril. Lia, a psychology major, was a freshman; Chris, majoring in English, was a sophomore.
Introduced by mutual friends at a movie gathering, Chris and Lia stayed friends for a couple of years before dating. They married after both had graduated from Princeton.
Though Lia's now a basketball fan, Mooney's athletic stardom was lost on her at first. She confesses with a laugh that after being admitted to Princeton during her senior year of high school, she shrugged off her father's suggestion to show some school spirit by watching her future college's team play on national television — where she could have seen her future husband on the court.
"Oh, Dad, please," she said, "I can't stand basketball."
The youngest of five — including sisters Kathleen and Mary Jo and brothers John and Kevin — Mooney grew up in a household that revolved around sports. The Mooney boys received their first coaching lessons from their father, John, during sandlot ballgames. He was the pied piper of after-dinner ballgames for the neighborhood kids, playing all-time QB.
"He instilled in us a love of sports," Mooney says, "but also a sense of how to act and go about your business when you're on the field. … He was demanding. You know, ‘You're supposed to catch the ball.' So I had to develop some thick skin. … But it was very positive."
Though the household leaned more toward football and baseball, Mooney's brother Kevin discovered basketball and joined his middle-school team when Chris was in fourth grade. "He had kind of a little flair to his game, so watching him, going to his games, that's where I really started to fall in love with basketball," Mooney says.
He also found a role model for his future calling: his brother's coach, Neil Brassell. Against the backdrop of Mooney's neighborhood — where many of the fathers worked as policemen, firemen, construction workers and bus drivers — Brassell, a white-collar professional, was an anomaly.
"He would come to these games from work in a three-piece suit," Mooney recalls. "He was 6-4, silver hair, a really strong jaw. Of course, he's coaching 12-year-old kids, so he looks like a giant. But not only that, the team was good. … My brother would pass this on to me: He would talk to the team about ‘class' and how to carry yourself on the court. He was coaching them like it was a college team."
As a sign of things to come, Mooney soon began to mimic Brassell. "We would go home and play Nerf hoop, and I would put on my communion suit and pretend I was coaching," Mooney recalls with a laugh.
Brassell had moved on by the time Mooney started playing for the middle-school team, but he says he followed his brother's example on the court, quickly developing a sense of movement, seeing the whole floor and when to pass the ball.
Mooney says it took him a while to realize his ability because he was constantly playing in his older brother's shadow.
Today, Kevin throws out a tongue-in-cheek challenge to his brother: "I can still take him down! I'll drive down there right now and take him on," he says by phone from Southampton, Pa.
Just as Mooney was latching on to his passion, though, tragedy struck when his mother, Mary Alice, died after an extended battle with breast cancer. It was July 4, about a month before Mooney turned 14.
She had previously fought two bouts with cancer into remission, so the loss was not unexpected for the family, but it was no less of an emotional blow.
Mooney describes his mother as "a very impressive person," who started a job outside of the home once Chris started school. She worked her way from being a bus driver to a company executive, he says.
Her death, he says, still frames his general outlook on life. "Dealing with that kind of loss at such a young age gives you a sense of strength, as difficult as it is, that you have the strength to persevere."
He says he also puts a high value on his relationships with friends, coworkers and his players. And he tries to meet success and opportunity with gratitude and some measure of humility, "you know, just appreciating things that we have been given or hope to gain."
Perhaps as an antidote to grief, Mooney poured himself into the game of basketball for two years after his mom died. He shot up in height, and by his sophomore year at Archbishop Ryan Catholic High School, he was a starter on the varsity team.
With Mooney's older siblings out of the house, Kevin says that he chose to put off college so that he could stay home with his father to see Chris through high school.
"He did everything for me when I was in high school," Mooney says. "He drove me everywhere I had to go."
Kevin says Chris' budding career became a focal point for the family. They were regulars at his games throughout high school and college, and even today, they travel to support his teams come tournament time.
During Mooney's senior year in high school, the forward earned one of the most prestigious honors for basketball players in his city — the Markward Club Philadelphia Player of the Year Award, which recognizes an exemplary athlete from the public league and one from the Catholic league. Past Markward Award winners include pros such as Wilt Chamberlain and Rasheed Wallace, who were public-school athletes, and current University of Virginia guard Jeff Jones, a Catholic-school player.
His junior and senior seasons brought in college recruiters, including scouts from the University of Richmond. Ultimately, though, Mooney jumped at the interest from Princeton, a college team that claimed legendary status for him when he watched the team's David-and-Goliath standoff with top-ranked Georgetown University in the 1989 NCAA tournament. The Tigers gave the highly ranked Hoyas all they could handle before losing by a single point, 50-49.
Famed for perfecting the "Princeton offense," coach Pete Carril was known to be one of the toughest taskmasters in Division I basketball, and Mooney has called him the toughest coach he ever played for.
From that experience, Mooney has taken the same offense he ran in college and made it the basis of the "hybrid" strategy that his teams run today.
Mooney's version employs the same idea of sharing the ball but pushes the pace of passing and court movement to the limit of his players' athleticism.
But that's only strategy.
"It's more about the guys in the jerseys than it is the Xs and Os," Mooney said several years ago during an interview on ESPN.
His wife says it's clear that he cares more about the guys in the jerseys, too. She notes the closeness that they both have with the team's players and their families.
"They call the house, they talk to him about all kinds of things that have absolutely nothing to do with basketball," Lia says, adding later, "I think that speaks to how much they trust him."
The warmth and calmness that friends and family attribute to Mooney's off-the-court persona has become more pronounced on the court as well, says his brother Kevin, a comment corroborated by Tarrant, who notes that Mooney has "learned to bite his tongue" to avoid drawing technical fouls.
Kevin seems proud of his "baby" brother, a Philly kid who's tried to carry his lessons forward, through thick and thin.
"At the end of the day," he says, "Chris is probably the kind of person who still asks himself what his mother would think."