photo courtesy VCU Athletics
VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin
Q&A: VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin
May the woes of February be forgotten. March Madness is here.
The Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team arrived in New York City's Brooklyn borough for the Atlantic 10 tournament losers of five of its last 10 games, thanks in part to a horrid shooting slump and a sidelined senior leader. They left the Barclays Center Sunday night tournament champions.
Head coach Shaka Smart and a reenergized Rams squad won four games in four days, topping Dayton 71-65 on Sunday afternoon in the final to claim the conference crown that eluded them each of the past two seasons. The feat cemented VCU’s fifth straight NCAA tournament bid.
On Thursday, the No. 7-seeded Rams will face the No. 10-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in Portland, Oregon, for a chance to advance to the round of 32. Richmond magazine caught up with VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin to talk basketball, the annual Shaka Smart coaching vacancy rumor mill, and athletics spending at VCU.
The following is an edited transcript.
RM: What was your first thought when you saw Briante Weber fall to the floor during the Richmond game at the Siegel Center in January?
McLaughlin: The thing I remember the most was how quiet the building was, and that is sort of emblematic of sort of how passionate our fans are and how connected they are with Bri. His emotion is often on display through our fans. When he’s really fired up, the fans are really fired up. When he’s really intense, the fans are really intense. I remember feeling how quiet the building was and that uneasiness. Certainly a lot has changed since that day, I’ll say that.
RM: From courtside, you watched the team play in Brooklyn; what did you see happening on the floor or on the bench that differed from games in the month of February?
McLaughlin: I saw a level of confidence that our team had this weekend that maybe wasn’t there consistently throughout the games in February. I saw a level of maturity that our team had not displayed for 40 minutes. It’s one of those things when you have a young group – with seniors, you expect them to be mature for 40 minutes straight — but I think that our leadership group did a tremendous job of bringing this team along. Our coaches, assistant coaches, our staff and our seniors did a really good job bringing this team along from a confidence and maturity perspective. At times when we had plenty of reasons to not be self-confident because of some of the results, we focused on trying to learn from it. And I think it finally all paid off this past weekend.
RM: A lot of fans online are a bit miffed at the committee for seeding VCU in the West bracket, meaning long travel times for the team and fans again. What are your feelings on the selection committee’s explanation for the seeding?
McLaughlin: They have a hard job to do. I think it’s unfortunate for our student athletes because we play four games in four days, then have a flight across the country to play four days later, on Thursday. The selection committee has a really hard job to do. If anything, I would hope they could plan for our team to not have that level of travel, but I’m sure a lot of teams [that aren’t in the NCAA tournament] wish they had that. We can’t really control it. The thing we’ve probably done best at VCU is worry about the things we can control. As much as I look at it and say, "I wish we were playing closer," that’s not what it is. The selection committee gave the best explanation they can. A jigsaw puzzle is probably the best way they can put it.
RM: Finish this sentence. VCU advances to the third round of the NCAA tournament if…
McLaughlin: (Laughs.) If we play with confidence and we stick to the process.
RM: It’s getting to be that time of year when coaching vacancies open and the Shaka Smart rumor mill starts churning. As an athletic director, how do you react to reports of other schools taking interest in your guy?
McLaughlin: I always think of it as a compliment more than anything. It’s always good when other people want the good people that you have. That’s the only way you can take it. I think we have a really good situation here. Some of the media reports the last couple of years have gotten out of hand. There was one last year that he was already at the school getting ready for a press conference. I had seen him in the office 15 minutes beforehand and knew he wasn’t there. These things take on a life of their own … it’s a testament to who he is as a person and a compliment to what we’ve done as a program. That’s all I take it as. It’s nice when other people want the good people you have, but I think we’ve also done a really good job to make it a good situation to keep the good people that we have.
RM: In years past, athletics has restructured Shaka’s contract or provided incentives for him to stick around — is that something you guys are prepared to do this year?
McLaughlin: Once the season ends, we’ll talk about it. That’s how we always do it. We wait until we’re no longer playing basketball. I would say the things we’ve done in the past are things that he and I both agree on in our sort of shared vision for moving the program forward. It isn’t any kind of contentious negotiation. We’re lucky we both see the same things that we need for our program and how to make it the best situation possible for our student-athletes. I think that people think [the negotiation process] is this long manifesto of things we get from him, of these demands or these unreal things. It’s not that way. He and I chat about it and say "OK. These are the things we need to move forward." And we do it. It doesn’t take that long.
RM: The A-10 has increased the school’s visibility through more national TV exposure. How has that affected fundraising to support athletics?
McLaughlin: We’ve gone up the last few years in terms of revenue. We’ve continued to rise. Obviously, the exposure is huge from two perspectives. It gets you on a platform to be seen from potential fans or alums who can’t be at the Siegel Center or even in Richmond. That ability for people to feel good about their school is there when you’re playing 25 nationally televised games and everyone else on regional TV … The exposure for the university is huge. I’ve heard one person say that every nationally televised game we play is worth $5 million of advertising for a university. You translate that over 25 regular season games, and the way we play and the fun of it, I think just as an enrollment and marketing tool for the university, the TV stuff is huge. But it also helps with the recruits. We’ve done a pretty good job in the last few years with all of our sports recruiting. Certainly basketball recruits get to watch our games on TV, but our other coaches can say, "Tune in to the game on Saturday. It’s on ESPN. This is where you could be at school next year.” It’s a huge marketing and enrollment tool beyond the revenue we generate from it.
RM: VCU joined the ranks of schools that will provide cost-of-attendance stipends for student athletes – where will that money come from in an athletics department with a lot of programs that struggle to break even?
McLaughlin: Well, we’re going to raise it privately. I think we’ve been lucky here that we’ve had a lot of folks who have stepped up, either alums or people in the community, folks who really believe in what we’re doing as a department, and how we win, more than the fact that we win. The way we do things with integrity, they really believe in that. We will raise that money privately. I don’t think this is the climate to raise student fees for that, so we’ll raise that money privately and increase our external revenue in order to meet those numbers.
RM: The new practice facility on Marshall Street is expected to have a huge impact on recruiting, but some have lobbed criticism at the project for its use of student fees to subsidize a facility only a select few students can use. What is your response to that criticism?
McLaughlin: I always think with anything when it comes to athletics, there are so many benefits when your athletics program performs at a high level for the university. In order for us to make sure we continue to win at a high level, we need to provide the resources for our student athletes and coaches to reach that level. There are benefits to the entire university from the marketing and enrollment perspectives, but also the student experience. There were students who were in Brooklyn this past weekend watching us win a championship or that come to our games. They’ll never forget those experiences from college for as long as they live.
RM: VCU baseball plays at the Diamond. Should the city resolve the issue, where would you prefer a new stadium to be: the Boulevard or Shockoe Bottom?
McLaughlin: Uh, in Central Virginia. Is that a fair response? (Laughs.) Honestly, to us, we want a new ballpark. We love our partnership with the Squirrels and wherever that ballpark is — that we can be there with them — that’s what’s most important to us … The reality is our agreement is with the Squirrels. We don’t get involved with what the city or the counties or the municipalities or the RMA, however those things work, we’re not part of that.