Kirsten Lewis Photography
Dear Coach Smart,
By now you have no doubt received at least 10,000 offers from basketball powerhouses all over the country, if not the world, beseeching you to coach for them. You may have even received a few offers to direct football, lacrosse, swimming, wrestling or other assorted sports programs, with the universities figuring a great coach can coach anything. They will offer far more money than you make currently. Probably more money than VCU can afford to pay you even if it mortgages a few buildings on Broad Street to raise the cash. These powerhouses will also say they can bring you more national recognition and allow you to coach in far more prestigious conferences than the CAA. They will send planes to shuttle you and your family to campus. They will whisk you away to fancy dinners and show you highlight films of past glories earned by others. You will view training facilities so fine you will expect Kobe Bryant to stroll out of the shower. They'll walk you through mammoth arenas where dozens of championship banners hang from the rafters. With a huge, condescending smile, they will note that while you had a nice run at little VCU, you are now definitely ready for the big time. "This is your moment. You must seize it, Coach Smart. Live up to your surname," they will say. "We need you! But more importantly, you need us. We're the Big Place."
Most human beings, confronted with such an avalanche of worship plus cash and assorted million-dollar benefits would do one thing. Take it all and run like hell to the next stop. But I don't think you will. By going to the "Big Place," you won't be building anything. You'll be adding a thin coat of paint to a wall that's already there. It won't be the House that Smart nurtured and built. You'll be Coach 9.0, with everyone speculating when Coach 10.0 will make his debut if you don't lead them to the promised land within a season. They have no connection to you. They don't know you. You did nothing special for them. You're the next flavor of the month that they won in the basketball lottery because of a zillion titles earned long ago. But of course if you don't produce, it will be goodbye and don't take any of the monogrammed towels with you because they belong to the Big Place. Not you.
You've done something undeniably special at VCU. You took gifted young men and worked them hard, making them more significant as a team than they were as individuals. You helped them believe not just in themselves but, more importantly, in each other. You got them to peak at just the right time. You laid waste to national powerhouses on the court, taking your team all the way to the Final Four when virtually no one in the basketball world thought the Rams even deserved to be in the tournament. You weren't just the leader of an underdog. You might as well have been visiting from a foreign country, and a tiny, weak one at that. But you were also, to use a title from the world of Harry Potter, the Minister of Magic. You created a miracle when everyone said you couldn't. Yet it wasn't just you. It was you and your team. No, I stand corrected again. It wasn't just you and your team — it was you, your team and a school called Virginia Commonwealth University. It is a university very much like its basketball team. A nice bricks-and-mortar footprint. Decent sets of wheels. Locally respected. Nationally mostly invisible, for no reason other than it's very crowded at the top, and VCU's endowment is not fat enough, its alumni aren't superlative enough and its blood is not blue enough, at least according to some observers' skewed standards. Yes, very much like a certain basketball team.
Yet what VCU has in abundance is a huge heart and a vast soul. A can-do spirit resides in every single one of its students and faculty. There are no freebies at VCU. Many students work to pay their way through. No one cares if your grandfather six times removed founded the meatpacking industry and has six buildings named after him, ensuring an easy legacy ride for every generation of his family after that. At VCU, it is left up to the individual to succeed on his or her merit alone. Others can have the meatpacking granddads — VCU will take the future instead.
What its basketball team did for VCU is incalculable. What VCU did for its basketball team is equally incalculable. Twenty years from now, when folks look at the prestigious university known as VCU, they will never again confuse it with ECU or ask "VC who?" And they will go in swarms to watch the powerhouse basketball team known as the Rams. They will go and watch it in the place that Coach Smart built.
You know, Coach Smart, that guy who really was bright enough to realize that he had no need to go to the Big Place. He was already there.
At a place called VCU.
Class of 1983