“He believes in people more than they believe in themselves,” says current assistant coach Mike Morrell. “He does that with players, GAs, managers, assistant coaches. He’s done it to me. He sees what we can be better than we can. He sees what’s in us.”
Smart doesn’t carry a commanding physical presence. He’s typically average in build and form. If he weren’t a popular basketball coach consistently in the media glare, he could be in line next to you picking up dry cleaning and you wouldn’t notice him.
He can go the route of the screaming coach, and he has, but Smart prefers pointed feedback, typically a positive spin on concepts like having a growth mindset. No matter the first half performance of his VCU team, he doesn’t peel paint in locker rooms. It’s the same thing, a consistent message of what needs to be done to create success.
No, Smart is not a commanding physical presence, but he commands the room through his relentlessly positive words and his caring actions. Spending time with his players is very important to Smart.
That’s perhaps the potion that allows him to connect with players as the leader of the VCU basketball program while helping, as he says, “move them forward” in their life.
That occurs outside the gym and basketball offices, where they see firsthand what types of advantages college basketball players have.
Each holiday season the players shop for Christmas gifts with underprivileged children in their community through a program with Target. It’s jarring for them to have a 10-year-old ask for a winter jacket as their gift. He gives them leadership opportunities as well. Junior Melvin Johnson spoke at a Richmond TEDx event. Smart has meditated with players to help them deal with the pressures of basketball and school life. He is not afraid of the concept of love in a decidedly manly atmosphere. The word love hangs on a plaque outside his office. In fact, he called or texted one of his players, who grew up without a father, to tell him he loved him.
It was important to Smart that the player understood that he could have a strong, positive male role model in his life. It’s the real life part of his job that Smart very much enjoys and very much takes seriously, even amid being the overseer of college basketball’s havoc.
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It isn’t exclusive to players. Smart cares about everyone and everything, and a part of that caring is holding people accountable and challenging them. Attention to detail matters. Wade was Smart’s first hire, and he remembers the very first scouting report he prepared. It was for Bethune-Cookman, a game where VCU wrote a check to get an easy victory at home to open the season.
“I thought I had everything for him,” recalls Wade. “He started peppering me with all sorts of questions I would’ve never anticipated. I thought I was thorough but I wasn’t close.”
Smart wanted video of the Bethune-Cookman freshmen, which meant Wade had to call high school coaches. Smart wanted every detail on the seventh or eighth man in the rotation.
“He stretches you,” says Wade. “He’s always asking questions and you better have the answers. I thought ‘that’s how we are going to do it.’ You think you’re prepared but not at that level. I learned that’s how you do it in the big time. And I appreciate that from him.”