The authority for sports coverage in the Fredericksburg region.
VCU’s Smart must be sharp with pal
Shaka Smart’s bench does not run deep when it comes to friends in the coaching profession.
VCU’s head coach admits he’s in a business that does not afford a lot of time for interaction and socializing.
There is one, though, he considers not just a friend, but also his best friend. Akron head coach Keith Dambrot took Smart under his wing back when the two were assistant in the Zips program in 2003.
So when the NCAA selection committee pinned Smart’s Rams against Dambrot’s Zips in the field of 68 on Selection Sunday, it was irony in its cruelest form.
“When we found out we were playing Akron I guess some of the guys on our staff kind of though it might happen, I hadn’t thought about it all,” Smart said. “My first conversation with him was, ‘I still love you man,’ and he said the same thing, but he’s a competitor he’s going to everything he can to have his team ready to win and so will we.”
Fifth-seeded VCU takes on the 12th-seeded Akron in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, marking the fifth meeting between the two schools in the last three years.
If Smart and Dambrot had it their way the Rams and Zips would stay as far away from each other as possible, but ESPN’s BracketBuster’s paired them together in 2008 then again in 2010, leaving return games the following years starting in 2009 when Smart got the job in Richmond.
The two coaches spent three years together as assistants at Akron from 2003-2006. They didn’t know each other through coaching connections, in fact they’d never even met. During lunchtime of Smart’s first day on the job, Dambrot took him to a rec center gym to workout high school phenom LeBron James, who Dambrot coached in his final two seasons at St. Vincent–St. Mary in Akron.
James, in his senior year of high school, rolled up to the workout in a Hummer, where Smart and Dambrot would work him out for the next two months.
“I helped Keith,” Smart said. “But I really didn’t say much for the first few times because I was in awe.”
Smart moved on as an assistant coach under Oliver Purnell at Clemson for two years and Billy Donovan at Florida for one. He’s said that his coaching style stems from bits and pieces of his former employers.
Under Dambrot, Smart says, is where he learned to spend time with players.
“I’ve never been around a head coach that spent so much time with his players,” Smart said. “It was unbelievable and that’s something that we’ve taken from him.”
The two friends talk almost daily and spend time together whenever possible on the recruiting trail and at the Final Four. Before Akron embarked on the MAC Tournament last week, Dambrot had Smart make a 45 second motivational video, where he told the Zips how good they are and how much he believed in them.
Come Thursday night though, Akron is the first team standing in the way of VCU’s hopes of getting back to the Final Four.
“That hasn’t changed, he still wants to win,” VCU senior point guard Darius Theus said. “But that’s his best friend so nothing has changed.”
VCU has won all six meetings between the two schools dating back to 1969, beating the Zips most recently in an overtime thriller last season.
But for a pair of close friends, the circumstances are never ideal.
“We’re excited to play VCU,” Dambrot said Monday. “Unfortunately.”
Jim Swing: 540/374-5440