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By Greg Johnson
The Road to the Men’s Final Four once again has its roots planted in Division III basketball.
Both Butler Coach Brad Stevens, who has now led the Bulldogs to back-to-back appearances on college basketball’s biggest stage, and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart are former Division III student-athletes.
Butler head coach Brad Stevens.
Stevens’ collegiate playing days were at DePauw, which is about an hour west of Indianapolis, where he graduated with a degree in economics in 1999. Smart played at Kenyon in Gambier, Ohio, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1999 with a degree in history.
Stevens played in all 101 of DePauw’s games during his college career. Smart was a four-year starter at point guard for Kenyon.
The two men first met on the recruiting trails in 2003 when Stevens was an assistant coach for Butler, and Smart was on the staff at Akron.
Eight years later, they will be shaking hands in front of the scorer’s table after the starting lineups are announced for the first national semifinal on Saturday in Houston.
The two 30-somethings – Stevens is 34, and Smart turns 34 on April 8 – have mutual admiration for one another.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart.
“He (Stevens) is somebody that I’ve admired since he became the head coach at Butler,” said Smart, who is 55-20 at VCU in two seasons. “The way he handled last year with terrific grace and humility is exactly the way any coach should go about it, whether it’s your first time in the Final Four or whether you’ve been in the Final Four multiple times. That’s something I definitely noticed last year and something I hope to emulate.”
Stevens added: “I’m more likely to watch VCU than I am the teams that are on television every night. He (Smart) has done a remarkable job, and is an incredibly bright guy. His team takes on his persona. I have a lot of respect for him. I’ve known him since he was an assistant at Akron, and it was evident he was a bright, up‑and‑comer at that point.”
When Bill Brown was recruiting Smart to play for him at Kenyon, he was looking for a point guard to lead his team. He had plenty of playing time to offer after a big graduating class left holes to fill.
After watching Smart play in an all-star game featuring the best prep basketball players in Wisconsin, he knew he found his guy.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart.
“He was playing in a game with high-major players, but you could tell he belonged on the same court,” said Brown, now the head coach at Division II California (Pennsylvania). “He was a leader. They put the ball in his hands. Not only did he communicate but he had tremendous vision. He was a true point guard.”
Brown’s only problem was that Smart had already been accepted by Harvard, Yale and Brown. Fortunately for Kenyon, those programs weren’t as interested in Smart as a player.
Kenyon also has a great academic reputation, so Smart packed his bags for the Division III institution where he excelled on the court and in the classroom.
“Shaka was unique there,” Brown said. “Everywhere you saw him on campus he had his book bag on his right shoulder and a basketball in his left hand. He was a tremendous student. He had a near-perfect SAT score, and he was named the outstanding history student at Kenyon.”
Many of those on the academic side believed Smart, who earned an NCAA postgraduate scholarship, would make an outstanding history professor some day. But Brown knew that Smart’s passion was to be a basketball coach.
After Smart’s freshman season, Brown left Kenyon for the job at California, but he made a promise to have a graduate assistant position waiting for Smart if he wanted it.
California University (Pennsylvania) head coach Bill Brown.
“Shaka lived with me for a couple of years,” said Brown, who will be in Houston for the Final Four and the National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention. “There were countless hours where we would talk about basketball and life in general.”
Smart eventually became the director of basketball operations at Dayton (2001-03) before landing the assistant coaching job at Akron. He was an assistant at Clemson for two seasons (2006-08) and then moved to Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida for one year before landing his current position at VCU.
“He soaked up as much knowledge as he could at every stop,” Brown said. “The two most important characteristics that Shaka Smart possesses are gratitude and humility. Whenever you see him, those are always on display.”
VCU has rolled to a 59-46 win over Southern California in the First Four, followed by 18-point victories over Georgetown and Purdue. They survived a 72-71 overtime win over Florida State in the Southwest Regional semifinals and capped off their run with an impressive 71-61 victory over No. 1-seeded Kansas on Sunday.
Brown isn’t surprised to see Smart rise this quickly in the coaching profession.
He could see the special traits Smart possessed going back to the time when he was recruiting him as a prospect.
“From a communications standpoint, Shaka has convinced those young men that they can beat anybody one time,” Brown said. “It’s not a series; it is one-and-done. I am proud of him, and I think the best is yet to come.”
Stevens was a year removed from graduating at DePauw where he earned selection to the academic honor roll during his senior season with the Tigers.
Stevens was well-rounded in college. He was a dean’s list honoree and was a civic intern in DePauw’s Hartman House leadership-development program, which involves university students in various community-service activities. Stevens helped lead the school’s Sports Night program for area grade-schoolers.
Butler head coach Brad Stevens.
He also was a participant in the Management Fellows Program, an honors program under the auspices of DePauw’s McDermond Center for Management and Entrepreneurship.
But the coaching itch had to be scratched. In 2000, Stevens decided to leave a marketing management-track position at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company to pursue coaching.
Then-Butler coach Thad Matta, now at Ohio State, hired Stevens as the coordinator of basketball operations, where he handled administrative duties. The next season he became an assistant coach and eventually was hired in 2007 as head coach when Todd Lickliter left to take the head coaching job at Iowa.
Four seasons later, Stevens has posted a 116-24 record with two consecutive Final Four appearances.
Stevens still bumps into some of his former co-workers at Eli Lilly and Company.
“I run into them a lot,” Stevens said. “I have a lot of childhood friends that I went to high school with that now work over there. A lot of them are season ticketholders and come to a lot of games. I hear from a lot of them. It really makes it fun.”
When Stevens left the pharmaceutical business, he was supported by those at Eli Lilly to give it his best shot. If it didn’t work out, they hoped they could find a position for him in the future.
This coaching gig is working out well, but Stevens is quick to remain humble about his rapid rise. He was asked during a teleconference featuring the head coaches in the Final Four if the return trip to college basketball’s largest stage was a validation.
“I’m not looking to be validated in that way,” Stevens said. “I’m a guy who believes in faith and I’ve got great friends, a wonderful family. My validation needs to come from those things, not from what is accomplished in a job.”
Stevens’ attitude permeates the program. In an era where schools are building practice facilities and other perks to spruce up their programs, he prefers to do things the way they are currently being done.
“We’re Butler,” said Stevens, whose team wrapped up the Southeast Regional with a 74-71 overtime victory over second-seeded Florida on Saturday. “We’re going to be as good as we can be. But we’re not trying to be somebody else. We want Butler to be unique. We want Butler to be something that people look at and say, ‘I don't know what’s going on, but it’s special.’ … We’re where we are because we have unbelievable people. People are greater resources than any amount of dollars.”