GAMBIER — As he stood on the stage at Rosse Hall on the campus of Kenyon College, Shaka Smart didn’t look like someone who had reached celebrity status as a college basketball coach.
Instead, he looked like another Kenyon grad, back to see his old stomping grounds.
Smart, the current head basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth, returned to his alma mater to speak to a group of enthusiastic students on Thursday.
A former point guard for the Lords who graduated in 1999, Smart reminisced about his days on campus with several hundred students who could relate to just about everything he said.
“I enjoy meeting these students,” Smart told the News. “It’s good to see my professors and good to meet with them.”
It had been a while since he last visited Kenyon — seven years, in fact — and a lot has changed.
“(I miss) the people, the relationships,” Smart said. “There are people here who care about you, and care about each other.”
A lot has changed for Smart as well.
Seven years ago, Smart was an assistant coach at the University of Akron. Since then, he worked as an assistant at Clemson and at Florida before being hired by VCU in the spring of 2009. VCU is now well known, thanks to a Final Four appearance in 2011 from seemingly out of nowhere.
But Smart hasn’t forgotten where he’s from.
“I have a great appreciation for Kenyon,” Smart said to the crowd. “Every day, when I go to VCU — it’s in the middle of downtown Richmond, the capital of Virginia — it’s about as opposite of Kenyon as it can be. ... The academic experience is very, very different. I appreciate the professors here who took an interest in me and were there as a part of my life.”
In three years, he took a successful VCU program and turned it into a nationally recognized power. After winning the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament in 2010, Smart took his Rams to an appearance in the 2011 NCAA tournament. VCU was one of the last schools in, and had to win a First Four game against USC to even get to the field of 64.
They won. Then they won again. And again.
The Rams’ 71-61 victory over powerhouse Kansas propelled them to their first ever Final Four.