RICHMOND, Va. -- Over the course of his six-year tenure as head coach of the VCU Rams, Shaka Smart spent countless hours inside the Siegel Center. Any pedometer reading would register dozens of miles spent roaming the halls, offices, and courts inside the Rams' home. Tonight though, he will likely step where he's never been before: the visitor's locker room.
Smart returns Tuesday night with his Texas Longhorns, the team for which he left VCU three years ago, spurning, in some eyes, the program which he helped vault into the national consciousness.
The Longhorn appearance satisfies a clause in Smart's VCU contract stating he would play a home-and-home series with the Rams if he were to leave before the end of his deal. He honors that commitment tonight.
"If you take out the fact some of us coached there... even if we hadn't, this would be an exciting place to go play," Smart told USA Today. "It's an unbelievable passion and excitement there for basketball. They've had success there for the past 15 years plus. Now you add the connections that we have there.'
"It will be an interesting experience to be on the other side of that arena," he added.
Current VCU men's basketball coach Mike Rhoades is at VCU largely because of Smart. Rhoades was the longtime head coach at Randolph-Macon, but knew of Smart on the recruiting trail and was paired with him by former R-MC Athletic Director Kevin Eastman.
"I grew up a Villanova fan," Rhoades recalled. "And when they were in the Final Four in Detroit, I didn't see one minute of the game because I was eating dinner with Shaka, interviewing [to be on his staff]."
"I'm here because he [Smart] took a chance on me," Rhoades continued. "Not only am I so fortunate that he brought me on staff, but I gained a great friend in all that, which is really cool."
There are two players remaining on the VCU roster from Smart's last season, seniors Jonathan Williams and Justin Tillman. Rhoades will count on them heavily against a longer and perhaps more athletic Longhorn team whose only losses were in overtime to top-ranked Duke and to Gonzaga.
However, Rhoades has something that Smart used to enjoy in his corner; a fervent VCU home crowd advantage unlike any other that Texas may face throughout the season.
“Our fans will appreciate and welcome him, until the ball goes up," Rhoades predicted. "That’s how it should be."
Rhoades admitted he struggled with facing opponents he considered friends in the business, but not to the point where he took anything personally.
"We're going to root for each other all the time," Rhoades said of his relationship with Smart. "Except for these 40 minutes."