UPDATE: The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that Shaka Smart has turned down the Illinois coaching job.
OK, so I wasn't always sold on Shaka Smart. My oldest son, Jordan, has attended Smart’s basketball camps -- all three of them. He was supposed to attend the Anthony Grant VCU basketball camp in 2009, but Grant departed for Alabama after I signed him up. We thought about pulling out but decided the head coach couldn’t possibly make that much difference, especially to an 11-year-old.
I remember meeting Coach Smart on that first day of camp, when I dropped my son off at the Siegel Center. As I stood on the steps Smart seemed particularly short, and as I approached he shook my hand. I can’t remember exactly what he said -- something generic, like, “He’s going to learn a lot” -- and I walked away thinking that I really missed Anthony Grant.
Three years later, it seems like the entire city is holding its breath at the prospect of losing Smart. Five years ago, the newly hired Grant almost left VCU to replace Billy Donovan, the head coach at Florida, who had all-but agreed to coach the NBA’s Orlando Magic. He came back to VCU when Donovan turned down the Magic job. VCU, and Richmond, rejoiced at dodging the bullet. Two years later, Grant left to coach Alabama.Losing Smart, however, would be devastating. If Smart leaves to take the head coaching job at the University of Illinois -- reportedly, the athletic director is a former associate of Smart’s and is pushing very aggressively to hire him, at possibly $2.5 million a year -- Virginia Commonwealth University just might break down, fall to the floor and curl up in the fetal position. It will, psychologically, take the wind out of this city. Smart took VCU to the Final Four a year ago, but there’s more to it than that: Smart embodies a certain spirit, a certain swagger that aligns perfectly with Richmond. Smart is who we think we are, in some respects. That’s a powerful thing. Shaka was the 2011 Richmonder of the Year. Shaka made our Power List last summer. Everyone knew that the big schools would come calling and Coach Smart would be the hot commodity -- especially if the Rams are winning -- and after this weekend’s two-point loss to Indiana the speculation started immediately. So it’s a bit of a catch-22. Success will ultimately tempt Smart, who’s only 34, to leave Richmond.
I’ve heard rumblings that Coach Smart is frustrated that he’s going to have to win the Colonial Athletic Association tournament every year to get into the NCAA tournament. Case in point: Even though the Rams finished the regular season with 25 wins and six losses, an incredible year by any standard, the conventional wisdom held that VCU had to win the CAA to get in. Drexel, which was riding a 19-game winning streak before losing to the Rams in the championship game, is playing in the NIT.
There have been reports that the Atlantic 10 conference is interested in adding VCU and George Mason University. If this is true, it could sweeten the pot for Smart. Playing in the A-10, also home to the University of Richmond, would guarantee VCU gets better competition throughout the regular season, and many more chances to win games that get the attention of the NCAA selection committee.
Will Smart stay or go?
Stuart Siegel, a major donor and supporter of VCU basketball, expects the answer to come sooner rather than later. “This is not something that is going to linger on,” Siegel says. “I have a huge amount of respect for Shaka not only as a coach, but as a man who has a lot of loyalty to the players and the university.”
What happens if he leaves? Siegel hates to speculate, but says it’s something that simply comes with the territory. “Losing Shaka wouldn’t be a good thing. But the fact that you have great success and everyone wants your coach is a good thing,” Siegel says, adding that if Smart departs VCU will recover just fine: “Life will go on.”
Ballparks! Shockoe Bottom promenades! Riverfront terraces! At first reluctant to divvy up the city’s $62.1 million payday from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, Mayor Dwight Jones unleashed the free money giveaway Friday in something of a turnabout.
Citing the necessity to “bring this budget forward,” Jones explained that the city has to disclose the funds within the current budget cycle -- it’s a legal requirement -- which meant no waiting until after the fall election to decide how to spend the $62 million. The money is the result of the toll road authority repaying long-lost loans from the city. But, of course, there’s more to it than that.
“We think we have proposed ideas that actually turn the $62.1 million dollars into more money,” Jones told a roomful of reporters at City Hall Friday in a budgetary sneak peek. The biggest news is that Jones will use a little less than half to pay off some high interest debt -- about $26.5 million currently accumulating 5 percent interest -- and then reissue $36 million in lower-interest debt.
“By paying off that debt at the high interest rate, it will allow us to borrow new debt at more affordable and lower rates,” Jones said, adding: “The other silver lining we realize with the paying down of our debt is that with these debt savings we can fund our portion of a regional project to build a baseball stadium.”“Our portion,” in this instance, is about $12.5 million, assuming the new stadium costs approximately $50 million. By replacing high-interest debt with lower interest debt, the city will be able to set aside $1.2 million a year to pay the expected debt service on $12.5 million, explained Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Henrico and Chesterfield counties are setting aside any money. Each has supposedly, at some point, maybe informally or not all, agreed to pony up a quarter of the cost, with the Flying Squirrels picking up the remaining 25 percent. Jones was careful to point out that this setting aside of funds shouldn’t be misinterpreted: “We are not putting any pressure on our regional partners to do anything,” he said. Surely, the Squirrels can appreciate that.
There’s so much more to come. Jones is expected to detail his tough love funding plans for Richmond Schools on Monday, and then present his budget to City Council on Tuesday. But here are a couple of the highlights for those who just can’t wait:
About $5 million is being set aside for a Shockoe Bottom promenade to bolster the city’s redevelopment of the train shed at Main Street Station, and the Bottom in general. It apparently will be at the existing 17th Street Farmer’s Market, but details so far are sketchy. Technically, a promenade is just a walkway, so not sure how it’s different from what’s there now. Tammy Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary, promises more details in the coming days.
The mayor talked very excitedly about a $14 million renovation of the Landmark Theater, which he says will somehow generate an additional $36 million through the “use of historic tax credits, naming opportunities and corporate and other private funding.” This could be tricky, as we’re fairly certain the city, which owns the Landmark Theater, can’t itself redistribute historic tax credits (the idea being that you have to pay taxes in order to receive tax credits). Might this involve selling the Landmark, which is assessed at $20 million, to CenterStage Foundation or some other private entity, which could then take advantage of the historic tax credits?
“We already have Richmond CenterStage committed as a partner to this idea,” Jones said. “Basically, for every dollar we invest it will generate $2.80 in return. This will allow this $14 million to turn into a $50 million renovation for this historic site.” This plan will likely require some additional scrutiny.
There’s another $5 million to build riverfront terraces to make the James more accessible, $2.5 million to begin redeveloping Whitcomb and Creighton courts, two of the city’s public housing projects, not to mention money to spruce up an industrial manufacturing park along Interstate 95.
Again, there is much more to the mayor’s fourth budget, which is critical coming into an election year. How it’s received by City Council in the coming weeks will be interesting.