Being the men’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University means holding a position that comes with great attention and the potential to move on to more prestigious coaching jobs.
It also comes with a major caveat: coming back if you decide to leave.
V.C.U. hired Jeff Capel, who currently coaches at Pittsburgh, to his first Division I head coaching position in 2002. Part of his contract with V.C.U. was a stipulation that Capel would have to play the Rams in a home-and-home series if he ever left for a higher-profile coaching position. The same provision existed for Capel’s successor — current Dayton Coach Anthony Grant — when he left V.C.U. for Alabama in 2009. Texas Coach Shaka Smart had a similar condition when he left V.C.U. for the Longhorns in 2015.
On Wednesday night, Louisiana State Coach Will Wade was returning to Richmond, Virginia, to face V.C.U., two years after leaving the Rams for Baton Rouge.
“I’ve spent more time at V.C.U. than I have anywhere else in my coaching career. I was there for six years — two years as a head coach and four years as an assistant,” Wade said. “It’s going very be very odd to be on the other bench.”
The return was expected to be testy for Wade, who has been a polarizing figure in college basketball over the past few seasons.
Many of V.C.U.’s supporters were surprised when he left in 2017 for L.S.U., feeling like it wasn’t a clear upgrade. He had a combined 51 wins in two seasons with the Rams and led them to an N.C.A.A. tournament game win in 2016, the program’s first since 2013.
With L.S.U., Wade was suspended in March after a report surfaced that he discussed an improper payment to a recruit on a federal wiretap. He missed both the Southeastern Conference and N.C.A.A. tournaments after leading the Tigers to their first conference regular season title since 2009. Then, in April, he was reinstated after meeting with university officials.
The contract stipulation dates back to V.C.U.’s final years in the Metro Conference, and has since become standard. When that league disbanded in 1990s, V.C.U. sued several other programs who were part of the split and reached a settlement. Many of the programs were joining Conference USA, and as part of the settlement V.C.U. demanded that they play the Rams in a game in Richmond.
“That started to get me thinking,” said Dr. Richard Sander, who was the athletic director at V.C.U. from 1986 until 2006. “We needed ways to get good home games. Then I hired Jeff Capel years later and I clearly knew that he was going to be a guy that someone was eventually going to want to try and hire.
“Knowing that it was tough to get home games, I just wrote in his contract that if he took a job at a pre-eminent institution that we’d play a home-and-home series,” he said. “When he left and went to Oklahoma, it became part of the buyout. When I hired Anthony (Grant) after that, we kept it in his contract and all the coaches since have had the same thing.”
Both Capel and Grant lost in their return games. Smart led Texas to a 71-67 win when he returned to the Siegel Center in December of 2017, a game he described as sentimental.
“Any time that you spend that amount of time at a place you develop a lot of relationships,” Smart said. He continued: “When the game starts, you’re trying to win the game like it’s any other game, but when the game ended, I was really glad that it was over.”
Smart’s run at V.C.U. from 2009-15 forever changed the Rams’ program. The school’s 2011 Final Four run — as a No. 11 seed that had to play an extra game because of the expanded 68-team field — was one of the most improbable in the history of the N.C.A.A. tournament. His success is part of what allowed V.C.U. to move to the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2012.
“He changed everything. We’ve been sold out for 136 straight games and that’s just one piece of it,” said Ed McLaughlin, V.C.U.’s athletic director.
Wade and Mike Rhoades, the current V.C.U. coach, were both assistants at the program under Smart and part of that 2011 team that, among other things, beat top-seeded Kansas to reach the Final Four. Now, Wade and Rhoades will go head-to-head as part of Wade’s buyout. Rhoades already faced Smart in each of the two previous seasons.
Rhoades said that when playing against his former co-workers, he has to put the personal relationships aside to prepare his players.
“Then when it’s over, you root for those guys in every other game they play. It’s not fun,” he said. “At one point in time, I was spending more time with those guys than I was with my own family.”
Wade will also face Smart later this season when L.S.U. visits Texas as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“This is what the schedule is this season and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Wade said of facing both Rhoades and Smart. “Coach Rhoades and I were roommates on the road together when I worked at V.C.U. and Coach Smart was the one who gave all of us the opportunities we needed to start our own careers. It’s all a little odd when you think about the idea of us playing each other.”
McLaughlin, who hired both Wade and Rhoades to lead V.C.U. hoops, doesn’t see the buyout practice changing.
“We don’t want our coaches to leave,” McLaughlin said. “But if they do, this is how it’s going to go.”