Saturday, April 04, 2015

Havoc Lives Here: VCU after Shaka Smart

It's Havoc You Fear!
On Thursday night, April 2, 2015, I was part of a small gaggle of reporters outside Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center waiting for news about whether Men’s Basketball Coach Shaka Smart intended to leave VCU for the University of Texas at Austin. I am not a reporter myself, though I have done political blogging. It was a pleasant Spring night and it was interesting to rub elbows with local reporters trying to get the latest scoop in time for the 11:00 o’clock news. We got the decision at 10:30 PM, and I tweeted the news out and went home.

In considerably less than twenty-four hours I got tired of the “Shaka in Texas” stories. I like Shaka Smart and I wish him well. Smart moved the VCU basketball program forward in many ways and leaves a solid foundation for future growth. All that being said, the VCU story is no longer the Shaka Smart story; these two stories are no longer the same story. The Shaka Smart story is now a Texas story, and what interests me is the future of Virginia Commonwealth University and its basketball program, so let’s take a moment and look at how things stand at the moment.

Havoc Still Lives Here

One of the most common concerns expressed in the wake of Smart’s departure was what would become of “Havoc.” Havoc is many things to many people. It came into being when Smart used the word to describe how VCU would play in an upcoming game. The VCU community seized on the quote and did one of the things it does best: it created a brand. Since then, Havoc has been used as shorthand to describe the style of play taught by Smart.

With Smart leaving, many fans wondered what would become of Havoc and whether they could continue to wear their Havoc shirts and display other Havoc-branded merchandise, and the short answer is: yes you can. That is because VCU owns the “Havoc” trademark. No one really knows what Smart will do at UT, but it is a pretty safe bet that it won’t be called Havoc. Commentators will no doubt continue to describe Smart’s approach as “Havoc-style” play, but don’t look for a wave of “Havoc” merchandise in UT’s distinctive burnt orange and white livery.

I would be surprised if UT were to go that route. Having lived in Dallas, Texas for several years and having known many UT alums, I can assure you that UT has its own proud traditions and brands and I doubt they have any interest in paying VCU licensing fees to use “Havoc” in their merchandising or advertising. UT fans seem to prefer their own “Hook’em Horns” logo and motto.

Havoc as a Style of Play

We know VCU owns the trademark, but what about the style of play? We can’t know what the future of VCU’s distinctive style of play will be until we find out who our new coach will be, but this much is certain: we have a core of talented players who were recruited and trained on the basis of their ability to play Havoc-style basketball. Smart was at VCU six years, so every single one of VCU’s current players is a product of Smart’s recruiting and training. It’s difficult to imagine that VCU’s new coach would attempt to impose a radically different system of play on a group of players who have shown they can play and win using Havoc-style play. More about that new coach later.

It is this group of players, this basketball team of ours, that are the real bearers of the Havoc-style of play, even more so than Shaka Smart. At UT, Smart will be starting over with a team of players recruited by a different coach with his own ideas about how to play basketball. If Smart wants to implement Havoc-style play in Texas, he will have to start over and teach his players and recruit to match his designs. In contrast, our current roster of players already knows Havoc-style play. It will be interesting when we meet Smart’s new team in two games during the 2015-2016, a condition of his leaving VCU.

As much as anything else, "Havoc" is a state of mind.
Havoc as a Way of Life

I graduated from VCU twice, once in 1990 with my bachelors degree and again in 1993 with a masters degree. VCU was a very different place back then, with a different outlook, and it was reflected in how we supported our basketball team. Back then, students listened to the Cure and Nirvana and it wasn’t fashionable to show school spirit. Games were played in Richmond’s Coliseum, which could hold more than 16,000 people. When only 4,000 people showed up, that place felt awfully empty. Worse still, the grunge-inflected crowd had a tendency to slump in their seats and not cheer.

I left Richmond in 1995 for California graduate school and then Texas for work. In 2009, I returned and reconnected with a fraternity brother of mine who reintroduced me VCU basketball as it was played and celebrated in the Siegel Center. VCU’s student section had transformed itself from a bunch of sullen people in flannel and artfully ripped jeans into a bunch of cheering, rowdy fanatics. The Peppas and the Gold Rush Dancers had emerged as a big part of the school’s spirit effort, and the cheerleaders, always great, were still excellent. And the student fans and spirit groups weren’t just enthusiastic; they were creative—always introducing some new song or some new twist. Distinctive costumes and characters appeared.

What has become apparent to me is that the idea of “Havoc” at VCU goes much deeper than the style of basketball play taught by one man. Havoc is rooted in the much deeper soil of VCU’s “Rowdy Ram” attitude, which brings enthusiasm and creativity to its support of our university’s student athletes. Havoc is really just a subset of Rowdy. It’s no coincidence this approach to fandom has grown out of one of the world’s best art and advertising schools. VCU students are quite literally trained to create brands, so it's no surprise that they were able to take a comment by a basketball coach and turn it into a slogan, an attitude, and a swaggering approach to life, not just basketball.

What the future holds for VCU basketball after Shaka Smart is hard to tell. A lot will depend on who our new coach will be and where he decides to take the team in terms of style of play. This much is true though; the new coach will inherit a great group of talented and well-trained players, a solid basketball infrastructure (staff, the Siegel Center, and a new training facility), and the best fan base in the NCAA. VCU has a great foundation to build upon.

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