WASHINGTON — Shaka Smart has accepted the head coaching position at the University of Texas, leaving Virginia Commonwealth after 6 unpredictably successful seasons coaching the Rams.
VCU fans were and are crushed over Smart’s departure, and for good reason: He put VCU on the college basketball map, taking the program to its first ever Final Four in 2011, then making them NCAA Tournament regulars with appearances the next four seasons.
The sinking feeling of losing a beloved coach isn’t exclusive to VCU fans in the extended D.C. area.
Here are the most gut-punching blows dealt to area college basketball faithful in the last thirty years, for different reasons.
From fall of 1969 to spring of 1986, Maryland men’s basketball was nationally ranked 13 of 17 seasons under head coach Lefty Driesell. For four straight seasons beginning in 1972-73, the Terps climbed as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll. A winning tradition had been established.
Then on June 19, 1986, everything changed with the death of Len Bias, who overdosed on cocaine only two days after being drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics. A school investigation revealed Bias had been 21 credits short of graduation at the time of his death, despite having been eligible to play. The next month, Tony Massenburg was declared ineligible to play the following season after he was found to have cheated on an exam. A later investigation would find “the basketball staff stresses athletics over academics,” and on Oct. 29, 1986, Driesell would resign as head coach.
When Gary Williams left Ohio State to take over for Bob Wade — who had the dubious honor of taking over for Lefty Driesell — his Alma mater had still been reeling from the Len Bias fallout.
Maryland would struggle, with more losses than wins in two of Williams’ next three seasons, before Williams was really able to turn the tide and lead the Terps to 11 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
In 2001-2002, the stars – Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton, Chris Wilcox and Lonny Baxter – would align, allowing Maryland and Williams to finally break through the door upon which the program had been knocking for four previous seasons. The Terrapins were national champions.
Although the Terps wouldn’t have another losing season in the next nine seasons, Williams, already cemented in Maryland history, announced his retirement from college basketball in May 2011. His days of sweating through suit shirts and tugging ties on the sidelines were over.
“It’s the right time,” Williams said. “My entire career has been an unbelievable blessing. I am fiercely proud of the program we have built here. I couldn’t have asked any more from my players, my assistant coaches, the great Maryland fans and this great university. Together, we did something very special here.”
In 1997, a little school in Fairfax,Va. hired a guy named Jim Larranaga — who had never made it to the NCAA Tournament — away from Bowling Green to coach its basketball team. He had a 9-18 record in 1997-98. By his second season at George Mason, he had the Patriots in the tourney. They would never have a losing record under Larranaga again. And in 2006, Mason’s third tournament appearance with Larranaga, they created magic.
Two unknown players, Jai Lewis and Lamar Butler, would propel their unknown school into an unknown position. After receiving an at-large bid as a No. 11 seed, Mason would string together unlikely upsets over a murderer’s row of Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut for the school’s first Final Four appearance. The nation was stunned. Mason would later lose to eventual national champions Florida, but the memory of their Final Four run still lingers to this day.
In 2010-11, Larranaga’s Patriots would tie a school record with 27 wins, and after beating Villanova in the opening round of the tournament, their hopes of recreating the magic from 2006 were dashed by top-seeded Ohio State. The next month, Larranaga was gone.
For a litany of reasons — not enough money for his assistant coaches believed to be one of them — Larranaga accepted an offer to become Miami’s next basketball coach, which for Larranaga meant a move to the ACC at the ripe age of 61, and for Mason meant looking to replace 273 wins over 14 seasons (.625).
Larranaga would lead the Hurricanes to a 20-13 record in his first season, and a school record 29 wins, an ACC season and tournament championship, and a Sweet Sixteen appearance, in his second season. George Mason hasn’t made it back to the tournament and just hired another new coach.
John Thompson Jr.
Ahead of the 1972-73 season, independent Georgetown plucked a little known coach out of St. Anthony’s High School in D.C. — where John Thompson, Jr. had been wildly successful with a 122-28 record — and put him in charge of its basketball program.
Twenty-seven years later, he had amassed 596 wins and 239 loss (.714) and made a school more synonymous with fine academics fun to root for in the NCAA tournament. And he knows all about the NCAA tournament — his Hoyas made 14 consecutive tourney appearances. Georgetown would appear in three of four Finals from 1982-1985 — including its first in 39 years in 1982 — winning a national title in 1984. John Thompson was Georgetown basketball.
Until he abruptly retired resigned halfway through the 1998-99 season, citing a divorce as his reason for departure. The program would be left in the hands of Thompson’s longtime assistant, Craig Esherick, for the next five-plus years, with Esherick ultimately being fired and replaced by an up-and-coming Princeton coach named John Thompson III.
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