Thinking About… Basketball Coaches

Over the weekend I listened to an episode of the Two People Podcast from about a year ago. (First, let me say that I realize I am impressively on the ball when it comes to my media intake. Second, let me say that if you haven’t heard of the Two People Podcast or have never listened, you should give it a try. It is hosted by Richmonder and all around good guy, Blaine Lay, and features his interviews with local people of note. It is positive, informative, and thought-provoking.)

This podcast episode featured Michael Phillips, a sportswriter at the Richmond Times Dispatch, and much of the conversation considered basketball coach Shaka Smart and his (then recent) departure from VCU to become the head man at the University of Texas. It got me thinking about basketball coaches.

Tonight is the NCAA Final Four Championship Game. It culminates a month-long obsession over college basketball, and especially the madness of March with its bracket challenges, Cinderella stories, and, inevitably, coaching changes. March marks the end of the season and the right time to both fire an under-performing coach and poach a successful one through various enticements, financial and otherwise. That’s what happened last April when Smart, who had been at VCU for 6 seasons, was recruited to coach the Longhorns, who play in a more highly regarded conference. That’s also what might have happened—at least according to rumors—to current VCU coach, Will Wade, whose name was attached, albeit briefly, to the coaching vacancy at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, Wade’s hometown.

The recent rise of VCU basketball has provided a sense of pride for the city of Richmond. It brings people together. It writes a new narrative for the city. It lends exposure to other positive signs of life in the region. But it has a potential downside, too. As the program does well because of the energy and intellect of young, dynamic coaches, those coaches become desirable commodities to bigger schools with better basketball pedigrees. The interest in ‘our coaches’ and the regular successful recruitment of them plays into Richmond’s inferiority complex. It leads us to wonder, “Is everyone good going to leave for some better place? Is Richmond only a stepping stone to a higher profile job?”

As I thought about this pattern at VCU, I could see immediately the way it is threatening and de-stabilizing, particularly because of the public role these coaches play. But then I wondered “What would happen if we just became okay with it?” What if we chose to see it as a sign, not of our inferiority, but a sign of Richmond’s resilience and strength? Richmond, you see, is a greenhouse for great coaches. Jeff Capel. Anthony Grant. Shaka Smart. Will Wade. It’s an impressive sample and one that doesn’t simply reflect on the coaches themselves, but on the school and its athletic department, and on the city that helps these coaches thrive. Sure, we can and should recognize the unquestionable boon these coaches have been to VCU and to Richmond as a whole. But we also should recognize how Richmond has become a city that makes great coaches.

All of this reflection led me to similar feelings related to the church. Particularly at this time of year when many within our community—located as it is in the city center and adjacent to various educational institutions, graduate or otherwise—transition to new places, it can feel destabilizing. It can be very hard for us to say goodbye if we count by what we’re losing. What if, as we do with basketball coaches, we started counting by what we were giving, not just be what we were losing? What if we began to see our role as a church community partly as creating soil in which people can grow, mature, and be prepared to leave?

This month at City Church we are focusing our attention on what it means to be an abounding church. We desire to be a generous church with our financial resources, of course, but also with our human resources. The way we send people out to new positions, more prestigious places, more impressive basketball programs, shows our commitment to God’s bigger purposes. The Apostle Paul promoted this attitude in his own farewell to the Ephesian Church in Acts 20, where he quoted the words of Jesus himself saying: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

And in the next few months at City Church we will also be welcoming new staff to City Church and to Richmond. Here, on the flip side, we have an opportunity to seed their success through our supportive culture from day one. We can be a greenhouse for great pastors, just as Richmond and VCU has been a greenhouse for great coaches. Surely, we hope that they will be in Richmond for a long time (even forever), but we remain open to whatever and wherever God may call them in the future.