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VCU coach rolls out Emily Dickinson at Final Four

You know it's a new day at the Final Four when a coach pulls Emily Dickinson off his bench to bolster his argument for winning the national title.

"Dwell in possibility."

The poet's words trip so easily off the tongue of Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart — whose name just about says it all — that they hardly sound jarring, even in this era of countless cliches and 24-hour sports talk. And with good reason.

Run into Smart away from the basketball court and he's likely to have a stack of papers tucked underneath one arm, more than 100 pages of inspirational quotes and poems that inform almost everything he does. To say he's spent nearly every waking moment preparing for the next one isn't saying nearly enough.

As a kid growing up near Madison, Wis., Smart wrote "Duke" on a sheet of paper and taped it to his bedroom wall because that's where he planned to play college basketball. Around the time he realized he'd never crack the lineup there, he turned down a chance to attend Harvard and Yale for tiny Kenyon College. After his junior year there, he taped a list of the all-conference team to his dorm room wall to remind himself of the player he wanted to become. Smart not only did that, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in history.

Neither the appearance of a cerebral young coach nor a mid-major program at the annual party thrown for the sport's royalty should be all that jarring anymore. Just last year, Butler coach Brad Stevens — whose Bulldogs will face VCU in Saturday's first semifinal — rolled into the championship game, only to be turned away at the buzzer when a half-court shot by since-departed NBA first-round pick Gordon Hayward skidded off the front of the rim.

So naturally, when Smart was asked whether it was realistic for his mid-major team to be the last one standing when confetti rains down from the roof of Reliant Stadium come Monday night, he cited Stevens and Butler, then dropped the pearl from Dickinson before a crowd of reporters, and paused.

"At least I hope it's possible," he added, smiling, "or we just might as well turn around now and go home."

VCU isn't going anywhere, of course, even though everybody connected to the game save Smart and his players whined long and loud about the Rams simply being invited to the tournament. It might have been the biggest motivational gift ever for a coach, since just this once it was nearly impossible for Smart to overplay the "us-against-the-world" angle.

"Every day, he showed us something to remind us, 'We don't belong,'" VCU guard Brandon Burgess said, shaking his head and remembering the barrage even as the Rams battered a succession of major-conference foes. "Video clips, newspapers, pages off the internet, e-mails, you name it."

Smart never lacks for material, to be sure, but not just because of that well-worn sheaf of papers. Like Stevens, who at 34 is a year older, he's in the vanguard of a youth movement making a dent in one of the most hidebound fraternities in sports. Coaching at the highest level remains largely an older man's racket, because jobs at the top programs still require a long, success-stuffed resume, not to mention a name well-enough known to sell tickets.

Yet it's the guys like Smart, who saw the dispersal of talented kids to mid-major programs as a way to jump the coaching queue, who are generating most of the buzz lately. They're still young enough to talk to their players instead of at them, hang out after practice or step onto on the court and demonstrate exactly what they're trying to get across.

"I try not to make it a dictatorship," he said, "unless I have to."

Yet seeing him as an authority figure wasn't easy, at least not initially. After a decade of apprenticeships at California University (Pa.), Dayton, Akron, Clemson and Florida, VCU was Smart's first head-coaching stint. He followed Anthony Grant, who was nearly a decade older and spent most of his free time with a growing family.

"The first time I saw him on the court, I'm thinking, 'Who is this little guy?'" Burgess recalled. "I thought it was a joke at first."

"He thinks he's a better player than us. He thinks he's a better passer than me," teammate Joey Rodriguez said. "I tell him, 'You played at Kenyon College,' we're in the Final Four, so ..."

Although no one who has spent much time around Smart — his siblings, professors, former bosses and even LeBron James, who worked out with him the summer before he turned pro — ever doubted Smart would find his calling, none ever expected it to happen so fast.

"He understands what it takes to run a basketball program, he understands rhythm of the team, and he understands you stay with it," said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, who gave Smart his first big break as an assistant at Dayton, then brought him back when Purnell got the top job at Clemson.

"I think most importantly," Purnell said, "he understands you're in competition on a daily basis for hearts and minds of kids."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org