By Nina Zimmerman
Few alumni embody the spirit and potential of Kenyon College students as thoroughly as Shaka Smart 99, head coach of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) mens basketball team.
When people ask me about [who I] … think is the ideal Kenyon student, I think of him, said Ric Sheffield, associate provost, professor of sociology and one of Smarts former professors.
And I think of him not, strangely enough, because of basketball. Its because, in my opinion, he transcended the limits of just being a student-athlete.
Smart returns to campus today for the first time since 2005 to share his thoughts in An Evening with Shaka Smart, sponsored by Student Lectureships. The lecture, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in Rosse Hall, requires a K-Card for entry. This requirement was instituted to give students an optimal opportunity to interact with Smart, according to Lydia Winkler 13, co-chair of Student Lectureships.
Its important to make sure that students get the best chance of seeing him, more so than anyone else, Winkler said. He instills confidence in Kenyon students to go after what they want.
Although he has had plans to return to Gambier for a long time, Smart said scheduling conflicts prevented him from doing so. Im so glad Im coming now, he said in a phone interview.
Smart offered current students three pieces of advice. First, discover passions and pursue them, wherever or whatever they may be. Second, enjoy college along the way. It gets said a lot, but its a great time in your life, and its a great place to be, Smart said. But I think sometimes were in such a hurry to get to the next thing that we dont really, truly stop and enjoy where we are and the people that were with.
Finally, Smart advised students to take full advantage of the Colleges faculty. They really are world-class, and theyre there to help, and theyre there to educate you, he said. They helped me learn about who I am as a person.
Before Smart became a successful Division I coach, leading the Rams to the Final Four in the 2011 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, he served for three years as captain of the Lords basketball team, setting records in all categories for assists. Those records still stand today.
Smart excelled in the classroom as well, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in and earning an NCAA post-graduate scholarship, among other honors. His intensity and leadership ability in the classroom and on the court were obvious, according to Bill Brown, former head basketball coach of the Lords. A pied piper for all the right reasons, according to Brown, Smart was one of the chosen ones.
Both Sheffield and Peter Rutkoff, professor of American studies and Smarts former faculty advisor, said Smart was one of the best students they have had in their teaching careers. I know that many of us who had had him as a student strongly encouraged him to go on and get a Ph.D. because we thought this kid [was] going to ultimately be a faculty member some place, Sheffield said. He was that sharp intellectually and academically.
Rutkoff agreed. I see all of the qualities that he had as a student being transformed into the qualities of a teacher, he said. But hes teaching young men and basketball, not history.
Brown praised Smarts humility, character and sense of gratitude. Hes still just one of [the students], and I think they will get that feeling being around him, Brown said. Hes just a great young man and a tremendous example of a Kenyon College graduate.
Though obviously a fine example for any Kenyon athlete, Sheffield will be perfectly satisfied if Smart never mentions basketball in his lecture. Thats how much I admire him as a human being, is that I know that whatever he says, students will be better having heard him say it, even if he doesnt talk about basketball, Sheffield said. He has the capacity to affect the lives of so many more people. And I believe that he will.
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