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It’s a coveted position in men’s college basketball: graduate assistant for the VCU men’s basketball team. The New York Times recently acknowledged that “basketball coaches at Virginia Commonwealth tend to have upward mobility” and the same is certainly true of VCU’s graduate assistants – an elite five-person team that supports the VCU Rams while simultaneously pursuing a master’s of sport leadership from the VCU Center for Sport Leadership

We spoke with VCU Rams Men’s Basketball Head Coach Mike Rhoades, VCU CSL Director of Communications Greg Burton and five former graduate assistants to understand:

  • why graduate assistants are so important to VCU men’s basketball
  • the responsibilities of a GA
  • how Coach Rhoades stays connected to his GAs and what he’s like as a mentor
  • what GAs learn from their classes at the Center for Sport Leadership
  • the strength of the CSL alumni network

The five former graduate assistants interviewed are:

  • Zack Freesman (GA 2016 – 2018 for Coach Wade and Coach Rhoades), who is currently Director of Basketball Operations at Winthrop University
  • David Harris (GA 2013 – 2015 for Coach Smart), currently Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Northern Kentucky University
  • Justin Levine (GA 2015 – 2017 for Coach Smart and Coach Wade), currently Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Columbia University
  • Donny Lind (GA 2015 – 2017 for Coach Smart), currently Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Radford University
  • Mike Venezia (GA 2015 -2017 for Coach Smart at VCU/TX), currently Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at University of North Carolina at Asheville

Q: Why are graduate assistants important to VCU men’s basketball?

Rhoades: One of the greatest strengths that we have in our basketball program is the number of GAs that are willing to work for us. The VCU network gives us the opportunity to get GAs who are aspiring head coaches and who are of such high quality. They are coming from some great undergrad experiences – former Division I players, managers, some of them have turned into staff. 

When they come here, they bring experience, but they want to come wipe sweat and water off the court, because they want to be part of VCU basketball and the CSL. They want that degree.

Burton: The GA role is such a coveted slot. We have five GAs for men’s basketball. Those are the kind of numbers you might expect at a top program like North Carolina, Duke or Kentucky. The other schools in our conference don’t have five men’s basketball GAs.

Our GAs get tuition assistance. They earn it. It’s why all of them go on to have such great jobs. Some are just here for one year, but most stretch it out to two because the academic load is so challenging. 

Lind: After working as a student manager at Loyola, I knew I wanted to coach. I initially inquired about VCU’s basketball program, but they wouldn’t consider anyone who hadn’t also been accepted to VCU’s Center for Sport Leadership. I had to apply and get accepted before even got an interview.

I was naïve at the time as to how competitive it was. Looking back, I’m surprised I got through. I spent a year as a GA, earned my master’s, and then stayed on full-time with Shaka for two more years.

Q: What does a graduate assistant do?

Harris: When I was a GA, we lived in the student apartments where the players lived and stayed in close contact with them. Each of us was assigned to an assistant coach. One of the assistant coaches would prepare the team for competitors as far as what they do offensively and defensively. We would help prepare that information and scouting reports. We also helped with analytical projects. Smart was big into the numbers and analytics. And we all helped with video, even though we had a video coordinator. 

Levine: Graduates assistants wear a lot of hats. We help the coaching staff with scouting, recruiting visits, summer camps, motivational content and spend a lot of time on the court working the players out. I lived near the players and tried to make myself as accessible as possible to them. As a graduate assistant, you learn very quickly that it is your job to serve the players and make life a little bit easier for the staff.

Lind: Being a GA varies based on what the coaches need. Assistant coaches have so much on their plates. GAs help with scouting reports and take raw video on opponents, break it down and make it easier for them to handle. Anything technology related fell under my umbrella. It could be wide ranging. I’d find motivational movie clip or speeches and handle community service. After I earned my master’s, I stayed on as video coordinator. I was there when VCU went to the Final Four.

Q: What was it like working with Coach Rhoades?

Venezia: I worked under Coach Rhoades for two years as his director of student athlete development.

The first thing I noticed about Coach Rhoades was his passion for competition. He brings a ton of energy to practice and meetings. It’s not “rah-rah” energy – it really gets you going and, coming from the top, sets the tone for the whole program.

[Rhoades] is a loving guy. He wants to see the people around him grow and excel, so he’s continually mentoring and teaching.

Rhoades is incredibly committed to his immediate family. You see the love within that family every day and the VCU players and staff are an extension of that family.

Today, I’m part of the UNC-Asheville staff and, despite his busy schedule, Coach Rhoades still makes time to follow, support and encourage.

I hope to emulate Rhoades’ competitive spirit, and the love and commitment he has for the people around him.

Freesman: I came to VCU in 2016 to work for Coach Will Wade. After my first season, Coach Wade departed for the job at LSU. I wasn’t sure who would be the next leader. but Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin made his decision very quickly and it was a great one!

When a new head coach comes in, he often creates a new staff, from assistants all the way down to GAs. I wasn’t sure if my position would be safe, and I was in absolute panic mode.

When Coach Rhoades walked into the Basketball Development Center for the first time, I was at my desk. I stood up to introduce myself and my stomach was in knots because I didn’t know if I’d be back the next day. Before we even shook hands, Coach Rhoades told me, “You have nothing to worry about. I’m keeping you.”

I have no idea if he knew who I was or if he had called any of my former employers, but he made me feel – instantly – like I was one of his guys. 

On the day of his introductory press conference at the Siegel Center, I was sitting with our players. They were excited to meet their next head coach. Coach Rhoades brought an energy that you could feel from the stands. He expressed that being at VCU was his dream job, and I felt that passion and appreciation every day I worked for him. His enthusiasm was contagious. He taught me how to care for players and staff outside the 94-foot black lines. I am so grateful for our year together.

Burton: Coach Rhoades is a tremendous teacher and mentor. The Center for Sport Leadership is so proud to call him an alum.

Mike was an exceptional basketball ball player. He was the Division III national player of the year. They won a national championship at Lebanon Valley College where he grew up. He had great coaches. Shortly after I moved here in 1998, he became head coach at Randolph Macon where he had learned from a legend – Hal Nunnally.

When Shaka [Smart] came to VCU, it was his first head coaching job. It’s common in college basketball for a first-time head coach to add someone with head coaching to his staff. So VCU paired up Coach Smart with Coach Rhoades, who had been a head coach for 10 years and was well respected throughout the state. It was a perfect marriage.

He provides a powerful example with his integrity and his work ethic. If you are trying to learn the business and you want to learn to do it the right way, there’s no better person to learn it from than Mike Rhoades.

Levine: I worked with Coach Rhoades for two years. He offered me the video coordinator position about two-and-a-half weeks after he accepted the head coaching job. During the time leading up to Coach offering me that position, I knew this is the leader that I wanted to work for.

First and foremost, I loved how much he had his own family around the basketball program. Coach also spent a ton of time with the staff and the players to create a strong bond. He challenges everyone to grow and he wants his staff to give input when making important decisions. It was amazing to work for him and it helped my career tremendously.

Through highs and lows of the season, Coach Rhoades did an incredible job of staying on an even keel. He doesn’t get down on the guys. He keeps everyone in good frame of mind.

One of the biggest things I learned was the importance of spending time with the players and getting to know them as individuals – their interests and backgrounds. I always valued relationships, but he made me see that the more you get to know the people you are pushing to their limits every day, the better they respond to you.

He’s an even better man than he is a coach. You want to run through a wall for him because you know he has your best interests in mind. 

Lind: I worked with Coach Rhoades when he was an assistant, but even then he thought like a head coach. A lot of head coaches encouraged that from their assistants. He was always thinking about what was best for his players and how they could be their best. I learned that from him. A huge portion of my job is the “Xs and Os” of video. But none of it matters if you’re not building relationship with players.

He did a great job at building relationships with the players to the point where he could coach them hard.

Q: What did you learn in your CSL graduate classes?

Harris: I knew I would be a graduate assistant for the basketball team, but I had no idea what to expect from grad school. You come and no one knows anyone. By the end of it, you have a nice little close-knit family.

The classes and projects were all specific to what we would be doing after we graduated – whether you wanted to be an athletic director or in charge of marketing, tickets, facilities or anything sports related.

One of my favorite classes was a coaching class. The professor was the VCU men’s soccer coach. He was really great at putting you in scenarios where you had to role play in front of the whole class. Some of exercises seemed silly at the time. You had to act like you were/are talking to one of your players or one of your players’ parents. But I see now that these situations come up all the time and I’ve been prepared to handle them.

Rhoades: The CSL program really stretches you. When you are a GA, as I was, you’re thinking “I want to be a coach, I want to be a coach” and you have blinders on. Then you get the CSL program they really open you up and make you interact and experience people who have the same passion about sports that you do but they want to go down a different avenue than you do. 

I met people who wanted to get into sports business or branding or different parts of college athletics administration. That’s what was really intriguing to me – sitting next to people who had different interests.

Lind: I had a business background as an undergrad, and the CSL program built well on that. The classes and the program helped me understand the world of college athletics. Every day we did something new – like ads, marketing and promotions. We learned what each group within the athletic department does. It helped me a lot. I was thinking about basketball all the time, but the CSL taught me how all the pieces work together.

Harris: When I was a GA for the basketball team, they encouraged me to do it in two years. I took most of my classes that first year and only had a few classes left when I got hired full-time. It was a heavy load, but all that stuff prepares you for being a coach and, later on down the line, being a head coach because your plate’s always going to be full.

Venezia: We gained an incredible amount of insight and knowledge related to the sports industry, and then we were equipped with the skills necessary to apply that knowledge to real-life scenarios – like an interview setting, a team meeting or a press conference.

In a marketing class, we were tasked with coming up with strategies to generate interest and resources for our mock athletic programs, the hope being that it would result in more fans, higher attendance rates, and more money. Today, I’m a part of a program that has a rich history of success, but we don’t have the resources that a program like VCU or Texas has. That CSL marketing class equipped me with a skillset that allows me to add value to my current program.

Freesman: My two years as a CSL student helped prepare me for many challenges that I have already faced in my career. I really improved in the area of time management. I pride myself on the reputation I have built as a tireless worker, but a lot of that credit goes to my two years balancing the many responsibilities of being a VCU basketball GA and graduate student in the CSL.

As the director of basketball operations at Winthrop University, I work with many different people in our athletic department. Prior to my experience at VCU and with the CSL, I would have struggled connecting with some of them because everyone has different interests and backgrounds. One important skill I took from the CSL was learned simply by observing Greg Burton. He has a knack for connecting with people and making everyone feel as if they are the most important person in the room. In his sport media class, he taught relationship building strategies that I implement today.

Q: What should people to know about being a graduate assistant at VCU?

Levine: It was life changing to be at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership for graduate school and my early professional years. Working with and being around the people in the CSL, Coach Rhoades and his staff, I gained a clear vision of who I want to be. When you are around really good people, a lot of success comes with that.

Harris: The CSL alone is special, but when you combine it with a men’s basketball program like VCU and then a head coach like Coach Smart was and now Coach Rhoades, that combination is really, really special. So many good people have been associated with this program and the connections you make at VCU will help you later in life. Some grad programs may have even greater prestige, but if you don’t have the connections to move forward after you graduate, your degree doesn’t mean a thing. VCU has an unbeatable combination with its basketball/athletics program and the CSL professors and network.

Freesman: Being a graduate assistant at VCU was challenging, but it changed my life and career trajectory. Balancing the responsibilities of being a basketball GA – breaking down film, creating scouting reports and rebounding for guys late at night – while also having to write papers, meet with groups, and study for exams is not for everyone. I had to learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable.

The opportunity to work for and learn from a family man like Coach Rhoades while obtaining a world-class degree from the Center for Sport Leadership was transformative. The experience also connected me to the unbelievable CSL network of alumni who have gone on to have great success in the sport industry. I would encourage anyone looking into the opportunity to do it!

Lind: I want people to understand that CSL is a program that is great at opening doors for people. It opened a door for me to be able to pursue what I love to do – to discover what parts of it I really love and then to connect me with really good people who want me to be successful. The CSL has given us viewpoints and ideas that have shaped what we all are doing. Their reach is now so broad. The next generation looking for a future in sport should understand that the CSL is a great place to go. 

Venezia: After reading firsthand accounts from CSL graduate assistants, I hope it’s clear that the experience in the CSL and the experience with Mike Rhoades has the potential to change you as an individual, as a student, as a GA, and as an assistant coach. They challenge you to be uncomfortable and to learn more about yourself, all while gaining the skills and confidence to handle these different scenarios.

Q: Describe the benefits of the CSL Network?

Rhoades: The CSL network opens avenues for our graduates after they graduate.

I stay in touch with all of my GAs because I had people who stayed in touch with me as I was building my own career.

Anytime I get a text or call, I’m returning it quickly. And I follow all these guys, because these guys are my family too, like my players. So when Columbia wins, I’m calling Levine. If Radford has a good win or a tough loss, I’m hitting up Donny.

Mike Venezia and those guys went down to UNC -Charlotte and beat Charlotte and I FaceTimed them after the game. They were all on the bus, going crazy. These are our guys. You always find time for your family and your guys. 

For me, I’m never going to hire someone I don’t personally know. That’s another reason why I’m watching all these guys, absolutely.

Burton: We do alumni updates every week on social media on “Hat Tip Tuesdays.” We’re proud of all of them – when they get promotions or new jobs.

When someone comes to the CSL, they’re coming into a world-class master’s degree program and there’s an added benefit for the ones who have a graduate assistantship in men’s basketball. Look who they get to work with!

Harris: It was easy to be close with other graduate assistants in the program in men’s basketball I was living and working alongside them every day, but also [CSL Executive Director] Carrie LeCrom and Greg Burton have done a great job of staying in contact with everyone and keeping everyone connected through social media and email. I get daily updates about what people are doing – even people who were before me or after me. The reason why that’s good is because, especially in athletics, it’s all about connections and who you know.

Levine: CSL provides so many opportunities, when you graduate from the program, to have meaningful relationships with people who have similar goals as you. It’s always great to check social media and find about the success of the people that I worked with in graduate school. The CSL built an intimate environment – in classes and when working on projects – for people to get to know each other. I’ve only been out for a couple of years, but I’ve already seen a lot of people benefit from these relationships 

The CSL hosts an annual event at the Final Four. All the alumni will go and hang out for a few hours. It brings everyone together – like an exclusive club where you can strengthen the relationships you already have and build new ones.

Freesman: The CSL network is incredible. There are people all over the world who have come through our program and are now working in the sport industry.

Our head women’s tennis coach here at Winthrop, Vivian Segnini, is a CSL grad. There are so many college basketball coaches who have gone through the program and we reconvene annually at the Final Four.

My favorite part of the CSL network are the relationships that I have formed. Some of these people make up my inner circle. They are the friends that I bounce ideas off – about both basketball and non-basketball related topics. In my cohort alone, the five other basketball GAs ended up with jobs at Ole Miss, Chattanooga, Florida Gulf Coast, Columbia, and Enterprise High. The CSL network is strong and always growing.

Lind: The CSL network has been a huge benefit to me. My two jobs after VCU have both been working with people who I worked with at VCU. We stay in touch and build that network. We all look out for each other.

If you are in college coaching or college athletics in general, 75 or 80 percent of the time if a job has been posted online and you try to apply for it, it’s already been filled. Those conversations are being had well in advance and having a network of people who know your name means something. If we’ve had a position open here, maybe a video coordinator, I’ve almost always interviewed someone who had my job at VCU – who was a GA or someone who has been recommended to me by the CSL. That way I know and can trust what they’ve gone through and what they’ve done, both on the basketball side and the classroom side.

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