Was it a ‘smart’ move, Shaka?
Shaka Smart finally took a big-time college coaching job this week when he accepted the position at the University of Texas to succeed Rick Barnes.
Barnes himself didn’t stay unemployed long, having been fired/resigned on Sunday, but landed in Knoxville three days later as the new coach at the University of Tennessee.
But this is about Smart, who had worked his way up from a D-II assistant coach, through a two-year stop at Clemson, to a six-year record at VCU where he went 163-56 at the Richmond school for a staggering .744 winning percentage. And he took another school from one of my favorite mid-major leagues, the Colonial, to the Final Four in 2011. That’s when his name became such a hot commodity.
Smart’s “all-heck-breaking-loose” style of play, they call it ‘”havoc” – a high-octane platform marked by full-court pressure and transition offense – turned a lot of heads because it was a lot of fun to watch and got tiny little VCU on TV a lot.
During the Final Four in 2011, he grabbed headlines for participating in the “Iron Man” drill at practice with his players, and for the last two years, he’s also participated with his players and coaches in a week of grueling Navy SEAL training in Virginia Beach.
While he turned down jobs before (Minnesota, Illinois, Southern Cal, UCLA), a union between a sleeping-giant like Texas and a general like Smart made sense. They have more high schools than any other state (‘Everything is bigger ‘n better in Texas’, they tell me!), a reputation to have the pick of the litter outside the Lone Star arena anytime he chooses, and one other reason that I’ll get to at the end of this article.
But why leave a place where they will practically cast a bronze statue of you any day now?
Well, if Smart lives up to his name, he’ll be able to deal with an athletic director a lot of folks haven’t figured out. Steve Patterson is credited – or dis-credited – with guiding the Portland Trailblazers to the worse four years in franchise history (at least Chowan University Hall-of-Famer Nate McMillan survived!), then followed that up with a cup-of-coffee, one-year, stay at Arizona State. After arriving in Austin, not only did he run off Barnes; he ran off Mack Brown from the football program after winning the school its first national championship since Lyndon Johnson was president, and even played for another title two years later. His parting with Brown was so awkward that one writer said it was “like a teenager who didn’t know how to break up with his girlfriend”.
While there are people who’ll say Mack needed to go, and Barnes as well, I can’t help but think that maybe waiting another year and seeing what else might be out there in 2016 (ACC?, Big East?, Big-10?) might have been better suited for Smart.
But Brown was making $5,000,000 a year when he left, Barnes was somewhere around $3,500,000, so….!?! Hard to argue with all that cattle.
The man’s name’s not ‘Smart’ for nothing.
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7211.