Shaka Smart finally found a job worth leaving VCU for. It was something that some thought might never happen, but was bound to – and may finally also end an annual ritual.
Ever since Smart, who will soon turn 38, took VCU on an unexpected Final Four run in his third season at the helm, his name has come up for one high-major job after another. It doesn’t matter who it was; if a high-major job opened up, his name got mentioned. When the off-season came, you knew his name would be all over the place for head coaching vacancies.
Illinois? Well, you could understand it given that Smart and athletic director Mike Thomas knew each other from their days at Akron. No go.
NC State? Naturally, since it’s right down the road. He didn’t go.
UCLA? Yeah, his name came up there. A program with a storied history, with a legendary coach in its past. No dice.
At that point, one had to wonder if Smart was holding out for, say, UConn, Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville – any of the jobs that is seen as the best of the best for a coach. It seems now that he was indeed holding out, but not necessarily for one of those jobs. Instead, he was probably holding out for a job where there is potential.
Texas certainly fits that description, and now they have him. While the Longhorns have been down from the team that was a perennial power, Big 12 contender and a threat to at least reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, they were still pretty good, for the most part. This is a place where a coach can come in and win in short order; it’s not a program that’s been down for a while or with a lot working against it.
Smart is coming from another such place in VCU. While in the CAA, they had a lot working for them, from being in the heart of CAA country to charter flights for road games, a strong fan base and great facilities. The athletic department is well-run all the way around. That takes nothing away from what he did there – in fact, he took full advantage of it and turned VCU into more than just a CAA mainstay. They became a national program with more nationally televised games, and they were instantly contenders when they moved to the Atlantic 10. Smart took what was there and ran with it to another level. In fact, watch the search to replace him – whereas VCU has been a launching pad for assistants like he was, one wonders if this time around, they will want someone who is a current head coach.
What this all shows, once more, is that Shaka Smart is different. He has many pearls of wisdom, befitting the scholar that he is as a Kenyon College alum. He doesn’t forget where he came from – and that goes beyond the obvious that we learned earlier this year, when in a story on CBS Sports he talked about why he didn’t leave VCU for just any job, which is the role he plays in the lives of the young men he coaches in light of his own father. He doesn’t forget the people who gave him the time of day when he was an unknown assistant coach, or even a relative unknown as a new head coach at VCU, at least before 2012.
And you just know it had to be hard to tell his team he is leaving. This is a guy who takes very seriously the role a coach can play in the lives of young men. He doesn’t just talk about this; he’s really in tune with his players, and that’s been no small part of his success.
He’s also consistent. Smart has always been understated, and that remains the case now. He has a big name, of course, but that hasn’t changed him. Fundamentally, he’s the same person he was when he was a go-getter assistant coach.
Now we can look forward to off-seasons where there are other people whose name is quickly mentioned for head coaching vacancies. Smart has proven himself at VCU, and found the job worth leaving there for. He now tries to do at Texas something similar to what he did at VCU.