INDIANAPOLIS—Shaka Smart is the new head basketball coach at Texas, and he has more to prove than you’d think. He's been one of the most coveted and revered coaches on the market. He has a dynamic, self-assured personality that takes over any conversation within a minute or two. He also has zero NCAA tournament wins in the last two years and two in the last four, as VCU’s propulsive Final Four run in 2011 gets blurrier and blurrier around the edges. At this next stop, he’ll be responsible for a program that should set the bar at Big 12 and national championships and nothing less. Before he speaks a syllable at his introductory news conference, a distinct sense of urgency will precede him to the podium.
And in this new job, he will work for a boss with a strong personality and hands-on approach, the sort of manager who requires savvy management himself in order for any coach to survive. Only a similarly stout personality will endure under Texas athletic director Steve Patterson’s watch. Only a political animal with the shrewdness to placate the whims of the administration, while also holding firm to his own beliefs, will thrive in the pressure cooker that is the Longhorns athletic department at present. Smart enters into all this after working for an easygoing AD at a school that revolved around him like a planet revolves around a sun.
But other than that, it’s a perfect fit.
Ultimately, Texas needed someone like Shaka Smart and Smart needed a job like Texas. Whatever the misgivings on either end, it’s a necessary jolt for both sides. The Longhorns receive the infusion of new energy and enthusiasm that had been lacking under former coach Rick Barnes during an unacceptable string of unsatisfactory NCAA tournament cameos. Smart, 37, finally gets a gig with abundant resources and a fertile recruiting base, the sort of stuff that makes Texas arguably one of the top 10 jobs in the country. With the two joined together, we get to find out just how good each one of them is, and it’s about time.
While there might not have been any harm in Texas poking around at names like Sean Miller or Billy Donovan or, heck, even Bill Self, Patterson’s choice to hire Smart is so thoroughly a no-brainer that it hardly merits analysis. Smart is young and he’s won nearly 75 percent of his games and his teams play a terrifically exciting, attention-grabbing brand of basketball. Patterson probably has mornings where choosing a tie is a more vexing call.
In the end, this is about Smart, and what exactly he’s getting himself into, and how equipped he is to play the psychological games necessary to stoke a dormant powerhouse in Austin.
Of the top 12 players in the Rivals.com Class of 2014 rankings, four are from Texas. Of the top 100 players in the latest Rivals.com Class of 2015 rankings, 10 are Lone Star State natives. There is basketball talent teeming all over. And Smart doesn’t have to get all 10 of those players. He doesn’t even have to get five. He just has to get maybe two or three every year on average, filling around the top-shelf talent with complementary parts, and without crossing state lines he should have himself a title contender annually.
The issue? The two players who drove his VCU team for the better part of this year, Treveon Graham and Briante Weber, were all but ignored by nearly every college program in the country as recruits. It is easy for Smart to implement his “Havoc” defense when the players he signs effectively have no better option but to check their egos and grind away; it is far more complicated to convince jaded, coddled stars to do likewise. Smart may be smart enough to bend his system to the talent on hand. But it’s unreasonable to think he will abdicate the core philosophies that won him games at VCU. Which makes it completely reasonable to wonder how higher-profile talent will react to that.
Ultimately, trophies and NCAA tournament banners will allow him the benefit of the doubt with players and with his boss. Until those laurels start rolling in, Smart needs to learn how to roll with his new, active boss. Patterson is, after all, the man who directed Barnes to make staff changes if the former Texas coach wanted to remain in Austin. The cynical reading of this is plain: Patterson had backed Barnes into a corner where, if he refused, the coach essentially fired himself. A more generous reading: Patterson wanted Barnes to shake up the bench because the athletic director honestly believed he knew better than his coach.
If the generous reading doesn’t sound all that terrific, well, welcome to Shaka’s world.
Smart will benefit from the natural desire of any athletic director to see his hand-picked hire succeed. But he won’t outlast his use to Patterson; the instant Smart becomes some sort of liability, or is thought to be less-than, he will be on the skids. It won’t be anywhere in the contract, but it is now Smart’s job to manage up, to play the big-boy political games at a major athletic department until such time as his cachet from winning provides all the juice he needs to work unimpeded.
Is he primed for this? Anyone who has spent time with Smart’s now-former athletic director, VCU’s Ed McLaughlin, would keel over laughing at the idea of needing to work or glad-hand the amenable McLaughlin, for anything. The school was building a practice gym based entirely on Smart stoking the basketball program as no one had before. At Texas, no one is likely to build Smart anything until he’s proven he’s earned it.
Late Thursday night, Shaka Smart became the new head coach at Texas. This was the right time and, in many ways, the right kind of job. After losing key players from his VCU roster following this season, it might not have been too long before the shine began to fade and the UCLAs and Texases of the college basketball world stopped calling altogether. Instead, Smart now goes to a program built to give him everything he possibly could desire.
Let’s see what he does with it.