A Smart Move?

Texas introduced Shaka Smart as its next head coach earlier this month, luring the highly regarded former VCU coach from his perch atop college basketball mid-majordom. The move ended four years of speculation over where one of the game's brightest young minds would move next.

Smart's ascension to Texas makes sense in many ways. The Longhorns, frustrated by 17 years of good-rarely-great from Rick Barnes, desperately needed a plausible upgrade over their previous coach. And while Smart guided the Rams to the Final Four in his second year in Richmond, VCU's lower profile would always produce limitations in recruiting and influence, not to mention how much it could pay its head coach.

Like Brad Stevens at Butler before him, Smart's destiny somewhere bigger and better was always viewed as a question of timing, not outcome. The NBA and NCAA blue bloods can only call so many times before a coach moves on.

Even in the best case scenarios, like those VCU and Butler enjoyed, the crash of offseason coaching waves is relentless. While the Rams and Bulldogs were able to pay their budding star coaches enough to fight off second tier opportunities (VCU extended Smart at $1.2 million per year from his original $300,000 annual salary prior to the 2011 Final Four run), those raises are still orders of magnitude less than the $3+ million the Celtics pay Stevens or the $2.65 million base salary Barnes made in his last year in Austin.

But money aside, the lure of basketball's biggest stages is most tempting in the darkness of season-ending frustration. In the four seasons after the Final Four run that announced his potential, Smart's teams lost in the first weekend of the tournament. Three of those losses came to Big Ten teams, and while Michigan would advance to the National Championship game in 2013, 2015 Ohio State and 2012 Indiana were beaten by double digits in the following round. These weren't transcendent teams.

For a young, talented coach who had tasted the Final Four, this impasse must have frustrated Smart.

This season's ending had to be especially illustrative of VCU's limitations. The Rams lost in overtime to a forgettable Buckeye squad composed of bit players and one-year-star D'Angelo Russell, the kind of marquee player Smart would almost certainly never draw to Richmond. As one-and-dones increasingly dominate the sport's top teams, Smart must have felt resigned to annual also-ran status with the Rams.

And yet, while a migration from VCU to Texas might seem obvious in college basketball's big picture, this move is not without risk. Smart is not inheriting a reclamation project like many other promising young coaches or even Stevens did in Boston. While Barnes seemingly underachieved given the level of talent he attracted, his teams reached the tournament in all but one of his 17 seasons. By bringing on Smart, the Longhorns are gambling that given the resources of a premier athletic program, the young coach can improve upon his results at VCU.

Every spring, big conference programs try to tap the tournament success of coaches who won under the sport's brightest spotlight. Often, rewarding a few fluky weeks in March yields a few disappointing years, and the program finds itself searching anew while the coach finds himself several rungs back down the coaching ladder. Neither is better off.

This is where Stevens and Smart's paths differ greatly. When he took the Celtics' job, Stevens inherited a depleted roster and an organization clearly committed to a long rebuild. His unusually length contract acknowledges as much. If Stevens fails in Boston, he could easily transition back to a relatively big college job. After all, NBA failure didn't end the careers of John Calipari or Rick Pitino.

Smart, on the other hand, has much more at stake in Austin. Barnes' firing makes the expectations clear, and the program appears ready for success. If Smart can't do more with the program than Barnes did with Kevin Durant and many other lottery picks, his star will be greatly tarnished.

But this is the nature of the business. The top of every business is competitive, and college basketball is especially so. The success that leads coaches up the ladder buoys their confidence and appetite for bigger challenges. For every Mark Few determined to max out a second-tier program, there are dozens of others hungry for a crack at the biggest programs.

Smart, of course, projects better than the occupants of the coaching graveyard who leapt to programs where they couldn't sustain their success. VCU ascended to consistent success, and Smart's "havoc" style suggests a repeatable blueprint.

In a few years, Smart's Texas may resemble Thad Matta's Ohio State or Sean Miller's Arizona, elite programs where mid-major coaches have entrenched themselves on the national scene. That's the positive outcome.

The negative? Smart cannot advance the Longhorns that last step and eventually Texas finds itself looking for the next option.

College coaches work years to build up the chips to get one shot at an elite job. Having passed on other opportunities, Smart has wisely waited to leave VCU until a well-setup chance came available.

Now all he has to do is win.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site