Welcome to Austin, Shaka Smart.
Now win a national championship.
OK, you can unpack first. But we all know that’s why you’re here. Otherwise, you’d be propping up your feet in Richmond today.
You left all that is near and dear to you to win it all. Otherwise, why leave the comforts of home, even with a promise of a $1 million raise? He was relatively rich there, so he didn’t come to Austin to climb into a higher tax bracket. He loved his players and city so much that Texas athletic director Steve Patterson said he got death threats from VCU faithful. Smart didn’t uproot himself just to live in the Buzziest City in America although he’s added considerably to the buzz.
No, he left home to win big.
And that works because Texas needs to win big. Texas hasn’t been Texas in quite some time. Oh, it’s still as arrogant as ever, but it’d be nice for Texas to actually have something to be arrogant about. Hey, we’re all proud as punch that Eddie Reese’s swimming trophy case is so huge he sublets it to other Texas coaches. And John Fields’ golfers are tearing up courses right and left.
So after Patterson crowed about the swim title and I asked if Smart is the Eddie Reese of basketball coaches, he said,”Wouldn’t that be nice?”
More than nice. It’s imperative. And I think he will win one. David Kaplan thinks it’ll be even more.
“It’s such a magnificent hire, you guys (Texas) didn’t hit a home run, you hit a grand slam,” said Kaplan, a Chicago talk-show host, former NBA scout and a basketball broadcaster for NBC Sports Network. “I think Texas is a top 10 job in America. Shaka plays a style fans will love and the kids will love. I fully expect Shaka Smart to win multiple titles there.”
Put one such banner in the rafters at the Erwin Center where he was introduced Friday, and the statue’s going up. We’re big on statues around here, Shaka. You win big and we’ll try to hold the headline puns to a minimum. Maybe.
We also know how to win here, although we could use a refresher course. Rick Barnes got the Longhorns to a Final Four and two other Elite Eights, but slacked off badly the last seven seasons. Smart’s philosophy of turnover-creating, pressure defense – think Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell, give or take a few minutes – and his access to big-time in-state talent will help Texas turn the corner.
Smart blew people away at his introductory press conference. He’s poised and self-assured, yet humble. There’s a reason Patterson targeted only Smart after firing Barnes a week ago. We’d heard Patterson was so enamored with Smart that he was thinking about him as a Barnes successor last year.
The timing was better now, and Barnes leaves a solid roster with an infusion of guard talent in Kerwin Roach and Eric Davis that it won’t surprise if Smart’s impact resounds immediately.
“His style is to make the opponent exceptionally uncomfortable,” Kaplan said. “His approach on defense is to push you where he wants you. There’s never a moment where you catch your breath. And he’ll be able to recruit the best players now.”
Smart certainly wasn’t blind to the in-state talent that outsiders like Kentucky have raided for years. In this recruiting class alone, nine of the best 67 players on the ESPN Top 100 are Texans, but only Roach is a Longhorns signee. Texas A&M grabbed four while Michigan State, Baylor, Ohio State and Oklahoma State have one each.
The state of Virginia produced four on that same Top 100, none higher than a 52nd-ranked shooting forward headed to Virginia Tech. Only one (shooting guard Kenny Williams) is going to VCU.
Smart’s clearly a rising star, if he’s not already risen. He’s certainly the hottest coaching candidate on the market, and we’re hoping he’s not too private or too aloof.
Longhorns fans will embrace him. We worshipped the ground Darrell Royal clung to with his ground-bound wishbone. We laughed at every phrase Abe Lemons and Augie Garrido turned. We embraced Jody Conradt and – until he couldn’t find someone to complete a pass – Mack Brown. We’ll embrace you, too, Shaka (don’t judge it by sellouts because we don’t regularly do sellouts in this 16,000-plus gym; this ain’t Indiana.)
We’ll see if you were the best man for the job, but I’m betting you are. Buzz Williams with his Texas roots would have been a good choice. We’re not sure why Patterson didn’t kick Gregg Marshall’s tires. Billy Donovan was an interesting longshot.
Smart is the right hire and will ultimately be judged by banners. Folks vouch for Smart in a big way. Keith Dambrot, his coaching boss at Akron, which VCU badly schooled in the NCAA dance two years ago, can’t say enough good things. Dambrot puts Smart in fairly selective company. He coached LeBron James in high school.
“Shaka’s an intellectual coaching basketball,” Dambrot told me. “I’ve never been more sure of anyone other than Le-Bron. When Shaka left here, I knew he’d be a superstar in coaching. He and LeBron are the only two people I’d say that about.”
That doesn’t look bad on a résumé.
Smart could have stayed in Richmond forever and been comfortable and successful. He was the biggest fish in a small Atlantic 10 pond, but he knew he had to give it a try, the same as Charlie Strong did. It’s difficult to say no to Texas, which has an international brand and doesn’t so much have a recruiting budget as it does a vault.
So welcome to your new home, Shaka.
We trust you brought a ladder and some scissors.
Contact Kirk Bohls at 512-445-3772.