Texas head coach Shaka Smart celebrates a 82-58 win over Florida A&M during a NCAA basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: So how hot is Shaka Smart’s seat? Not very, according to his boss

Posted September 24th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Shaka Smart had a quippy response to a question about his job security.
  • Despite a 50-50 record and no NCAA Tournament victories, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte says it's "ridiculous" to talk about Smart being on a hot seat.
  • Smart opens practice this week with a roster without a lottery pick but a team that has five promising newcomers and will play fast.

So we’ll just cut to the chase.

Now that Tom Herman is safely out of the woods, we turn our attention to Shaka Smart, who just so happened to show up for his preseason press conference at Bellmont Hall on Monday.

So, Shaka, just how hot is your seat?

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“I don’t sit down,” the fourth-year Texas basketball coach said glibly.

Wise man, this Shaka. Besides, who needs scorched pants?

Not Shaka, who knows full well how hot his seat is.

Plenty hot, but that depends on whom you talk to.

But just the fact that he can somewhat joke about it says a lot about the guy. After the presser, he offered that he took his 7-year-old daughter, Zora, and other family to Chicago to see the traveling Broadway classic “Hamilton” this summer.

“I didn’t know how much the tickets cost,” Smart said. “I just assumed it was like $40.”

Try $900 apiece from someone with experience. And a lighter wallet. But worth every penny.

Texas coach Shaka Smart shouts during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

What Smart doesn’t get about Broadway, he does get about basketball. He’s a sharp guy. He knows it’s heating up for him, but not in every corner as he opens practice this week.

On his behalf, his boss thinks the very issue is off-base and seemed offended to even be asked about Smart’s job security, partly because Shaka needs more time and has five years left on his contract, including this one.

“No, Shaka is not on the hot seat,” an incredulous Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “I believe his seat is cold. That’s a ridiculous question.”

That has to come as welcoming news for Smart, whom I have good-naturedly dubbed Coach Fitty for his pedestrian 50-50 career record with the Longhorns.

He may be under pressure from the fans and the media — and we assume himself and his own expectations — but apparently Del Conte is more than willing to give Smart much more time despite finishing tied for fourth, dead last and seventh in the 10-team Big 12 in his first three seasons in Austin.

And that’s the AD’s prerogative. But Del Conte has also said he expects all UT coaches to strive for the Top 10 and compete for championships. And no one can be happy with Smart’s record.

It’s more than understandable that Del Conte wants to embrace Smart and do all he can to boost his chances to turn around a program that predecessor Rick Barnes had humming for most of his 17-year stay here. Barnes had winning seasons every year but one, had 15 seasons with at least 20 victories, went to a Final Four, two other Elite Eights and five Sweet 16s. He won 402 games here.

And Texas fired him. That’s now the standard.

The new AD has barely been in his chair for nine months as he tries hard to WD-40 the major programs here on campus if not totally remake them. Smart has to be reassured by that, but he does know that his buddy Charlie Strong got only three years to do the same in football here, and he’s now getting his mail in Tampa, Fla. Similarly, Herman has to get this thing up and running in three years and looks like he is doing just that.

“Things have to change, and people need to follow the rules better,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said Saturday. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I think what I need to do is help our guys grow and develop,” Smart said. “We can obsess about winning, but that doesn’t win you the game. I really feel we have a chance to have a terrific season, but we have to make that happen. I think we’ve done major progress (in developing a culture).”

That said, after failing to win so much as a single NCAA tournament game in three seasons, making the dance just twice and finishing last in the Big 12 two years ago, the phenom at VCU has mostly been a failure at Texas. That looks harsh in print, but by the only truly relevant measurement of any coach on any level, Smart hasn’t cut it.

Which is a damn shame. Shaka’s a guy you root for.

He’s totally likable. He’s very cerebral. He’s socially conscious. He tries hard to understand the role of the press (and even sticks around after the formal press conference to shoot the breeze). Sure seems like a guy who legitimately cares for his players. He relates to people well. He’s never smug or cavalier.

He’s a guy you hope will succeed.

But he’s got to win. He knows it.

Coaches at this level don’t keep getting paid $3.1 million a year for going 50-50 and 0-2 in the March party. And he may have a fast, gritty team more to his liking this season because it’s a team without a lottery pick and might more resemble his Havoc teams back east.

Smart’s got a reliable heartbeat in Snoop Roach, who can get to the basket with ease. He’s got a budding star in wildly athletic center Jericho Sims, who will dominate some games this season. He’s got a much-improved point guard in Matt Coleman. He’s got five newcomers, including 7-footer Jaxson Hayes, 6-3 guard Courtney Ramey and hopefully somebody who can shoot.

And Shaka’s got a vote of confidence from his AD, which is a good thing.

After all, Broadway tickets aren’t cheap.

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