Texas head coach Shaka Smart holds up the "Hook 'Em Horns" sign following Texas' 68-55 win over Colorado in an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the NIT on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Is Shaka Smart settling in — or is Texas just settling?

Posted March 28th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte made it official late Friday afternoon by telling the American-Statesman that the embattled coach would be back for a sixth season. We trust with certain specific stipulations.
  • For Smart, the 2020-2021 season has to be put up or shut up because Texas has put up with mediocrity for too long. A 90-78 record screams average very loudly.
  • If Del Conte and university president Gregory Fenves are fine with the job that Smart is doing, they need to also bring back women’s coach Karen Aston — whose contract expires in August — and probably give her at least two years on a new deal.

The Shaka Smart Redemption Tour continues.

Practically everything else in the world has been shut down thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the never-ending saga that is the Texas head basketball coach continues to lurch forward.

Smart will return next season.

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RELATED: ‘Shaka’s our coach’: Texas AD Chris Del Conte is sticking with Shaka Smart for 2020-21

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte made it official Friday afternoon by telling the American-Statesman that the embattled coach would be back for a sixth season.

We trust with certain specific stipulations.

Without those, Del Conte might as well tell Longhorn Nation that the school doesn’t really care about basketball, that the expectations that he himself has pronounced loudly and robustly for every Texas athletic program are hollow and just so much lip service. Goliath, and all that, remember?

Shaka Smart has had his share of ups and downs through his first five seasons as Texas’ head basketball coach. He’s 90-78 overall with the Longhorns. (American-Statesman Staff)

Admittedly, it’d be a horrible time to make a coaching change, with all the upheaval and uncertainty in the world. And it is the safe and humane thing to keep employees on. I get it. But few workers in our country would be walking away with a $10.5 million buyout, as Smart would have.

So for Smart, the 2020-21 season has to be put up or shut up because Texas has put up with mediocrity for too long. A 90-78 record screams average very loudly. Yes, the Longhorns finished tied for third in the Big 12 with three other teams this season, meaning they’re one of the top six clubs in a 10-team league.

Texas coach Shaka Smart missed the NCAA Tournament twice in his first four seasons with the Longhorns. And they were on the fence in terms of making this year’s 68-team field when the season was canceled. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

Without a single NCAA Tournament victory in four years and absences from the NCAA field in two of those seasons and this just-concluded season in a state of ambiguity, Smart must deliver.

To keep his job for the two years remaining after next one, he must produce in a big way and has no excuses with an entire roster that we assume will return and the expected addition of Vandegrift star Greg Brown III.

We say expected, but on Friday his father told me the news about Smart “will at least keep Texas in the hunt” along with Auburn, Kentucky, Memphis and Michigan. Hmmm. Nothing firmer? Brown’s choice will still be revealed on April 24. I’m still betting on Texas, but it’s no sure thing on a player we thought was in Smart’s back pocket.

And if Del Conte and Texas President Gregory L. Fenves are fine with the job that Smart is doing, they need to also bring back women’s coach Karen Aston — whose contract expires in August — and probably give her at least two years on a new deal.

Neither has a multitude of skins on the wall, but Aston at least has some. Smart has none.

And now the handwriting about Smart’s future needs to be not only on the wall, but in the fine print. Or at the minimum, well understood.

Texas coach Shaka Smart cheers on guard Elijah Mitrou-Long as he defends Oklahoma’s Jamal Bieniemy during their Jan. 19, 2019 game at the Erwin Center. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Make the NCAA Tournament, win at least two games there or be gone.

Anything less, and Texas will no longer be taken seriously as a credible basketball program.

Lots and lots of teams make the NCAAs and can win a game. But Texas fans are ready for meaningful, substantive progress.

Smart can say all he wants that he felt confident his injury-ravaged Longhorns were going to receive an at-large berth to the NCAA dance this month. He was probably the only one. Shoo-ins for the 68-team field don’t punch their tickets with a 22-point blowout loss on their home court to an also-ran Oklahoma State as Texas did. 

With everything in line, with a robust 12,733 in the Erwin Center ready to explode, Texas wilted under pressure and was never in the game. Not for a second. There’s no bigger distress signal than that.

Most of the projected brackets I saw said the exact opposite of what Smart was spouting. That Texas had little chance of an invite unless it beat Texas Tech in its first game of the Big 12 tournament and maybe even win a second game. According to bracketmatrix.com, Texas was listed in the field on just 43 of the 97 composite projections and, as such, would have been among the first four teams out. 

That could have changed in Kansas City, but we’ll never know. Lots of what-ifs. Today, Del Conte and Smart are dealing with what-now.

Sure, the move will save Texas another $3.5 million. No walking-around money, but that was largely due to the school’s pattern of reckless extensions for Smart and others.

If I’m Del Conte, I also press Smart on exactly what style of basketball he’s going to employ, moving forward. What he’d done on the court for almost five seasons lacked identity and substance. 

Once injuries began to pile up, robbing Texas of both depth as well as two starters in emerging center Jericho Sims and erratic shooting forward Jase Febres, Smart’s hand was forced. He was reduced to largely playing a style he’d practiced with success at Virginia Commonwealth, an intense, clamp-down defensive style that fed into exciting, free-wheeling offense. But he didn’t do it by choice.

Subs Brock Cunningham and Royce Hamm Jr. came to his rescue and were critical in a five-game win streak before the toe-stubbing finale. Will Smart learn from that and use or incorporate more of that gritty style that got him this job?

I’m not positive how this news will go over with hardcore fans, but I have a pretty good idea. Smart has done nothing to ingratiate himself to the Texas faithful. He’s not been very visible either as a promoter of his program like, say, a Bruce Pearl.

Shaka’s just a super guy who’s clean, acts with integrity, is well-liked and who hasn’t won diddly. Next season, he gets one more chance to get it right. Here’s hoping he does.

But there is more positive news.

At least Del Conte didn’t announce a contract extension.

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