First-year coach faced multiple obstacles in leading Longhorns back into NCAA Tournament
Posted March 12th, 2016
Shaka Smart, his wife Maya, their 4-year-old daughter and his mother-in-law all were given a royal welcome when they arrived in Austin last April. It was a true burnt-orange embrace.
Texas’ new men’s basketball coach said it took a “world-class institution, a world-class athletics program and a phenomenal place” to leave Virginia Commonwealth after six successful seasons.
As Smart quickly discovered, things aren’t always what they seem. Even at Texas.
Selection Sunday is here, and the Longhorns will be back in the NCAA Tournament. But to reach this point, Smart and his staff had to navigate UT’s political minefield, challenge long-held beliefs about academics and break through entitlement issues. Oh, and win games in the toughest basketball league in America.
Three days after his introductory press conference, the Smarts checked out of the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on campus. Smart and his coaching staff were given 30 days in a new place — the Extended Stay America hotel located at Sixth and Guadalupe Streets.
The reviews on Yelp are somewhat mixed. “Close to downtown. Great view,” says one. Another says the place is two steps above “a motel you take a gas station hooker.”
“I’m pretty low-maintenance,” Smart said. “I wasn’t going to be there much anyway.”
“Interesting clientele, for sure,” assistant coach Darrin Horn said.
As the weeks progressed, Smart’s staff sent requests to then-athletic director Steve Patterson. But they were met with resistance. The training staff wanted a heart monitor, for example. Well, you need to fill out a proposal, the staff was told.
Eventually things got approved, but only after weeks of hacking through UT’s bureaucratic red-taped jungle.
According to audited figures from the 2014-15 academic year, the men’s basketball program generated a $6.4 million profit in former coach Rick Barnes’ final season. Still, Patterson couldn’t believe the costs spent on air travel.
Last season, Patterson took away Barnes’ spacious but older 737-model airplane used on road trips. That unmarked plane featured at least 50 oversized seats, which was great for the typical 6-foot-11 athlete.
The Horns switched to a smaller regional jet, one with 50 mostly coach-style seats. Regular-sized people struggle in those. Upperclassmen were allowed to sit in the seven first-class seats. Everybody else, including the coaches, shuffled to the back.
The cost of the expensive plane simply didn’t match the lackluster results Barnes delivered in recent years, Patterson once told the American-Statesman. Smart only hears about that previous plane in endearing terms, mostly from those who remember when the phrase “We’re Texas” identified a real athletic superpower a decade ago.
The same athletic director who convinced Smart to leave VCU signed a non-disparagement clause with the university after being fired on Sept. 15.
Smart can tolerate subpar hotel arrangements, and he doesn’t need a palace in the sky. But when he learned of the team’s academic arrangement, that sent him over the top.
Internal academic politics
Multiple sources told the American-Statesman that Smart was apoplectic after learning how the student services department, previously overseen by Randa Ryan, structured the players’ class schedules. There was more emphasis on players maintaining high grade point averages than actually advancing toward graduation, the sources said.
Nothing angered Smart more than former team captain Jon Holmes’ situation. Holmes entered UT in the summer of 2011, gave the university four seasons and spent three summers taking extra courses — and still didn’t earn a degree.
And Holmes is no academic slouch, either. He was a four-time member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s honor roll.
Holmes said it’s his understanding that he could have graduated last spring had he not left school after last season to prepare for the NBA draft.
Holmes declined to speak in detail about his academics. “I’m graduating this spring with a degree in youth studies and a minor in educational psychology,” he said.
Smart demanded the student services department rearrange the current players’ academic schedules. They were loaded down with classes last summer. On senior night, all five scholarship players were said to be “graduating this May,” according to the public address announcer.
“We had to make some adjustments philosophically to the way some of the academic scheduling was done,” said Smart, who declined to get into specifics. “We’re always going to push for stuff like that for our guys. I don’t know if there’s anything more important than that. If they’re here four years, they need to graduate.”
The American-Statesman has previously reported that Ryan is no longer responsible for the academic services offered to athletes. However, UT has not clarified her status.
Generally speaking, UT employees are rarely fired outright. In school parlance, people get “reassigned,” or their yearly contracts are simply not renewed.
Ryan, an executive senior associate athletic director, is not made available to reporters.
Last year, UT President Gregory L. Fenves hired attorney Gene Marsh to conduct a thorough review of the academic services offered to athletes. In Marsh’s final report, which was made public in January, coaches and administrators said there was “too much focus on team GPA” as the ultimate measure of academic success.
Convincing the naysayers
Despite the administrative and academic challenges, Smart still received a guaranteed six-year contract worth an average of $3 million annually. “We just kind of put our head down and worked,” Smart said.
Fans don’t care about UT’s internal problems or politics; they expect results.
“From my viewpoint as an assistant coach, in the grand scheme of things, the reason he took this job was because of the players,” said Mike Morrell, Smart’s top assistant and confidante. “That’s what it has always came back to, and those guys have been great.”
Much has been made of Smart’s ability to relate to his players. Some Longhorns privately grumbled to the new coach about Barnes’ hard-driving ways. “OK, he’s gone,” Smart told the Horns. “Now what are you gonna do?”
The season-opening trip to China was a disaster. The team wasted time traveling to Hangzhou, China, for what was supposed to be an educational component. It was anathema. The end result was a 77-71 loss to Washington with Bill Walton screaming, “What a fabulous country!”
Texas returned home and clobbered Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but next came two losses in three games in the Bahamas. For a new coach trying to implement new schemes and establish a new culture, it cannot be overstated how all the early travel stunted Texas’ initial growth. More than 17,000 air miles later, Texas was a disappointing 2-3.
Then came a seismic 84-82 win over No. 3 North Carolina. Javan Felix’s jumper as time expired set the Erwin Center on fire and bolstered a coaching staff trying to make its mark.
“If there were any naysayers out there that thought we were going to struggle,” Morrell said, “it turned into, ‘No, coach Smart’s gonna get it done there.’”
That North Carolina win, plus an impressive win at Stanford, led to more phone calls. Recruits who weren’t sure suddenly became interested, especially in a team that could have seven scholarships available.
Jordan Barnett transferred out in December, five seniors are graduating and junior Isaiah Taylor is probably going into the NBA draft. Jarrett Allen, a 6-foot-9, five-star recruit from St. Stephen’s, is giving Texas a hard look, as are others.
Smart said the NCAA allows for 130 days for off-campus recruiting during the school year. At VCU, the coaching staff rarely used all 130.
“You can ask me in April, but I can almost guarantee we’ll be right up to 128 or 130 days,” Smart said. “It’s just so critical for us to get out and see guys.
Cam Ridley’s fractured foot injury two days after Christmas could have derailed everything. But Smart had been there before. His defensive superstar at VCU last season, Briante Weber, suffered torn knee ligaments against Richmond on Jan. 31.
The Rams pulled things together and still finished with a 26-10 overall record and reached the NCAAs. What Smart has done this season without Ridley is arguably more impressive.
Believed to be left for roadkill, Texas finished fourth in the dangerous Big 12 conference. The Longhorns are likely to be seeded anywhere from fourth to sixth when the NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled Sunday.
Before the Big 12 tournament started, Texas had the nation’s No. 1-rated strength of schedule, according to USA Today.
The coach talks about “microbehaviors” with his players. Smart gets upset when the Horns play “with a high level of avoidance.” He’s had to break them of getting “bummed out” when things don’t go their way.
Ridley’s backup, Prince Ibeh, blossomed into the Big 12’s defensive player of the year, as voted on by the coaches. Isaiah Taylor was a consensus first-team All-Big 12 pick. Freshmen Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach are considered promising up-and-comers.
Most school officials and boosters agree. Smart was a terrific hire for Texas, although you won’t find many singing Patterson’s praises for ultimately pulling the trigger.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch the chemistry between Shaka and the coaching staff on one hand and his relationship with the players on the other,” current UT athletic director Mike Perrin said.
Perrin did not make any road trips with the team this season, other than last week’s Big 12 tournament. Former ADs DeLoss Dodds and Patterson would routinely travel with the team. Missing the Kansas game was unthinkable. UT officials said Perrin missed the trip to Lawrence because he was battling an ear infection and had been grounded by doctors.
Perrin keeps a low profile at home games, too. This is the same AD who stood directly behind Charlie Strong during the trophy presentation and cheered wildly after the football team’s win over Oklahoma.
Asked if Perrin attended home games, Smart said, “Um, I think so. I don’t really look for him.”
The question must be asked: Does Smart believe he has everything required to build a championship-caliber program? Strong was asked the exact same question last season.
Both coaches believe Texas can be strong again; both came here for that exact reason. But they faced one internal obstacle after another in their initial season.
Smart talks in general terms about the need for “alignment.” To emulate the truly successful programs, like Duke, North Carolina or Kansas, it takes far more than just good players and Xs and Os.
The only way to achieve real political power inside Texas athletics is to win. Despite all the various obstacles, Smart and his basketball staff seem well on their way.
“Those programs have a true vision, down to the smallest details and understanding of what goes into accomplishing that vision,” Smart said. “And everyone is in agreement about what that requires.
“At Texas, whether we’re talking about football, basketball or whatever it may be, even the Dell Medical School or whatever, you’re going to need that same thing,” he added.