Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte faces serious questions daily from parents about the well-being of nearly 525 student-athletes and the Longhorns’ financial health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
But he hasn’t wavered in his support of men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, who will remain in place for the 2020-21 season.
“Shaka’s our coach,” Del Conte told the American-Statesman on Friday. “Nothing’s changed. We won five of the last six down the stretch, finished third in the conference. We have a good team coming back. Nothing’s changed on my end.”
Like he’s done before, Del Conte again acknowledged there is “angst around our basketball program.” But he said he likes “the direction, the energy” of UT men’s basketball. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
Smart has gone 90-78 in five seasons at Texas but has never been in Big 12 title contention or won a NCAA Tournament game. The Longhorns have made the tournament twice in four previous years; the NCAAs were canceled this season. Smart is 40-50 in Big 12 play and 17-34 against ranked teams.
Forever an optimist, Del Conte is right. Texas, which finished the year 19-12, does have a strong outlook.
UT had no seniors this season, and the entire team is projected to return. Recruiting websites have long believed Greg Brown III, a five-star recruit from local Vandegrift High School, would commit to UT. Both he and his father have said the 6-9 power forward would come if Smart remains the coach.
Brown is expected to announce his decision on April 24. He has taken visits to Texas, Auburn, Kentucky, Michigan and Memphis.
“I’m really excited,” Smart told the Statesman on Friday. “I’m big on controlling what I can control, and that’s been my mentality all season long. If I really allowed myself to get super caught up in everything that was said or written, it would’ve been a very distracted season.
“We have an opportunity in front of us to take a big step, and there’s a ton of urgency inside of our program to do that,” he added. “It’s easy if you allow yourself to get caught up in things that our said on the outside, but our focus is to help our guys through this challenging period we have now.”
Retaining Smart could be viewed as a financial decision, too. Del Conte declined to comment when asked if Smart’s contract situation factored into his thinking. Financially, it could be cataclysmic to make a change now, considering how everything is uncertain in the face of a COVID-19 pandemic.
Smart has three years remaining on a guaranteed contact worth $10.5 million. No new coach is going to accept less than what Smart was making. Texas coaches typically rank among the top 10 nationally in salary. Any coach Del Conte tried to hire would likely demand an eight-year contract worth $5 million annually.
Kentucky’s John Calipari makes $8.2 million and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski earns $7.3 million, according to USA Today’s coaching salary database. UCLA’s Mick Cronin, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes and Texas Tech’s Chris Beard all make anywhere between $4.4 to $5.5 million annually.
Coaches of that ilk will also have hefty buyouts just to leave their current schools, which is another expenditure on Del Conte’s tab. Barnes, UT’s coach before Smart, made the NCAA Tournament 16 times in 17 seasons before getting fired in 2015 and landing in Knoxville, Tenn.
So at minimum, Del Conte would be looking at spending at least $50 million just to change men’s basketball coaches. In normal times, that would likely be no problem for an athletic department that took in more than $224 million in revenue during the 2018-19 athletic year, according to audited figures.
Del Conte also faces a decision on women’s basketball coach Karen Aston, who is now out of her contract. Texas could offer her a new deal or hire someone else. Her situation is totally different than Smart’s. Still, for Texas to lure a big-name coach, it’s likely going to require a hefty financial commitment.
“I’m anticipating being the coach at the University of Texas,” Aston told the Statesman in mid-March. “The time will come when I’ll sit down with (Del Conte) and we’ll talk about the future of my program, my staff, but this isn’t the right time.”
Del Conte and those within the Longhorn Foundation, UT’s fundraising arm, are privately worried how an economic downturn could alter revenues. On a teleconference Thursday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby warned even the 2020 football season could be in jeopardy. Football is the economic driver for every major college athletic department in America.
“I think you’ll see salary budgets flat,” Bowlsby said. “And they’ll even be places where there will be declines in operating budgets. And so, it’s not a time when we’re going to throw a lot of money around. We’re going to have to all be very careful about our management of resources.”
No major schools have changed coaches, and the coaching carousel has largely come to a full stop. Almost every Power Five athletic department is hunkering down. The NCAA has already announced a reduced payout to its members, and Bowlsby said the league lost $6.6 million over the conference basketball tournament.
Were these normal times, Del Conte may likely have a different opinion. Smart’s teams struggled offensively the last five years and relied heavily on sporadic 3-point shooting. The Horns finished last in the league standings in 2016-17.
It hasn’t been due to a lack of talent, either. UT has produced three consecutive first-round NBA draft picks and Smart assembled a highly-touted supporting cast.
The Horns were treading water this season, thanks to a slew of non-conference wins against weaker opponents. Texas had a 4-8 Big 12 record two-thirds of the way through the conference season. Fan apathy was taking root.
But a rash of injuries forced Smart to play a totally different lineup and style down the stretch. The results were astounding. Texas won five straight games to get back into NCAA Tournament contention and revive interest.
After a thrilling 10-point win at Texas Tech on Feb. 29, Smart said, “I’m coaching to win the game, man. What’s happened is because of the guys we have out (injured), there’s a lot less time or energy spent on who should we play.”
Fans were ready to believe again. A raucous crowd of 12,733 — the largest home crowd of the season — filed into the Erwin Center for the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State. Instead of rising to the moment, Texas came out flat and lost 81-59, a demoralizing blow. The Cowboys shot 66% from the field.
That loss left NCAA bracketologists scratching their heads. Some had Texas in the tournament, some not. Texas, at 19-12 overall, still finished in a four-way tie for third place and drew the No. 4 seed in the Big 12 tournament.
The morning of the Big 12 quarterfinals matchup against fifth-seeded Texas Tech, players were pulled off the floor 45 minutes to tip. The tournament was called off amid the start of the nationwide pandemic, and the team flew home that afternoon.
Since that day, Smart has kept radio silence.
A team spokesman issued a statement Thursday when assistant coach Luke Yaklich got the head coaching job at Illinois-Chicago. But Smart was mostly taking his cues from Del Conte, who wanted the department to pull back on interviews while UT sorted through various COVID-19 issues.
Now, Del Conte can cross men’s basketball off the list.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.