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Golden: Why Shaka Smart had to leave Texas after six seasons

Smart coached six seasons at Texas

  • Smart finishes with a 109-86 overall record and a 51-56 record in Big 12 play.
  • The Horns were 0-3 in NCAA Tournament play under Smart.

Wins matter, and Shaka Smart didn’t have enough of them to make staying at Texas a viable career option.

So he left.

After the first-round Abilene Christian nightmare, Smart is leaving for Marquette, a faltering program that fell on hard times under Steve Wojciechowski after Buzz Williams led the Golden Eagles to tournament appearances in five of his six seasons, including two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight from 2011 to 2013.

Athletic director Chris Del Conte can start anew. He can concentrate on where the program goes next, whether it’s a run at Texas Tech’s Chris Beard or any number of high-profile names that will come across his desk.

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ACU turned out to be Smart's Waterloo. He was a bit better in Austin than Wojo was in Milwaukee, but that mediocre 109-86 overall record, the unacceptable 51-56 Big 12 mark with no regular-season titles and that 0-3 goose egg in NCAA Tournament games were eyesores that would have festered all offseason and next year.

Shaka Smart is leaving Texas to take the head coaching job at Marquette. He finished 109-86 overall and 51-56 in the Big 12 with an 0-3 record in the NCAA Tournament during his time with the Longhorns.

If Greg Brown and Kai Jones are picked in the first round of the NBA draft as expected, then the record will show that Smart had five such players to work with in his six years and had less than desirable results.

The optics with Smart at Texas were bad moving forward. With the team set to move into the swanky new $338 million Moody Center in two seasons, the worst possible scenario was a postseason-challenged Smart returning for a seventh year without the likes of Matt Coleman III, Jericho Sims, Kai Jones and possibly Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey.

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Next season’s Horns aren’t going to be anywhere near as good as they were in what turned out to be Smart's final season. And this fan base has been vacillating among anger, despair, happiness, hope, shock and its current state, apathy. Preseason ticket sales would have suffered because of Smart’s inability to break through. New digs and a mediocre coach: not a great mix.

Technically speaking, the loss to ACU sealed Smart's fate, but his tenure was filled with uphill climbs from his first season. Northern Iowa’s midcourt buzzer-beater that eliminated the Horns in the first round of the 2016 tourney left fans heartbroken but hopeful. After an 11-22 finish the next season, they returned to the NCAAs but lost to Nevada in overtime.

We thought he had finally found his groove this season after winning the Maui Invitational, sweeping Kansas and winning the Big 12 Tournament, albeit with a little bit of help from COVID-19 that forced the Jayhawks to withdraw before their semifinal matchup.

All that remained was removing that NCAA blemish. Couldn’t do it.

Almost doesn’t count at this level, and the look on Smart’s face after the ACU loss was that of a man who knew the time for a change had arrived.

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Smart had his positive points. He was good in the locker room and avoided any major scandals, but he couldn’t close when it mattered the most. Did his players love him? No question, but love can only get you so far. It’s a results business, and Smart, as it turns out, developed people much better than he developed basketball players here.

Coleman, whom he recruited as an eighth grader, came in from Oak Hill Academy as a potential one-and-done first-round pick but has had a roller-coaster career and didn’t provide the All-America impact that T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin did.

Texas' Matt Coleman III (2) passes the ball away from Abilene Christian's Damien Daniels (4) and Reggie Miller (10) during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Saturday, March 20, 2021.

After the ACU loss, an emotional Coleman defended his coach against the detractors.

“They're not in the locker room every day,” he said. “He built a culture here. He can't play the game. His guys just didn't play up to their skill set. It's not on him. I failed him.”

Smart built a culture of acceptance and respect, but not one of winning.

He failed to take advantage of the 2020 mulligan after last season’s NCAAs were canceled. The Horns were a bubble team, and had they been omitted from the proceedings, there was an excellent chance Smart would have gotten canned. Instead, he returned for Year Six and made Texas one of the better feel-good stories in college hoops.

Until the NCAA Tournament.

The expectations were clear when he took over for Rick Barnes: Get Texas back into the national conversation. It happened for one fleeting moment — a No. 3 seed in 2021 and a team that was a sexy Final Four pick for many followers of college ball.

Fleeting plays well in Abilene these days, but not in Austin.

It’s why Shaka had to go.