After six uneven seasons at Texas, Shaka Smart headed to Marquette
Longhorns coach was 51-56 in Big 12 play, 0-3 in NCAA Tournament and was never in Big 12 championship contention
Texas officials did not want to fire men's basketball coach Shaka Smart. But it was clear this was not working.
Smart made a preemptive move Fridayby taking the open head coaching position at Marquette and leaving Texas after six seasons full of hope and NBA-caliber recruits but ultimately no progress toward national competitiveness.
“Throughout the search, one individual continued to rise to the top and that was Shaka,” Marquette athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. The school has called a press conference for Monday to formally introduce Smart in Wisconsin.
Multiple UT officials either could not be reached or had no comment to the American-Statesman.
Speculation immediately centered on Texas Tech’s Chris Beard as a possible replacement. Beard earns about $5 million annually in Lubbock, according to USA Today’s coaching salary database.
Texas would owe its Big 12 foe $5 million for stealing Beard away now as part of his buyout. That number drops to $4 million on April 1, according to Beard’s contract, obtained by the American-Statesman. Beard did not respond to messages left by the Statesman.
Smart had two years remaining on his UT contract, worth an estimated $7.1 million in guaranteed money. The coach, who was well-liked and always the epitome of class, simply didn’t win enough games.
By going to Marquette, Smart, a Wisconsin native, would be almost home. The Marquette campus is about an hour and a half from Smart’s hometown of Madison, Wis. He would also become the first Black head coach in school history.
In the end, what looked like a difficult decision probably wasn’t. Smart was 109-86 in six seasons and 51-56 in Big 12 play. During those six seasons, the Longhorns never came close to winning a Big 12 championship and couldn’t finish any higher than third. He was also 24-40 against ranked opponents.
With Smart leaving on his own, he and Texas make a clean break from each other.
Perhaps most damaging was Smart’s lack of postseason success. Texas made only three NCAA Tournament appearances over the past six seasons. All three ended in one-and-done fashion, including last Saturday’s loss to 14th-seeded Abilene Christian.
Texas, the most financially lucrative athletic program in America, has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014.
It wasn’t for a lack of talent. Texas had numerous top-25 recruiting classes, and Smart churned out three NBA first-round picks. This year’s team features two big men likely to get snapped up in the next NBA draft and possibly a third in freshman Greg Brown.
The only major highlights during Smart’s run were the 2019 NIT title and this season’s Big 12 Tournament championship.
Over the years, Smart faced some tough breaks. Northern Iowa hit a last-second shot to knock Texas out of the NCAAs. UT had a second-half meltdown against Nevada in another first-round loss.
Smart had to kick one of his top scorers off the team one year for disciplinary reasons. Three first-round picks are great, but that meant the Horns were also rebuilding every year in a sport in which coaches say you "get old and stay old."
Off the court, Smart faced one of his toughest challenges when a player was diagnosed with leukemia. School leaders admonished him for even broaching politics after President Donald Trump's election. His team also had to endure the controversy over the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” diving headlong into racial issues.
Through it all, Smart never bad-mouthed his employer or admonished the media for constantly biting his ankles, even one year when the Horns finished last in the Big 12 standings.
Smart’s UT debut was halfway around the world. Then-athletic director Steve Patterson sent the Longhorns to China to face UCLA. Smart hated it as Texas shot 26% and lost 77-71.
There was a sizzling 25-point win at Kansas, but he had two 30-point disasters at West Virginia. Smart’s teams were always unpredictable in close games. Texas was 25-25 in games decided by three or fewer points.
This year’s team was widely considered Smart’s best. It featured three veteran guards, three athletic big men and several key role players.
Texas won the Maui Invitational and swept Kansas during the regular season for the first time in school history. UT was seeded third in the East Region of the NCAAs, the program’s highest seeding since 2008.
But the Horns, ranked ninth by The Associated Press going into the NCAAs, were eliminated with an embarrassing 53-52 loss to Abilene Christian after turning the ball over a season-high 23 times.
“A lot of tears in the locker room right now. A lot of guys extremely upset about the way the game ended, the fact that we have to go home now,” Smart said afterward. “Really disappointed. Everybody is.”
UCLA, a team that finished fourth in the Pac-12, turned around and dismantled that same Abilene Christian team 67-47 in the second round.
This week, two players announced they were jumping into the NCAA transfer portal and sophomore Kai Jones announced he would go pro. It’s possible that seven or eight players from the current 11-man roster will leave for various reasons.
Next year’s team will have to be totally rebuilt, regardless of who’s holding the clipboard.
“I would like to thank Shaka Smart @HookEmSmart for his time and commitment during his tenure,” former Texas star T.J. Ford tweeted Friday. “The wins didn’t totally up on the floor but his impact had a great effect on kids personally and academically.”
Smart probably knew going in this was a make-or-break season. The Longhorns had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2018 and were somewhat on the bubble last season before COVID-19 canceled the postseason.
With public pressure mounting, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte made the decision last March to keep Smart another year. Life came to a total standstill because of the pandemic, and the future was uncertain. Some UT insiders believe the onset of COVID-19 saved Smart’s job at the time.
“Shaka’s our coach,” Del Conte told the American-Statesman last March.
Also, it was widely assumed the 2020-21 season would be a strong one considering how much talent would return. By keeping Smart, Texas was expected to get Brown, and the team was set.
During the season, UT got away from its dribble-dribble-dribble offense and started attacking the rim. When the guards got the ball inside to Jericho Sims or Kai Jones, good things usually happened. And when they didn’t, like at Oklahoma State or against Abilene Christian, disaster followed.
Now Texas basketball heads into a totally uncertain future. A new arena and a new practice facility are coming in 2022, but who will be coaching the team or even wearing burnt orange?
All that's certain is that it won't be Smart or many of this year's players.