Jena McGregor
Jena McGregor
Columnist for On Leadership

VCU coach Shaka Smart is right to stay put

Mary Altaffer/AP - Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart, right, talks to Troy Daniels (30) during a time out during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Massachusetts on Saturday, March 16, 2013, in New York.

Virginia Commonwealth University may have lost handily to Michigan on Saturday in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. But on Wednesday, it won when it confirmed that its celebrated coach, Shaka Smart, was signing on for another 10 years, forgoing jobs at basketball powerhouses in favor of the mid-major school.

At just 35, Smart is arguably college basketball’s most popular young coach. After taking VCU to the Final Four in 2011 — a Cinderella story one sports writer called “the new glass-slipper standard by which all others should be measured” — he turned down higher-profile coaching jobs at N.C. State as well as Illinois, which reportedly offered him a contract worth $2.6 million a year. He has taken VCU back to the Big Dance twice. And on Wednesday, SI.com reported that Smart passed on job offers at “high-majors” Minnesota and UCLA, the home of legendary coach John Wooden.

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Smart is, well, smart. While many might wonder why he would snub prominent jobs at big-name schools in major conferences for the less glamorous VCU, Smart understands that more money and major programs do not necessarily lead to success. His call to stay put at VCU is instructive to anyone trying to make a career decision about whether to take a higher-profile job with more risk or stay in a smaller pool where one can make a bigger splash.

For instance, remaining at VCU allows him to negotiate for what he needs to make the unlikely program a stronger contender. While Smart apparently got a healthy raise (from $1.2 million to $1.5 million a year), what he really fought for wasn’t a bigger paycheck. Commendably, most of the changes he sought involved “program enhancements for the student-athletes and coaches,” the school’s athletic director said. Or as USA Today reported, “talks this week focused less on compensation and more on program enhancements-such as chartered flights, training table, video system upgrades and weight room upgrades” as well as compensation for his staff. That’s the kind of focus that builds programs, not just individual careers.

Staying at VCU also means he won’t be starting from nothing, as he would at other programs where coaches were recently fired, writes Rob Goldberg at Bleacher Report. He has seemingly bottomless support from the school and alumni. Most of his players are returning. And however high expectations may be for him to keep winning at VCU, the expectations at major-conference programs seeking a savior are even higher. If he didn’t win quickly in those new jobs, he would meet the same fate.

Finally, staying put will give him even greater credibility with his current players and the new ones he tries to recruit. Imagine what it’s like for the 19-year-old kids who play for him to know their coach passed up bigger jobs and more money to keep coaching them. It sends the message that he believes in them and wants to see them succeed, even if there were other reasons he opted to re-up. That’s especially the case for new recruits, who Smart will be able to lure with credible talk of his commitment to the program, the school and their future success.

When opportunity knocks, sometimes it’s right for leaders to take the risk. Growth might have stalled. A change of pace might be needed. But as VCU’s Smart shows, taking the leap simply for higher pay or a higher profile is rarely the right choice, no matter how tempting it might be to cross a goal off the list.

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