In the face of reports that Texas could lure Coach Shaka Smart to replace recently fired Rick Barnes, VCU has not heard from Texas officials and has received no indication Smart will leave the program he built into an NCAA tournament fixture. A school official said Smart was in his office inside a VCU athletics building Wednesday afternoon.
“We are operating business as usual down here,” VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin told The Washington Post in a written statement. “Texas has not contacted us about permission to speak with Coach Smart.”
Chip Brown of Horns Digest, a reliably plugged-in reporter on Texas athletics, reported Wednesday afternoon that Texas is in negotiations with Smart and hopes to finalize a deal with the 37-year-old coach who has resisted offers from power-conference schools in recent offseasons.
The Rams have been down this road on annual basis ever since Smart led the Rams to the Final Four in 2011. With his vaunted “Havoc” press defense and ability to forge relationships with players, Smart has become perhaps the most coveted rising star in college basketball coaching.
“He’s been very faithful and loyal to VCU,” said one person close to Smart, who has discussed the Texas position with him. “Until something changes his mind, he’s going to reward VCU’s loyalty.”
After the 2012-13 season, UCLA offered Smart its vacant coaching position, and Smart signed a new contract to stay in Richmond, spurning one of the most venerable programs in the sport. In the offseasons since, VCU has fended off Minnesota, Wake Forest, Marquette and many other schools from conferences larger than the Atlantic 10. Smart signed a contract in 2013 that pays him $1.57 million per season.
“My first year, the UCLA stuff obviously came up, the first time going through it, I was a little more nervous,” McLaughlin said in Portland, Ore. last month, on the eve of VCU’s loss to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. “Now I look at, and it’s not a question of us having a fighting chance. It’s going to have to be something really good to take him away now. Because he loves the place, and we’ve put a lot into to make it a good job for him.”
Could Texas be that something really good? With an enormous athletic budget, the profile of the Big 12 and the backing of its own television network, Texas could offer Smart resources – and, presumably, a salary – VCU simply could not match.
But Texas could not provide Smart the autonomy or familiarity he enjoys in Richmond. He has said often how much he and his family adore Richmond. Few, if any, schools value football more than Texas. At VCU, Smart is the most powerful athletic figure on campus, if not in the entire city of Richmond.
“I think it’s a pretty big deal that we don’t have football,” McLaughlin said in mid-March. “He knows that the most important that we have for our financial health at VCU is men’s basketball.”
Smart also feels a strong pull toward the players he recruits. Smart grew up without a father in Wisconsin and attended Division III Kenyon College because he developed a bond there with the coach, whom he considered a “father figure.” The coach left after one season, a devastating experience Smart has described as formative.
Smart has won at least 26 games in all six of his seasons at VCU while making the NCAA tournament the past five years. For now, VCU believes it will fend off yet another big school in pursuit of the most transformative figure in its athletic history. The pressure Texas is applying, though, only serves as another reminder for how difficult it will be to continue to keep him.