Suspense pervaded Richmond on Thursday, a mixture of pride in the biggest team in town and dread at losing Coach Shaka Smart, the man who built it into a power. Supporters held a rally outside the Siegel Center on the Virginia Commonwealth campus, displaying signs and holding out hope. Buz And Ned’s Real Barbecue offered Smart unlimited brisket and apple fritters if he turned down Texas’s big-money offer and big-school trappings; a strip club pledged free lap dances. Smart called an 8 p.m. team meeting, then delayed it another two hours.
And they all waited — until the coach they loved broke their hearts.
Smart, 37, agreed late Thursday night to become the men’s basketball coach at Texas, a person familiar with the situation said. He replaces Rick Barnes at a program with the means to thrive at the sport’s highest level, even if it will remain always in the shadow of the school’s football team. Smart had resisted overtures from venerable programs, UCLA in 2013 chief among them, for several years. But the allure of competing in a power conference finally pulled him away from both VCU and players for whom, he often said, he had become a “father figure.”
Beginning with VCU’s stunning run from an NCAA tournament play-in game to the Final Four in 2011, Smart lifted VCU to heights the mid-major program could not have conceived. Under Smart, the Rams played gritty, tenacious, full-court defense that Smart labeled “Havoc.” It gave the program a national identity and created a sporting entity for a city without major professional sports to rally around.
The Final Four run launched both VCU and Smart into a new stratosphere, but Smart proved he could enjoy sustained success at VCU. Smart won at least 26 games in all six years at the school and reached the NCAA tournament in his past five seasons. This year, the Rams’ 26-win season ended with a loss to 10th-seeded Ohio State in the first round.
VCU’s Final Four run also made Smart a coaching commodity. He resisted constant overtures from power-conference schools, including UCLA in 2013, which led to a new contract that paid him roughly $1.5 million per season. Athletic director Ed McLaughlin and the school convinced Smart to spurn much larger programs from much larger conferences who could pay him a much larger salary. Smart loved the city, the program and the players he recruited.
“I get that a lot,” Smart said back in March, when asked – again – why he remained. “I enjoy it at VCU. It’s a school where basketball matters quite a bit. We enjoy the opportunity to coach our guys every day, be around them, help them get better on and off the court. Obviously most of the attention is paid to winning or losing. I understand that’s how it works. But I enjoy, all around, everything about the opportunity at VCU. Also the support that we have there is very, very good.”
Smart had also publicly revealed a more personal reason for staying at VCU. At age 19, he uprooted from Wisconsin, where he had been raised by a single mother, to Division III Kenyon College in Ohio because the coach there provided a father figure. The coach then left after his freshman season. He has called the experience “one of the worst days in my life” and a major influence on his career.
“Once news comes out there’s a job offering, he calls us immediately, with a smile, you can hear it in his voice,” junior guard Melvin Johnson said one the eve of the Rams’ loss to Ohio State. “He has a lot of humor behind it. He’s not going anywhere. He always says he’s going to be here long after we leave. We’re pretty confident he’s a loyal guy. If anything were to happen, I’m sure he would let us know.”
Thursday night, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that players left the meeting with Smart “visibly distraught.”
Smart had reason to bolt VCU beyond a higher salary. If he had not reached VCU’s ceiling as a program, he had come awfully close. At Texas he inherits something of a sleeping giant, a school with limitless resources – it has its own television network – in perhaps the country’s most fertile recruiting bed. By heading the Longhorns, who have not been to the Sweet 16 since 2006, Smart will learn how far he can go as a coach.
Joining football coach Charlie Strong, Smart’s hiring gives Texas, one of the highest-profile athletic programs in college sports, African-American coaches leading its two biggest programs.
The possibility ahead for Smart does not dampen the pain he leaves behind. He became a transformative force at VCU and a wildly popular figure in Richmond. His players loved him, and they did not believe they would have to say goodbye. They did not believe Thursday night would ever come.
“Ever since I got here my freshman year, they were saying he was going to leave,” senior guard Treveon Graham said back in mid-March. “It’s that loyalty he has for his team and players that’s a big thing for me. After every year that he gets the calls, he always lets us know he going to be here longer than a lot of us. I mean, it give us that confidence to know he’s going to be here after every year.”