AUSTIN — Shaka Smart whips the blue necktie from around his collar, clearing his throat as he walks up a ramp at the University of Texas’s Frank Erwin Center. His voice is gravel, his sinuses ablaze.
“Allergies,” he says, an attempt as much as anything to convince himself.
About an hour earlier, Smart’s Longhorns had upset 10th-ranked West Virginia for one of his biggest victories since leaving Virginia Commonwealth, the Richmond school he famously guided to the Final Four in 2011. Afterward, he shakes boosters’ hands and poses for selfies; he appears live on national television and smiles through a gantlet of well-wishers, glad-handers, most anyone who wants to touch Smart and feel a momentary investment in his rising program.
As he walks toward the coaches’ lounge — where he will slam his fifth bottle of water since tip-off, marked “SS” on the translucent cap, chasing an antihistamine tablet and downing a powdered Vitamin C supplement — these moments represent the end of a very long day. It began nearly 13 hours earlier with a few minutes with his daughter, Zora, before the 38-year-old coach’s schedule truly began: a feature for ESPN, a public appearance or two, a shoot-around attended by reporters, a little politicking, a hint of recruiting. The next day he’ll fly to Wyoming to visit one recruit, and the day after that will be packed with more media appearances: demands on the psyche, an assault on the immune system.
“Life gets a little more complicated when you take on a bigger challenge,” he says a moment later. “I’m okay with that.”
Last April, after four offseasons of refusing to entertain suitors at other universities — he declined to even interview at Illinois, Marquette and UCLA — Smart heard from Texas, which wanted him to replace longtime coach Rick Barnes. To Smart, it appeared to be a dream job: resources, support and a grand stage on which to pursue championships in one of America’s finest basketball conferences.
His first season, though, has been about change, both in environment and routine, for a man who cherishes familiarity. He takes the same route each day to the arena, orders the same meal at his favorite diner (egg whites and oatmeal with brown sugar) and, on this night, is wearing navy socks he bought a decade ago (“I like these socks,” he says. “What’s wrong with these socks?”). It’s no longer enough to make occasional remarks at a booster function or do an interview here or there or advance in the NCAA tournament or snare a top-100 recruit once every year or two, as it was at VCU; it is an all-day, every-day expectation.
“You’re functioning as much like a politician in the state as you are a basketball coach,” said Lance Blanks, a former Texas basketball player and NBA executive. “The adjustment for him, it’s been pretty intense.”
Further complicating the transition: When Smart finally said yes after years of saying no, he held up the “hook ’em” signal at his introductory news conference alongside men’s athletic director Steve Patterson and university president Bill Powers; less than a year later, neither Patterson nor Powers is employed by Texas. And in the nation’s only top-division school with separate men’s and women’s athletic departments, it’s not always clear to a newcomer how to request access to those abundant resources that were so tempting from a distance.
Smart, who leads his life and program with optimism and enthusiasm, says he loves his job and made the right decision; he refuses to discuss administrative turnover or off-court challenges. Others, many of them with a real or imagined stake in a program, are watching Smart — eager to see how he holds up.
“I imagine Shaka doesn’t get a lot of sleep, and I imagine at times it can be pretty daunting,” Blanks said. “He has gone to a whole different world.”
About 15 years ago, Smart’s brother gave him a leather jacket as a gift. Smart loved it. He wore it everywhere. As the years passed, and he moved from overachieving point guard to overachieving coach, he still wore it.
He married Maya, whose analytic mind balanced Smart’s preference for instinct, and the couple had a daughter. Smart left an assistant-coaching job at Florida for his first head-coaching job at VCU, and in his second season, the Rams upset top-seeded Kansas to reach the 2011 Final Four. Smart became one of basketball’s most intriguing men as much for what he didn’t do as for what he did. Bigger schools kept calling, but Smart didn’t budge.
“Until I took this job,” he says now, “I was never, like, definitely leaving.”
Through it all, he wore that leather jacket because, to him, it was as good as anything. It became, as Maya liked to remind him, kind of gross. Then sometime in the past year, it disappeared. He suspects Maya threw it away, as she has done with other past-their-prime garments, and if he’s honest, she was probably right. After so many good years, it was time.
Through most of Smart’s six years there, VCU and Richmond fit him just the same. The Rams played in the Colonial Athletic Association before moving to the Atlantic 10. Capacity at the Siegel Center topped out at 8,000, and Smart’s two athletic directors at VCU, Norwood Teague and later Ed McLaughlin, understood Smart preferred to spend his time with family or his players rather than with strangers. Teague sometimes sneaked Smart out of booster meetings through a back entrance, telling him to go get some rest. McLaughlin says Smart once asked to be shielded from off-the-court distractions such as public appearances and speeches to boosters during the basketball season. If that made Smart’s job easier, the answer was always yes.
“There weren’t many people more known and more valued in the Commonwealth of Virginia than Shaka Smart,” McLaughlin said.
Each offseason the calls came anyway, and other than brief telephone chats, the overtures never went anywhere. Smart remembers the night his own college coach, Kenyon College’s Bill Brown, called and said he was taking another job. Smart understood, but he still considers it “one of the worst days of my life,” the kind of scar he never wanted to leave on his own players.
So when suitors asked whether he would just visit campus and see what he thought, Smart said no. One reason, he said, is he knew Maya would find something she liked and push him to uproot. “Completely different personality,” he said. “My wife is, like, ready all the time to take on something new.”
Then, last year, Rams guard Briante Weber suffered a season-ending knee injury. VCU reached the NCAA tournament again but lost its opening game to Ohio State, prematurely ending the college careers of a senior class to which Smart felt close.
A short time later, Patterson, the Texas men’s AD, reached out. Smart had been on the Longhorns’ radar for years, dating from the tenure of Patterson’s predecessor, DeLoss Dodds. Resources were bountiful; opportunities were limitless. Smart and Maya agreed to visit the campus, and sure enough, Maya found plenty to like: the schools, the nearby lake, the unique Austin culture. And, truthfully, Smart liked it, too.
In early April, Smart gathered his players in a late-night meeting in the locker room. The young men were mostly sad; a few, Smart recalled, were angry. He tried to be succinct: He was intrigued by the opportunity, and it was the best move for his young family.
After so many good years, he told them, it was time.
Two months after Smart was introduced, Powers stepped down. Three months later, Patterson was fired.
During his earliest months on the new job, Smart discovered that athletic-department politics on the sprawling Austin campus can be complicated. Change often came slowly, and according to three people with knowledge of the department’s inner workings, promises made to Smart during the interview process about staffing and resources went unfulfilled, and the lines of communication — who was in charge, and for what? — were often tangled.
The men’s basketball program felt sometimes like an afterthought, chilly in the massive shadow of Longhorns football, and because of various bureaucratic challenges, Smart was unable to complete his coaching staff for months. As one longtime observer of Texas athletics characterized it, it led to “an air of distrust.” Texas took the interim-AD tag off Mike Perrin, a former attorney with no sports-administration experience, in December; Perrin says he believes in Smart and will give him plenty of time to succeed.
Smart, though, did what came so naturally to him: He buried himself in basketball’s finer points and in establishing relationships with his new players. One night, as a handful of players prepared to watch the NCAA tournament final between Duke and Wisconsin, someone knocked on their apartment door: There stood Smart, asking whether he could come in and watch with them.
“We never had a coach just come to our place like that,” said guard Isaiah Taylor, who was so impressed by Smart that he opted to delay entering the NBA draft to return to Texas for his junior season. “With him, we speak free. He’s one of us.”
Cutting an image opposite that of the senatorial Barnes, Smart walks around campus in gym shorts and a backpack, looking more like a graduate student than the state’s 13th-highest-paid public employee. He assured players it was fine to call him by his first name, and instead of yelling or pouting in response to players’ failures to match his energy, he wraps them in jostling hugs or, more often, issues awakening smacks to their backsides. “Kind of jarring,” said point guard Javan Felix, who conceded it’s also an effective way for Smart to make his point.
In sharing his core philosophies with his players, positivity and maximum effort near the top, one of Smart’s messages applied to his own transition: You either have to do something or you get to, and the difference in attitude can determine success or failure.
Smart, despite an occasional desire for solitude and simplicity as he adjusted to his new job requirements, took on the media responsibilities and fan meet-and-greets with vigor. He never turned down a speaking engagement or told a booster he was too busy to chat. If the Longhorn Network or ESPN wanted him to appear in a feature, Smart attacked the opportunity.
“I get to do that as the head coach at Texas,” he said.
Still, the Longhorns started the season 2-3, and attendance sagged at the oversized and outdated Erwin Center. Those in and around the VCU program, some scorned and others supportive, wondered aloud whether Smart had made a mistake.
“He went from being the king to having 2,000 people at his games,” one individual close to the Rams program said.
In early December, third-ranked North Carolina visited Austin, where a sellout crowd of more than 16,000 boosters and reporters and fans and administrators gathered — along with, notably, blue-chip recruit Andrew Jones, on his official visit to Austin.
Smart, wearing the familiar orange shirt and blue tie he’d wear two months later against West Virginia, saw Felix collect a rebound and fire a quick jumper, breaking a tie for a buzzer-beating win. Players and supporters flooded the floor. Jones committed to the Longhorns a few days later.
Smart barely reacted. He just stood there, watching it unfold.
“Validation,” he said. “It’s what we needed to happen.”
The year after the Final Four run, VCU played Indiana in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers won, and afterward, Coach Tom Crean found Smart. Four years earlier, Crean had left Marquette to take over at Indiana, among the nation’s most prestigious — and, with it, pressure-packed — programs.
Smart remembers Crean telling him he had loved his less complicated time at Marquette and encouraging the young coach to take stock of his surroundings.
“He said without saying: ‘You should stay where you are,’ ” Smart recalled.
That’s what Smart did, until he didn’t anymore.
Less than a year in, Smart said his office still has a distinct VCU flavor. Photographs of a few favorite players, along with a picture of the tip-off of the Rams’ regional final in 2011, only hours before VCU shocked Kansas to reach the Final Four and Smart’s life changed. He texts his former players sometimes, but more often he tells himself not to. They play for Coach Will Wade now. Smart insists there’s no regret, but he can’t even bear to say aloud that the VCU part of his life is over.
“It’s not over, though,” he said, “because those are still guys that we coached and we had a hand in helping grow.”
A moment later, he continues.
“Your mind can certainly take you on trips,” he says. “One of the things that it’s very easy for the mind to do is the what-if trip: What if this? What if that?”
Among the big ones: What if Weber, the Rams’ best player in 2015, hadn’t injured his knee and missed the final two months of the season as VCU went 9-6? What if the team hadn’t lost to Ohio State, providing such a tidy close to an era in Smart’s life and his old program’s history?
“If that team goes to the Elite Eight, Final Four,” he says, “I’m probably still there. Just to be honest. I probably am.”
But then he snaps out of it, remembering his new job allows little time for nostalgia. He looks at the clock above the door: almost midnight. Tomorrow’s recruiting visit and the following day’s media responsibilities are rapidly approaching. This long but productive day nearing its end, he takes a breath, about to get some rest and . . . snaps forward as someone knocks on the door.
“Coach,” a Longhorns player says, “can I see you for like two seconds?”