Shaka Smart: A Coach’s Journey

Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.

By David Cordova

It’s April 1st, and there are reporters around the Marriott Marquis in downtown Manhattan, interviewing players and coaches that will be participating in the National Invitational Tournament, which begins the following evening at Madison Square Garden. 

Although the four teams (Texas, Lipscomb, TCU and Wichita State) in the event would prefer to be playing in the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, Minnesota, they are happy to still be playing for a championship. But one of the coaches is fortunate to have seen the NCAA Tournament and relishing the opportunity to win an NIT championship.

That coach is none other than Shaka Smart, who is the head coach at the University of Texas. Many may know him from his time at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), when he led the Rams to the NCAA Final Four eight years ago.

Smart watches from the sideline during the NIT semifinal game against TCU on April 2nd. (Photo courtesy of Daly Dose of Hoops/Robert Dea)

But now, he’s on a bigger stage, which is coaching at the University of Texas. In his time there, he has made appearances to the NCAA Tournament and has sent a couple of players to the NBA. But he’s also been through rough seasons, including a losing season two years ago and missing the Big Dance this season. However, through triumphs and heartbreaks, he still manages to keep up his poise and continue to strive for excellence as a coach.

In his career, Smart has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and has a lifetime record of 234-122. In other postseason events, such as the NIT and the CBI, he has gone a combined 10-0. It’s safe to say that all he knows is winning.

When asked about what motivates him to be successful in leading his players on the court, he replied, “Just the guys I coach, having a chance to be around those guys, and help those guys grow and learn how to be their best. They keep me young, ‘cause as you get older as a coach, the players stay the same age, and it’s a lot of fun being around them.”

Smart talks from the podium at the NIT press conference on April 1st. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

The origin of Smart’s story began in Madison, Wisconsin, where he grew up. As a high schooler at Oregon High School in Oregon, Wisconsin, he set records for assists with 458 in his career total, had 201 assists in one season, and even set a single-game record with 20 assists.

When asked how long he’s been involved with the game, he replied, “Oh, a long time, I started playing when I was a young kid and fell in love with the game, and you know, when you’re a young kid, you want to play forever. But when I got done playing in college, I realized that the best way to stay involved in the game was coaching, and now, I’ve been coaching for 20 years.”

In his days at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, he set the school’s all-time assists record with 542 and was one of 20 students selected to the USA Today All-Academic Team in his senior season in 1999.

Smart throws up the horns with freshman Courtney Ramey and sophomore Matt Coleman III. (Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint)

Not too long after, he began his coaching odyssey at a Division II school, as an assistant at California University in California, Pennsylvania. When asked what led him into coaching, he replied, “Just coaches, you know, and what they did for me. I came up in a situation where I was raised by a single mom, and it was really coaches that served the role for me of being a father figure, and so I looked up to them incredibly, and when I was in college I started to form the thinking that what they did for me, I wanted to do for other people, that’s why I got into coaching.”

After two years at California University, he moved up to the Division I ranks as an assistant at the University of Akron, and then moved on to Clemson University and then went on to the University of Florida.

When asked about the transition of eventually moving from being an assistant to a head coach, he replied, “Well, when you’re an assistant, you’re just trying to serve the head coach, and do what he wants you to do. You’re just trying to make sure the details in the program are all run smoothly. You obviously have the goal of becoming the head coach, but you have to focus on doing a great job, in the job that you’re in. I was lucky to be a young guy who got a head coaching job, almost exactly 10 years ago, and when I became a head coach, you quickly have to adjust how you run the program, now you’re in charge of everyone that’s part of the program and it’s been a fun ride.”

Smart looks at the action during the NIT championship game on April 4th. (Photo courtesy of Daly Dose of Hoops/Robert Dea)

In 2009, Smart got the opportunity of a lifetime when he was named the head coach at VCU. In his first season, the Rams went 27-9 and won the CBI championship. In 2010-11, his second season, the program went on a run to their most memorable season in school history, as they compiled a 23-11 record and made it to the NCAA Final Four, upsetting high-major programs such as USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, before losing to Butler in the national semifinals.

When asked if that historic season was a dream come true, he replied, “Yeah, it was a lot of fun, just fun being around those guys, and getting a chance to do something special, as a group and the best part about it was while it was going on, it was almost like time stood still, and everyone really embraced and appreciated each other, trying to do something that no one expected us to do.”

After that season, Smart and VCU were in demand around the nation, as they drew bigger opponents. In his fourth season, the Rams moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference from the Colonial Athletic Association and established dominance in their new conference, making three straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the rest of Smart’s tenure in Richmond, Virginia.

Smart holds a conversation with senior Kerwin Roach II. (Photo courtesy of Daly Dose of Hoops/Robert Dea)

When asked to reflect on his years in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Smart replied, “They were great, I mean, I loved it. I had some terrific guys that I had a chance to work with, and a phenomenal fan base. I learned a lot, and had a chance to experience a lot of success. You know, as a coach, when you work with these guys, that’s the biggest thing, you want to help them be successful.”

In 2015, he accepted the coaching position at Texas. After years of grinding as an assistant and bringing VCU, a mid-major school, into national scene, Smart was finally on the big-stage that all coaches plan to eventually get to, high-major college basketball.

 “I didn’t even visit there,” said Smart. “I took the Texas job without even visiting campus. I think for my wife and I, and our family, it was a time where, it made sense for us. It was a tough, tough decision, because we were in such a great, great situation where we were, but I really wanted to take on a new challenge, and it’s been, you know, an exciting opportunity, to be the coach at Texas.”

Austin, Texas is a beautiful place. Although the school and the state is known predominantly for its football, the Longhorns have also made a name for themselves with basketball as well. The program is sponsored by Nike and wear the KD sneakers, due to their affiliation with NBA All-Star forward Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, who played one season for the Longhorns, before being drafted in 2007.

When asked what a regular gameday is like at the Frank Erwin Center, the 16,000-seat campus arena that the Longhorns play in, Smart replied, “Well, it depends. It depends who we’re playing, when everyone gets really excited and gets on the same page, and gets connected, it gets electric in the building, you know, it’s a lot of fun. Our guys really feed off of that, and it’s something we’re trying to build.”

In his four seasons with the Longhorns, aside from the two NCAA Tournament appearances, Smart had two players go on to the NBA, which were Jarrett Allen, who recently finished his second season with the Brooklyn Nets and Mohamed Bamba, who recently finished his rookie season with the Orlando Magic, and was the sixth overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft.

When asked about coaching Allen and Bamba, he replied, “It’s great. You know, those guys, you get to coach for about 10 months, so you’ve got to make the most of the time you have with them and I told Mo [Bamba], when he first got on campus, is like, ‘We’ve got to take advantage of every single day, because you don’t have four years, you know, to have the whole [college] experience. You’ve got to really take advantage of every practice, every workout, every weightlifting session, every game,’ and I think he did a great job of that, when he came in, he was a sponge, he tried to soak up everything we asked him to do and everything we taught him, and now it’s great to see him having success at the next level.”

If a player wants to come to Texas, Smart’s selling point is simple. “Just helping them grow, helping them develop as a person, as a basketball player, as a basketball player, understanding the connection between the mindset and the approach you have to take to be successful, and actually making the plays you have to make on the court and winning games. That’s something that the young guys often times, need help with, but in order to get that help, but in order to get that help, there has to be a relationship with the players, that’s something I really enjoy.”

This season, the Longhorns had a difficult season, going 8-10 in the Big 12 Conference. However, they still got the opportunity to make the NIT. “It’s been a challenging season in that we’ve had some really, really big wins, and then we’ve had some losses that we’d love to have back,” said Smart about early in the season, “So, we haven’t had the consistency that we really need to have or wanted to have. Our guys have approached this NIT experience with a great, great approach and mindset and that’s why we’ve really played great basketball.”

This season, the Longhorsns went 21-16 on the season, but had a great home record of 15-6, but had a dismal record of 2-8 on the road. However, they were led by senior guard Kerwin Roach II (15.1 points), senior forward Dylan Osetkowski (11.1 points and 7.2 rebounds), freshman forward Jaxson Hayes (10 points and five rebounds), sophomore guard Matt Coleman III (9.8 points), sophomore guard Jase Febres (8.9 points) and freshman guard Courtney Ramey (8.1 points). 

When asked about Coleman, he replied, “He brings a level of basketball IQ and energy to our team. He’s a guy that I’ve always enjoyed watching, the joy with which he plays, the excitement, the competitiveness, with which he plays, he’s had some huge games for us this year where he’s helped us win big, big games. This year, has also been a learning experience for him, really truly learning how to be a leader, and I think it’ll be valuable for him going into next season.”

As far as the NIT Tournament at the Garden, the Longhorns accomplished what they set out to do: win. In the semifinals, behind a big performance by Roach, they beat their conference and in-state rivals, TCU, 58-44. In the championship game on April 4th, they would go on to beat Lipscomb, 81-66, and won their first NIT championship since 1978.

All in all, it was a good season for the Longhorns. Although, things didn’t go as they wanted, they still got to play in April and they still got to win a championship. With Smart at the helm, Texas plans to continue to do big things.

Next season, they will bring in three promising four-star recruits in Will Baker and Donovan Williams, both of whom are from the state of Texas, and Kai Jones, a native of the Bahamas, who recently finished playing his high school ball at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

With the nucleus of Coleman, Hayes, Febres and Ramey coming back, the Longhorns plan on becoming a more dangerous team. As for their coach, he wants to continue to embrace the grind. Just 20 years ago, Shaka Smart had just finished graduating from a Division III college and was just getting into the world of coaching. Now, it’s amazing to see how far he’s come. 

“Just trying to keep getting better,” said Smart on the future. “These young guys keep improving, you know, build stronger relationships with them, help them take the next step in terms of their development individually and our development as a team.”

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