The University of Texas men’s basketball program is undergoing a transformation in style, perception and energy. This transformation lies at the feet of its new head coach, Shaka Smart. The former and highly successful protege’ of Billy Donovan at the University of Florida, then most recently the head coach that built Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) into a perennial Top 20 NCAA power and Final Four participant, is doing it again–now in the Lone Star State with the Longhorns.
After such a successful run at VCU–where the program and University enjoyed unprecedented basketball success, branding, exposure and notoriety–Shaka Smart became a highly sought after candidate for Athletic Director’s, President’s and search firms. He did not jump at the first best offer to leave Richmond. Rather, he showed a loyalty to VCU. His loyalty was reciprocated by the administration, and fans, as both celebrated many wins and milestones for several years. Then, Texas called. The opportunity to advance his family financially and elevate his career with unprecedented resources at his disposal was a situation he could not bypass.
Coach Smart has brought his high energy, full pressure and intense style of play to Austin and its working. He has brought not only a winning pedigree but also a relentless drive and enthusiasm that permeates through all levels of the Longhorn program. Coach Smart brought his havoc style of play to the Lone Star State that produced wins over North Carolina and Virginia this season. Smart’s mentality to the game itself is summed up in one of his more quotable moments: “We have the mentality of the hunter. We want to be the most enthusiastic team in the country. That’s what we can control.” At Texas, Coach Smart already has his style on display with the Longhorns looking like a guarantee for the tournament and a first recruiting class that appears to show the bright future of the program. But it’s not just intelligence and style of play that coach Smart brings to Austin. It’s also class, respect and professionalism.
Replacing a classy, popular, successful, experienced and long-tenured coach like Rick Barnes is no easy task, but Shaka Smart knew where to keep tradition alive while he injected the program with a heavy dose of positivity. He has been the perfect hire for Texas on all levels and has the program on its way to sustained success for years to come. As part of his core philosophy, Smart believes that “the difference in attitude can determine success or failure.” That philosophy provided players the comfort to play more freely and fluid out on the court and in the locker room. Smart isn’t one to yell or intimidate his players. Instead, he ensures positive coaching culture, knowing that their next moment to shine could happen anytime.
Shaka Smart embodies the ideal combination of humility, intelligence, compassion and knowledge for a game that has become coach/celebrity centered and media focused. His upbeat and positive style will win on the court, in recruiting, in the community and with the University administration. Names like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge have worn the burnt orange and lead their teams to successful seasons and onto personal fame and fortune. Coach Smart will be producing NBA-caliber talent, but also a winning culture for the Longhorn men’s basketball program. So far, the master of double fist defense has his team pressing and trapping their opponents with each game. Texas is now intense, sharp and a threat to upend even the best teams on any night.
Replacing Rick Barnes, or any school’s icon for that matter, is no enviable task. It takes a certain type of leader to foster talent, appreciate the program’s past and focus on the future with confidence all in one fell swoop. It’s a difficult balancing act that Shaka Smart is up for. This March and the years ahead for men’s college basketball in Austin, Texas are sure to be exciting.