After a whirlwind day of handshakes and meetings, University of Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart stood in front of reporters in Austin, ready to answer the big question: Why did he leave VCU?
It wasn’t money. In the push to keep Smart, Virginia Commonwealth University offered him a salary of $2.5 million annually, according to a high-level source at the school. Smart will be making about $3 million a year at Texas.
It wasn’t publicity. Smart leaves the basketball-mad Mid-Atlantic for a state that cares far more about its football teams.
In the end, Smart kept coming back to one word to describe why he left: championships.
“I felt like my situation at VCU was so extremely special that I turned (dozens of other schools) down,” he said. “But when the opportunity was presented to me to be the head coach at Texas, I quickly realized this is something different. This is a world-class institution. This athletic department is all about championships.”
The news of Smart’s departure came as a crushing blow at VCU, where Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin didn’t learn of Smart’s decision until late Thursday night.
McLaughlin got a call from Smart while he was dining with colleagues at a steakhouse in Indianapolis, site of the men’s Final Four this weekend. Even from a distance, he went all-out in his efforts to retain Smart, he said.
“I would say we made every effort possible to make this a place that he wanted to be,” McLaughlin said. “At the end of the day, he made a decision, and we’re happy for him. But we were certainly aggressive with it, and wanted to make sure we left no stone unturned in keeping him here.”
VCU President Michael Rao thanked Smart for his six years of contributions to the school. He cited Smart’s ability to serve “as a father figure to the young men he coaches.”
“Coach Smart has been much more than a basketball coach at VCU,” Rao said in a statement. “He has been an exemplary and first-class representative of our university, our city and our commonwealth. We thank him and wish him well.”
Even Gov. Terry McAuliffe weighed in, thanking Smart and adding dryly: “You know what? He’s going to miss out on VCU going all the way in the ‘Big Dance’ in the next couple of years.”
Smart will be trying to lead the Texas Longhorns there now.
He repeatedly cited Texas’ culture of winning, resources and championships at his news conference. He’ll enjoy an immediate advantage on the recruiting trail, where he can draw from the fastest, tallest players in one of the country’s most fertile grounds for star players.
After making the Final Four at VCU in 2011, Smart struggled to repeat that success as he watched his teams fall to bigger, faster squads in recent NCAA tournaments.
“As I think of the University of Texas, the first word that comes to mind is excellence,” Smart said. “This athletics program is a championship athletics program across the board. Teams are regularly competing and winning conference championships, national championships and making deep runs into the postseason.”
While meeting with the current Longhorns team, he announced his intention to get down to business. Within an hour of telling McLaughlin he was leaving, Smart reportedly already had extended his first scholarship offer as the Longhorns’ coach.
He acknowledged that the bar for success has risen substantially and that by taking the job, he now will be measured by sustained success in the NCAA tournament. Smart said he was ready for that challenge.
Steve Patterson, the Texas athletics director, offered to fly him back to Richmond to say final goodbyes during the weekend, but Smart declined.
“I said, ‘I’m not going back to Richmond,’ ” Smart said. “ ‘Once I get down to Austin, it’s time to go to work.’ ”
Though those words may have carried a sting for VCU supporters who had followed his every move for the past six years, Smart paused to collect himself several times when discussing how hard it was to leave Richmond. He noted twice he thought he might stay in the role of Rams coach for life.
“The hardest thing for me in making the move was leaving the players that I felt so close to,” he said. “Those are guys that I’ll stay in contact with and be close to for the rest of my life.
“But again, the opportunity here at the University of Texas, for my family and I, was one that we simply could not pass up,” he said.
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