Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart on Wednesday ended speculation that he might take the open job at Illinois by announcing that he’ll stay with the Rams.
The decision by the young coach was cause for celebration among VCU fans and disappointment for their Illini counterparts — Illinois’ search for a replacement for fired coach Bruce Weber has begun to resemble the search last year for a new football coach, when the school’s top choices reportedly turned down the Illini.
VCU said in a news release that Smart’s $1.2 million contract will be adjusted, but provided no details.
He said in the release that he appreciates VCU’s support of him and his staff.
"There are great things to accomplish at VCU, and I’m looking forward to building on the successes of our program and university," the 34-year-old Smart said.
"Coach Smart recognizes — as do the rest of the university community, alumni and fans — that VCU is the place to be right now," VCU President Michael Rao added.
At Illinois, Athletic Director Mike Thomas declined comment through a school spokesman.
Smart will bring back one of the country’s youngest teams. The Rams went 29-7 (15-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association) and were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament this year after making an improbable Final Four run last season.
Neither school would say how much money Illinois offered Smart.
While VCU fans took to Twitter to celebrate — "Shaka is here to stay!" one wrote Wednesday afternoon — Illinois’ fans were dejected.
"So which stage of grief are we in right now?" one wrote.
"Still anger here," came the quick answer.
Thomas now continues to look for a replacement for Weber from a field that reportedly includes Alabama coach Anthony Grant and Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins.
Alabama spokesman Ty Patton declined comment, as did Stanford spokesman Jim Young.
In Chicago, where some of Weber’s toughest critics found ammunition in the fact that he didn’t land the basketball-rich city’s top players, an AAU coach with a number of former players on the Illini roster said Smart’s decision would likely fuel skepticism about both Thomas and the Illini program.
"I would have assumed if you were swift in firing in that you would have the other one already locked up and ready to go," said Mike Mullins, whose Illinois Wolves produced current Illini players Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu.
Thomas fired Weber on March 9 after Illinois finished 17-15, including a 2-12 collapse to finish the season, and tied for ninth place in the Big Ten. The Illini missed the postseason, and it was the third time in five seasons they didn’t make the NCAA tournament.
Weber was the third coach Thomas fired in less than four months, along with women’s basketball coach Jolette Law and football coach Ron Zook.
Illinois hired Tim Beckman from Toledo to replace Zook, but only after reportedly being turned down by Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, who took over at Texas A&M.
Thomas acknowledged the day he fired Weber that, in getting rid of high-profile coaches so quickly and naming their replacements, he’d be putting himself up for fans to quickly judge, too. He also said that hiring Weber’s replacement was particularly crucial at Illinois.
"This program, this school is looked at in a different way than some of our other programs," Thomas said. "So it’s under a spotlight and people are paying attention."
Illinois is also still looking for a replacement for Law, too. Buyouts for the three fired coaches total $7.1 million, money the university has said will come from private funds.
The search for Weber’s replacement includes a potentially complicating racial component. Two university trustees earlier this year refused to vote in favor of Beckman’s contract because they said the school hadn’t done enough to hire black head football or men’s basketball coaches, something it’s never had.
That condition and Smart’s resume and charisma put him at the top of the Illini wish list.
After last year’s Final Four run, Smart turned down an offer to jump to North Carolina State and was rewarded with his current eight-year deal.