This is becoming an annual thing, and that’s because Smart — VCU’s young, vibrant and ultra-successful head coach — is a hot commodity for athletic directors with big budgets and big dreams who recently dismissed their previous basketball coaches.
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Since Smart and VCU faced Butler and Brad Stevens in the Final Four almost 24 months ago, Smart and Stevens have generally been at the top of nearly every athletic director’s wish list when jobs have opened.
With Butler headed to the new Big East, Stevens isn’t going anywhere. With word coming Wednesday night of another 10-year extension at VCU, Smart isn’t going anywhere, either.
Apparently, Smart doesn’t think he’s seen the ceiling at VCU.
Smart turns 36 on the day of the national championship game. He seems on track to coach in one of those games some day, and by signing his second multi-year extension in 24 months, he’s sending a message to recruits and to future suitors that he believes what he’s done in four seasons in Richmond is just the beginning.
This time around, it’s believed that he turned down UCLA and Minnesota, jobs that offered different levels of intrigue to Smart.
UCLA presumably wants a splash hire, and Smart would definitely have been that. The name “UCLA” brings name recognition few other programs anywhere can match, but Smart has no known ties to the West Coast. The L.A. scene provides its own challenges in regards to maintaining a consistent winner. Ben Howland was fired after going to three Final Fours in 10 years on the job.
Smart knows he can win at VCU, and it’s apparent he still thinks that now that the bar has been raised. The coach at Virginia Commonwealth turning down UCLA and the Big Ten is a strong, strong statement.
Minnesota had a direct line to Smart in athletic director Norwood Teague, who hired Smart at VCU. Smart has Midwestern roots, having gone to high school in Wisconsin, college in Ohio and having worked at Dayton and at Akron before serving as an assistant at Clemson and Florida just before taking the VCU job in 2009. Any coach who takes the Minnesota job is going to need assurances that Minnesota is going to upgrade its facilities and compete with the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State for recruits.
Smart clearly knows how to find players who fit his style. We can assume he saw Minnesota as a good job, and we are reminded that it’s going to take a great job to get smart to leave VCU.
It’s a little refreshing. It’s also a little curious, not just because we’re conditioned to coaches leaving for big money and big-name programs and conferences, but because it seemed like a good time for Smart to chase that “great” elsewhere.
VCU’s Final Four run in 2011 started at the First Four, with VCU as an NCAA tournament at-large team out of the Colonial Athletic Association. Fifteen months later, the notoriety gained from that run helped land VCU in the (temporarily) expanded Atlantic 10 along with Butler and a bunch of other consistently good programs.
In 2012, VCU won a tournament game as a No. 12 seed before squandering a lead and losing to Indiana, falling just short of a Sweet 16 date. VCU had another outstanding season and wore its home uniforms as the higher seed in an NCAA tournament game last Thursday for the first time since 1985.
After one win, a red-hot Michigan team overwhelmed VCU last Saturday and ended the Rams’ season at 27 wins.
Smart still sees bigger and better in what’s ahead at VCU, and there’s no doubt he has a great thing going. He has national recognition — his program does too — and in Richmond he has a rabid fan base and tremendous support from his university and community.
To Smart, that outweighs the bright lights of UCLA and the TV money that funds budgets in the expanding Big Ten. Instead of jumping to the Big Ten, he’s again chosen to stay and working on beating the Big Ten.
He signed an eight-year contract after the 2011 Final Four run. He turned down N.C. State’s overtures in 2011 and Illinois last year. They presumably aren’t the only ones who at least inquired.
“I’m looking forward to building on the successes of our program and university,” Smart said in a VCU statement last year at this time, just after turning down Illinois and a reported offer of $2.5 million per year.
Strange as it sounds, there’s some credence to the thought that money isn’t everything. Smart genuinely likes it at VCU, was well paid at around $1.3 million per year before this new extension and has positioned VCU to keep winning. It’s indisputable, though, that money is at the core of everything in this business and with these decisions, and not just when it comes to the head coach’s bottom line. The best programs have well-paid assistants, travel by fancy charter planes and have sizable recruiting budgets and fancy apparel deals.
Things like the Big Ten Network and multiple teams from a conference advancing deep into the NCAA tournament feed that beast. Those things were presumably addressed in this new extension, and Smart likes the beast he’s been building.
“Shaka is the brightest young coach I know,” one of Smart’s mentors, Akron coach Keith Dambrot, said last spring. “But when you turn down $3 million a year, I’m not sure how bright that is.”
Dambrot was joking, but the reality of college basketball in 2013 is that programs on the fast track have coaches on the fast track, too. With Teague having left VCU for Minnesota, no calls made this week surprised either party. It’s likely Teague reminded Smart that though the Atlantic 10 had a great year, Temple, Xavier and Butler are gone. Saint Louis and Dayton might be a year from going.
He’s choosing loyalty over big TV games and sizzle. Smart is staying at a place where, again, Richmond and George Mason loom as rivals. He’ll look to keep scheduling like he did this season, when VCU played in a November tournament in the Bahamas with Duke, Louisville, Memphis, Stanford and Minnesota. Smart and the 2011 Final Four run put VCU on a national stage, and the new contract that followed gave Smart a chance to build on that.
Big-name teams won’t come to Richmond in the non-conference season to get beat, so Smart will have to work around that. Maybe that will help his program keep its underdog edge.
Smart doesn’t have to be in a hurry to leave VCU, and frankly it’s refreshing that he’s stayed this long. He doesn’t see the ceiling at VCU, at least not now, and he’ll soon be back to work to keep pushing his program forward.
It’s going to take a great job to get Smart to leave VCU, and in deciding to stay he’s sent a message to all involved that he believes greatness can happen right where he is.