Smart must be cautious with next step

BY foxsports • April 1, 2011

Shaka Smart will be a wealthy, wealthy man.

The VCU coach may be making a million dollars or so next year still residing in Richmond and coaching the Rams, or he could be earning more than double that somewhere else — say at North Carolina State or Missouri.

Many expect the 33-year-old to jump at a lucrative offer and bolt VCU.

“I don't think there's a certainty at all,” said Akron head coach Keith Dambrot, who had Smart on his staff for a couple of years. “He doesn't care about money.”

Everyone cares about money.

But Smart is unique, in a subtle way that draws some comparisons to Butler coach Brad Stevens.

Forget about the fact he's mature beyond his years; he's smart, articulate and knows how to deal with everyone from players to coaches to the media. Smart keeps a diary and writes poetry. He dives for loose balls in the locker room and dances with his players.

“He's probably the most comfortable coach in his skin I've ever met,” said Denny Kuiper, an author and former high school and college coach in Michigan who has become a confidant of Smart's the last couple of years.

Stevens spurned the lucrative offer from Nike czar Phil Knight and Oregon a year ago to remain in the mid-major ranks. That's worked out just fine.

Smart, who has become the “hot name” this year in the coaching carousel in the midst of his improbable run to the Final Four, will likely have multiple suitors the day his season concludes — whether it be in Saturday night's national semifinals or Monday night in the national championship game.

“I wouldn't be surprised if he stays here,” VCU assistant coach Will Wade said.

“Me, either,” added fellow Rams assistant Mike Rhoades.

Add VCU senior athletic director Mike Ellis to that list. Not too long ago, Ellis made a pinky swear with Smart that he'd win at least 137 games and become the school's all-time winningest coach.

“As corny as it sounds,” Ellis said, “I really believe that pinky swear means something to him.”

Smart will earn at least $640,000 this season with bonuses. Former coach Anthony Grant, whose departure for Alabama paved the way for Smart, earned just shy of $900,000 his final season with the Rams.

According to sources close VCU, athletic director Norwood Teague will offer Smart a new deal in the neighborhood of $1 million per season.

“We're going to be aggressive in our efforts to keep him,” Teague said.

VCU can't go toe-to-toe with the big boys, though, in terms of a financial package. However, Smart isn't going to jump just to jump.

He's well aware of the insanely unrealistic North Carolina State fan base from his days as an assistant at Clemson, and he's smart and connected enough to be familiar with Wolfpack athletic director Debbie Yow's poor reputation while at Maryland.

I'd be shocked if Smart takes the money and runs to Raleigh to replace recently dismissed Sidney Lowe.

He understands that while Missouri is a step up in terms of level, exposure and dollars, he doesn't have the same level of comfort he's formed with Teague, Ellis and the rest of the VCU administration.

Sources have said the Tigers' opening remains more intriguing to him than the one at N.C. State.

“Shaka's decision to stay or not may depend heavily on whether Teague is still there,” said one source.

VCU will take care of Smart's assistant coaches financially. The school is starting a $4 million renovation project on the basketball facilities and infrastructure, and he'll likely get more charter flights and also private planes to go out on the road recruiting.

All of that matters to Smart. It could be enough to persuade him to stay put.

“With Shaka, it's not about him,” Ellis said. “He'd rather have more for his staff and more for the program. At the same time, we have to make it about him, also.”

Smart needs to long look at what's happened to guys who've taken the mid-major leap in the last few years. Former Butler coach Todd Lickliter went to Iowa in 2007 and was back on the job market after going 38-58 in three seasons with the Hawkeyes. Greg McDermott left Northern Iowa in 2006 for what he believed to be greener pastures at Iowa State. After four losing seasons, he's much happier now back in the Missouri Valley League at Creighton.

“Every situation is different,” McDermott said via text message. “Changing jobs is a personal family decision. If your current job makes the necessary commitment to provide resources that allow you to compete for championships, I see little reason to leave.”

Stevens was regarded as the exception, not the norm.

But he may have company with the guy who stands on the opposite coaching box Saturday night, another young, articulate coach who isn't all about himself or the money.

“This guy is one of the smartest guys I've ever met,” Dambrot said. “If there's a smarter guy out there, I haven't met him.”

There are still skeptics, those who believe this is just lightning in a bottle, a two-week run that overshadows the overall body of work. Smart is in just his second season as a head coach and has taken a group loaded primarily with Grant's players to the Final Four. Despite a fourth-place finish in the CAA, he's become as hot of a commodity as there is — and it's come virtually out of nowhere.

He'll have no shortage of options, but the overriding belief is that Smart is more like Stevens than like Lickliter or McDermott.

Especially after what Stevens has been able to do at Butler over the past two years.

“Certainly that makes it more believable,” Teague said. “But you can never say never. I know there's going to be a time and I'm fine with that.”

But that time may not be now.

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