Sometimes things seem a little too good to be true. This is probably one of the many thoughts buzzing around the minds of Richmond, Virginia as it has just been confirmed that Shaka Smart has accepted the job at the University of Texas, who fired their coach Rick Barnes after seventeen seasons at the helm. Being a die hard VCU fan myself, I have still not truly wrapped my head around this, but I am going to try my absolute best to put into words how I feel about the decision as a sports fan, but more prominently, as a VCU fan.
Shaka Smart has been offered a seemingly endless amount of jobs since he led the Rams to the Final Four. He was the hot new thing that everyone wanted, but he stayed around. While another Final Four was not reached, Shaka showed that he could maintain success, getting VCU to the tournament for five consecutive years. Shaka did not just create a winning basketball program here in RVA, he created a brand. HAVOC. Havoc quickly became directly associated with VCU basketball and Shaka Smart, and it did not take long for it to catch on in the Commonwealth. Five years later, you can see Havoc shirts all around Richmond. Havoc has become VCU basketball. Shaka sets the tone for his team by always exuding tremendous amounts of energy to his team no matter the circumstance. No matter the score, no matter the opponent, he made sure every single player wearing the Black and Gold was energized and all in. As the nation began to see what Shaka was doing here, recruiting became a little bit easier, and this past year he brought in the 15th best recruiting class in the nation. Something that seemed unattainable for a program such as VCU. But Shaka did it.
There have been some very stressful off-seasons for VCU fans, but the difference is they ended in us only being more confident that our man was here for the long run. It seemed as if he would take the Illinois job because of his family connections, but he passed. It seemed there were high chances that he was going to accept the job at UCLA, one of the most storied programs in NCAA history. And when he turned that down, it was supposedly a “done deal” that he accepted the Marquette job. But yet again, Shaka was faithful. To even strengthen Rams fans’ confidence, he signed a huge contract extension and helped initiate a huge construction project of an amazing new practice facility.
The main reason, however, that I myself thought Shaka was here for the long run was because of his past. Shaka grew up without a father, and he went on to play basketball at Kenyon College. After his freshman year, his coach left Kenyon, and Shaka, who looked up to this man, was devastated. You would think that he would never want a player to feel the way that he felt when he heard that news. Also, 8 of the current VCU players grew up without a father figure in their lives, so Shaka really is that father figure to them. All the more assurance right? Think again.
On comes Texas… I personally disregarded the news reports at first because I did not think UT had a chance, but I was wrong. We are all human, and sometimes money takes over our minds. It is tough to turn down the type of money that Shaka was offered, as well as the Longhorn Network, and some opportunities that would not be available to him at VCU. But the thing that shocks me is that money can matter more to someone like Shaka than does the way Richmond feels about him. Shaka Smart is a celebrity in Richmond and is one of the most well liked and well respected people in the community. VCU fans and others alike adore him for his energy, the way he handles himself, and just the amazing guy he seems to be. Richmond worships him, and he was always going to have job security at VCU. The city of RVA loved Shaka, and he always returned that love until today.
I wish Shaka the best of luck because although I am immensely bitter, basketball is a business, and the Longhorns bested the Rams this time. I respect the move, but I do not necessarily agree with it. The last two VCU coaches, Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant, had great success at VCU, and they left for more money at Oklahoma and Alabama. Here’s the thing: they both got fired. I just do not understand why you would leave a school and city where basketball is everyone’s number 1, to go to Football focused school like Texas. Oklahoma and Alabama are football focused, and that did not work out for those guys. He is also going to have to get players to buy into his system, and that may not be as easy. We also have no idea if his defensive style will be successful at a Big 12 level. There is still a lot to be seen. I don’t truly see the reason behind going to Texas besides the money and if that is the only factor, well, Shaka may not be the man we all thought he was.
I think Shaka is going to do a good job. Not great, not spectacular, but he will do well. I go back to Mark Few at Gonzaga, who doesn’t even think about leaving because he built something, he is proud of it, and frankly sometimes the grass is not always greener on the other side. Shaka built something here in Richmond, and let me tell you it was something special. This fan base at VCU has always been good, but the past few years it has turned into something truly spectacular that I am proud to be a part of. I think Shaka will have certain regrets because you are not going to get treated any better than he was at VCU.
As far as where VCU goes from here, it is yet to be seen. My first and only real thought is Mike Rhodes who is currently at Rice, and is a former Shaka assistant. Rhodes knows Havoc and is a very great coach, and while it may never be the same, he can keep some familiarity inside the program. Hopefully the Rams can maintain Havoc, or else Ram fans are going to have a lot of shirts to sell. Keep your heads up Ram fans. Who knows what the future will hold as far as transfers and decommits go. But we were depressed when Grant left, and we found a winner. So keep your minds open because when November rolls around, we will all be proud to be Rams, and life will go on.