Shaka Smart was named after the famous historical figure Shaka Zulu, a man who was considered a military genius and credited with helping form units into the Zulu Nation in South Africa.
This is fitting because Smart will not just be asked to win games or make extended runs in the NCAA Tournament, but do so and help rebuild the Texas Longhorns basketball brand, and with it, a new home.
Before going on, I need to let you know the author of this analysis is a proud Texas Ex who donates to the athletic department in order to get season football tickets and makes my way to “The Drum and the Disch” every chance I get.
There are few fans and alums that are as passionate about sports, not just football, than me. However, my degree does not blind me to the flaws, shortcomings and disappointments of the Texas athletics department, especially those of the last five years: I’m looking at you football and men’s basketball.
Yes, I was there as a student-reporter covering the previous regime, and while Rick Barnes was always pleasant to interview and forgave the inevitable stupid question asked by someone looking to break into the business, he was a victim of his own success. It became clear to me this season when I went to Austin and witnessed former Killeen star TaShawn Thomas and the hated Oklahoma Sooners run all over Texas at the Erwin Center.
You could see another collapse coming weeks before the NCAA Tournament.
Now let’s backtrack a bit to November 2013 when Texas Athletics Director Steve Patterson was hired. The Texas Ex was brought over from Arizona State and had to go to work on the two top revenue producing sports.
Patterson had two objectives: Fix football and secure a new arena. We’ll know more about football and Charlie Strong in eight months, but the move to hire Smart was one to help UT men’s hoops rebound and prosper.
There is no getting around it, the Longhorns need a new arena. The UT System Board of Regents approved plans for the new Dell Medical School in May 2013.
The plan included academic buildings, a hospital and medical offices over a three-block radius, with the Erwin Center smack in the middle.
It was apparent the medical school would need the space now occupied by the Erwin Center to grow and the UT athletics department has already lost the Penick-Allison Tennis Center to construction of the medical school.
Patterson grew up with basketball. His father, Ray, was the Houston Rockets general manager for almost two decades and Steve has worked as a basketball executive for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The move to hire Shaka was a smart basketball move by a basketball guy in Patterson.
Smart will turn 38 next week, but he looks like he’s 28 and has the basketball wisdom of someone who is 58.
In only five years as Virginia Commonwealth’s head coach, Smart has won 137 games.
He’s young, charismatic and has as many Final Four appearances on his résumé as Barnes does. Smart won over college basketball fans when he participated in team warmup drills before VCU played Butler in the national semifinal game.
Smart has been known to read Sun Tzu to his players for motivation.
So many things about Smart make people “buy in” to programs and a way of doing things. This factor should help UT raise money for its highly sought new arena.
Smart was introduced as head coach during a news conference Friday and one of the key points he talked about was filling up the current arena. Well, just like in Barnes’ tenure, with winning will come fans.
They may not be there for Texas State or other nonconference games against small schools, but winning will ensure they are there for Big 12 play, and not just when the Kansas Jayhawks show up.
Smart is known for his “Havoc” style of play. High octane, full-court pressure and transition offense was a staple of VCU. That style could work well for UT in Austin, a city with numerous entertainment options that the basketball teams often fall victim to.
Smart has already accomplished so much. Now the hope is he can get back to the Final Four with a program that has a hip city to recruit to and vastly more financial resources.
Smart is still seven months away from coaching in his first game in the Erwin Center so it is way too early to judge the hire. But we’ll have a better understanding of his success if he coaches in UT’s new home.