Everyone wanted Shaka Smart.
UCLA, with its unparalleled pedigree and absurdly beautiful weather. North Carolina State and Wake Forest, where the chance to build an ACC powerhouse in a basketball-mad part of the world is alluring. Maryland, which has a national title in recent memory and the backing of a growing athletic-apparel powerhouse in Under Armour. Illinois, which has Big Ten riches at its disposal. And Marquette, which is right down the road from his home town of Madison, Wis., and a major draw in Milwaukee.
And yet here we are and Smart will be the next coach at Texas, where basketball is a pleasant diversion between football and spring football/college baseball season. Which in the 2013-14 season averaged just 10,186 fans per game, 6,000 below capacity at its home stadium and a startlingly low total for a school with nearly 40,000 undergraduates. Which has 109 seasons of basketball history but just three Final Four appearances, with two of them (in 1943 and 1947) coming when the NCAA tournament featured just eight teams.
It’s a state where one high school football team alone generated one bestseller, one Hollywood movie and one acclaimed series on a major television network.
So why would Smart take a basketball job where football is king? For one, Texas is swimming in cash as one of the few schools that actually makes money off its athletic programs. Because it pulls in profits annually, the school is able to spend vast sums on its sports teams, like the basketball practice facility that includes one full-court and one half-court practice area with seven basket stations, a locker room with a players’ lounge, an instructional film theater, a 4,100-square foot strength and conditioning area, an athletic training and hydrotherapy area, an academic resource and activity center, and a coaches’ lounge and locker room.
VCU, in comparison, won’t even have a basketball practice facility until later this year.
Despite its renown as a football hotbed, there’s plenty of basketball talent to be had in the state of Texas. Guess who has the No. 3 recruiting class in the country heading into next season. That would be Texas A&M, which is even less of a basketball school than its hated rival. And guess how many members of the Aggies’ four-player class hail from Texas.
Finally, there’s the question of how much Smart had left to accomplish at VCU. The 2011 Final Four is quickly receding in memory, and Smart’s teams failed to advance past the first round in each of the last two NCAA tournaments and past the first weekend in the two that preceded those. Another year of waiting, and the perfect opening might not have been Texas. It might have been Washington, or Oklahoma State, or Purdue, or USC. None of those places compare.
So Shaka Smart left for Texas now, and it made almost perfect sense.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.