Marquette’s Shaka Smart isn’t making a comeback in the NCAA tournament. He never left.
Smart’s star rose with Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 and fell despite his success at Texas
Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.
Yes, it is the great American poet, rapper LL Cool J who comes to mind when thinking about Shaka Smart’s return to college basketball prominence.
It has been 14 years since this year’s Big East Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year candidate led Virginia Commonwealth University to a 27-9 record and a CBI Tournament championship as a rookie head coach at 31 years old in 2009. The following year, Smart became a household name and an upstart in the industry by guiding the then-CAA team to an improbable Final Four run in 2011.
Smart went on to lead VCU to four more 26-plus winning seasons before accepting the head coaching position at the University of Texas. At Texas in the rugged Big 12 Conference, he was unable to sustain the level of success he had at VCU, but his tenure was solid. His Texas teams received NCAA tournament bids in three of the five years the tournament was held (there was no NCAA tournament in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic), and in 2019 Texas won the NIT. Smart also successfully recruited multiple five-star prospects and had a number of players drafted into the NBA.
However, fans and media members often judge a college basketball coach’s success solely on NCAA tournament results. At Texas, Smart’s teams lost in the first round in each of its three NCAA tournament appearances.
After an upset loss to Abilene Christian in the 2021 pandemic bubble NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, Smart, a Wisconsin native, bolted Texas for the Marquette head coaching job. Before Smart’s first season at Marquette, his team was picked to finish ninth in the Big East. The Golden Eagles finished sixth and earned a NCAA tournament bid.
Before this season, Marquette was again picked to finish ninth in the Big East. This time, Smart and company obliterated those predictions, winning the Big East regular season by two games and winning the Big East tournament March 11 at Madison Square Garden. Marquette enters this week’s NCAA tournament as a 2-seed in the East Region, Smart’s highest seed ever.
When asked about the comeback narrative when his supposed shortcomings at Texas are compared to his VCU-like success at Marquette, Smart said he tries not to get caught up in things outside of his control.
“I don’t feel any kind of way [about that narrative],” he said. “Actually, it’s kind of funny to me that, as a kid that’s got really no background – my family or people close to me – in basketball, I played Division III basketball, that anyone would have any thoughts on any of that stuff.”
Another narrative in college basketball circles is that Texas may have been too big of a school and brand for Smart and that smaller schools such as VCU and Marquette are better fits for his coaching style.
“I think that people’s minds love to simplify and we love to put things in a box,” he said. “So, if that’s a way for people to describe those schools, that’s fine. But, I think if you’re in coaching or if you follow the game closely enough, you know that how big the school is is way down the list in terms of determining factors of success.
“Now, I do think it is important for any coach, any program, that there’s a good fit, culturally. I do think that the best coaches, one of the things they have in common is they’ve been able to create an environment in their program that promotes the culture that they want. I’m really happy to be where I am. There’s a very supportive infrastructure [at Marquette] that cares deeply about men’s basketball.”
There is no doubt that Marquette and the Big East are good fits for Smart and vice versa.
“There’s something about the Big East and the schools that make up the Big East,” he said. Smart mentioned that his team often uses the term “a gift of desperation” to describe its mentality on the basketball court. It is something that he believes the storied college basketball conference shares. “I think these programs in the Big East have a gift of desperation about basketball because it’s really all they have from an athletic standpoint.”
Smart has had a connection to the Big East since childhood. He idolized the legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., and followed the careers of other great Big East coaches such as Rollie Massimino, Louie Carnesecca, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun as he tried to read everything about college basketball that he could get his hands on.
“It’s pretty cool for me, a kid from nowhere, [to be] coaching in the Big East,” he said.
By “nowhere,” Smart means he was a kid raised by a single mother, he didn’t have a father with basketball ties and wasn’t a great player himself. He was someone who was not supposed to be here. “I just got lucky,” he said.
That luck turned out to be what any person in any profession needs to become ultrasuccessful: a support system.
“You know, what really helped me is my first two bosses as a young coach were both Black men and they both treated me like their sons,” Smart told me. “I was a [graduate assistant] for [Bill Brown] at this school called California University of Pennsylvania and I literally lived with him my first year there, like I lived in his house. He just passed away a couple of weeks ago and it was really, really sad. But, having him and then Oliver Purnell, at Dayton and then later, Clemson, those guys they put their arm around me, they treated me like a son and they just taught me so much. And that really helped give me a foundation in coaching.”
From that foundation, Smart has grown into one of the elite culture builders in basketball. Coaches in sports speak of creating a winning culture, but Smart’s version comes across as unique and genuine.
When asked about Marquette’s success, the first word out of Smart’s mouth is invariably “relationships.”
“Well, I think it starts with relationships that I was lucky enough to have with my coaches,” he said. “Then from there, it’s a real emphasis on relationships across the board in the program. Between players and coaches, coaches and coaches, support staff members and players, everyone having a genuine concern for one another, to me is the foundation.
“In our sport, there are some folks that feel like that’s kind of outdated and that’s not realistic anymore. But that’s how I will always do it, as long as I’m coaching or as long as I’m a part of any team.”
When looking at this season’s Marquette team, one thing that people have marveled at is the retention and development of the young players on the roster from one season to the next. After losing its best player, Justin Lewis, to the NBA, many in the industry underestimated the potential for growth of Marquette’s younger players and again picked Smart’s team to finish at the bottom of the Big East. However, player development is another key part of Smart’s culture.
“After relationships, the second most important part of our culture had to be growth, because these guys come in at such a young formative age,” he said. “And if they are with us for three, four, five years, that is a time period in their lives that they’re going to look back on and either they made significant growth or something was wrong. So, we’ve tried to put incredible emphasis on what goes into growing.”
It’s clear that Smart’s philosophy resonates with the players, as well.
“[Smart spends] time with us off the floor, really caring about us as people, caring about what’s going on in our lives,” said Tyler Kolek, a sophomore point guard who is the Big East regular season and Big East tournament MVP. “A lot of coaches are kind of in a basketball bubble. They don’t really care what’s going on outside of the practice gym or outside of the arena where they play the games. He really cares about each and every guy, down to the walk-ons, down to the managers, down to all the support staff. There’s not one person that goes unnoticed to him.”
Marquette goes into this year’s NCAA tournament with a 28-6 record, Smart’s most wins heading into the tournament since 2012 with VCU. Having a Final Four appearance under his belt, Smart understands that fair or not, college coaches are judged by how their teams perform in the NCAA tournament.
“When I was at VCU, there was a coach at [Old Dominion], Blaine Taylor, a really good coach, a really, really good guy and a really funny guy as well with a great sense of humor,” Smart recalled. “I’ll never forget, in response to us going to the Final Four, he said, ‘the NCAA tournament has a way of making rock stars out of ordinary people.’ It was a little bit of a jab, but at the same time there’s some real truth in what he said. We do have a little bit of a tilted perspective in our sport that is swayed towards March. But you didn’t create that, I didn’t create that, Blaine Taylor didn’t create that. It is what it is and it’s exciting.”
From VCU to Texas, then back home to Wisconsin and Marquette, Smart may have his best team yet with an opportunity to match the success that put him on the map in 2011. How he is judged by the masses will be based on his future results in March and April, but there is no doubt that the kid from nowhere has already proven to be one of the elite basketball coaches and leaders of young men in the college ranks.