VCU Rams head coach Shaka Smart will finally leave Richmond to take the same position with the Texas Longhorns, according to multiple reports on Thursday evening just after Smart left a team meeting with his now-former players.
Confirmation from the school is still forthcoming, but unless there are any last-second changes, athletic director Steve Patterson seemingly hit a home-run hire in replacing former head coach Rick Barnes, with whom the school officially parted ways on Sunday after a disappointing season.
A common figure for his contract is for five years and $18 million, which doesn't include the $500k buyout from VCU and another $250k if Texas doesn't schedule a home-and-home series with the Rams.
Texas benefitted from the increasingly widespread perception that it is one of the top coaching jobs in the country because Smart turned down overtures from numerous other schools in the last several years, including Illinois, Maryland, Marquette, Minnesota, UCLA, and Wake Forest. As a result, there were never any guarantees that Smart would even consider the job at Texas, much less leave VCU.
Always one of the top potential candidates, Smart's first connection to the job surfaced on Monday with a report that the Longhorns were in discussions with the Rams head coach, though the VCU athletic director denied any contact from Texas as a search firm apparently made the initial overtures. After a quiet stretch from Tuesday to Wednesday in which the only major developments were reports that Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright and Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett both declined interest in the position, Horns Digest was the first report that Texas was hoping to finalize a deal with Smart, sparking a flurry of similar reports.
On Thursday afternoon, Patterson touched down in Richmond to meet with Smart as VCU fans held a rally near the basketball arena in hopes of convincing Smart to stay. When the news broke that the Rams head coach called a meeting with his team, a decision seemed imminent until the meeting was delayed for two hours for unknown reasons.
But Smart didn't disappoint the legion of Texas fans following every development with bated breath by telling his players that he's headed to Austin. The pressure was on Patterson to close the deal with Smart while in Richmond and the often-maligned athletic director came through by landing the only coach to receive serious interest from the Longhorns.
The 37-year-old Smart made his reputation at VCU with a remarkable run to the Final Four in 2011 by becoming the first school from the First Four to win five games to make it to the tournament's final weekend. The 11th-seeded Rams beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas, the Southwest Region's No. 1 seed, before losing to Butler. The 71-61 victory over the Jayhawks ranks as one of the most impressive upsets in recent years.
Though the Rams haven't been able to replicate that incredible success story, Smart did show some serious coaching chops in 2011-12 by winning the CAA and making the tournament's third round after losing four of the team's five leading scorers from the Final Four run.
Entering the 2014-15 campaign, VCU was one of just three schools nationally to win 26 or more games in each of the five seasons, along with Duke and Syracuse. The Orange failed to hit that mark once again, but the Rams won 26 games and the A-10 tournament. In fact, the move from the CAA to the A-10 makes Smart's success in Richmond even more impressive.
Overall, Smart's career at VCU marked historic highs for the Rams program in a short amount of time:
Shaka Smart has taken VCU to the NCAA tourney each of the past 5 years, including a Final Four appearance in 2011. pic.twitter.com/gSNOtYBNoX— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) April 2, 2015
A three-year captain at Kenyon College in Ohio, Smart still holds the school's single-season and career assist records. After spending three seasons as an assistant at California University (Pa.), Smart moved on to the University of Dayton and then the University of Akron. At Dayton, Smart made a key connection in working for Oliver Purnell, who gave him his first big-time assistant gig at Clemson in 2006. Another key connection for Smart? Working one season as an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida before taking the VCU job in 2009.
Known for his trademark "havoc" defense, Smart's teams play a high-octane, entertaining brand of basketball. By employing several types of full-court pressure including a 1-2-1-1 zone press known as "diamond" and a trapping man-to-man called "double-fist," VCU consistently disrupted opposing offenses and created transition opportunities throughout Smart's tenure in Richmond, leading the country in steals for three seasons before finishing No. 4 in that category in 2014-15. The Rams also ranked No. 3 in turnover margin last season, while in 2013-14, Smart's program ranked sixth in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency.
One longtime coach told SI.com that the Smart's press is tremendously difficult to beat.
"VCU's press is as good as I've ever faced in coaching," said Belmont's Rick Byrd, who has been the head coach there since 1986. "I don't care what you try to do -- they're still going to speed you up and make guys uncomfortable."
Other than his defenses, Smart is known for his charismatic personality and motivational techniques, quoting Shakespeare or reading Sun Tzu at times, but still possessing the capability and willingness to spend a week going through Navy SEAL-style training with his players. His engaging personality should also play well on the Longhorn Network, an important job requirement at Texas.
Part of his skill as a motivator is his ability to instill confidence in those around him.
"He believes in people more than they believe in themselves," assistant coach Mike Morrell told NBCSports.com. "He does that with players, GAs, managers, assistant coaches. He's done it to me. He sees what we can be better than we can. He sees what's in us."
Smart's charisma paid off on the recruiting trail over the last several seasons, particularly in 2014, when the Rams landed the consensus No. 34 prospect in Terry Larrier and two other power forwards ranked among the top 131 prospects nationally. Larrier was the highest-rated recruit to ink with VCU since 1990, while the overall haul showcased Smart's ability to recruit nationally since none of the players were from Virginia.
So the proven track record of Smart as a recruiter helps alleviate concerns about his transition to the Texas job, which could take some time as he molds the roster to suit his preferred style of play -- his defensive strategies requires quick, hyper-competitive on-ball defenders and, ideally, a mobile rim protector as the last line of defense for when opponents break the press with numbers.
It may not happen in 2015-16, but in the near future, Texas fans will be able to watch a fast-paced, high-intensity style of basketball that should invigorate the fan base and help sell the fundraising efforts of Patterson as he commences plans to build a new basketball venue to showcase Smart's program.
A new era of Texas basketball is set to begin. Welcome aboard, Coach Smart.