Not A Smart Move

Last Saturday night, the Texas Longhorns men’s basketball team, led by new coach Shaka Smart, rolled into the Bay Area to take on the Stanford Cardinal. This came as news to me, as I was barely aware that the college basketball season had even begun yet.

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Most likely, a sizable majority of the sports fan population is in the same boat. With the NFL still in high gear, the NBA and NHL well into their seasons, and the bowl games having just begun–on top of the fact that there’s all that Christmas to-do to do–it’s likely that almost nobody cares about college basketball right now.

Indeed, why should any of us care about it all? The players themselves don’t care about college basketball; witness all the “one-and-done” careers for those who ostensibly should care about it most of all. And, as his local appearance with Texas attests, even coaches like Smart don’t really care about college basketball.

The DFR logo with BasketballIt may seem wildly off base to make such a claim. Smart has a good reputation among the ranks of college coaches. And he must care something about his chosen field, as he has become one of the rising stars among NCAA coaches. That’s how he attained the head coaching position in Austin that he now holds.

Yet, if you look at the situation dispassionately–and set aside the hype and humbug that inevitably surrounds college sports–it’s difficult to draw any other conclusion besides the idea that, for Smart and others in his profession, the good of the overall game takes a small, cramped, uncomfortable backseat to other considerations.

Will VCU and other mid-majors continue to be satisfied with playing second fiddle to a select few schools? Or will they ever get wise and stop playing this rigged game?

Consider: Smart made his reputation by building Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball program into a “mid-major” powerhouse. In six seasons with VCU’s Rams, Smart never won less than 26 games and made the NCAA Tournament 3 times, including a Final Four appearance in 2011. (It’s worth noting that VCU had success before Smart’s tenure, under coaches Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel, including 10 straight winning seasons and 3 Tournament bids–but Smart definitely raised the school’s stature, including its move from the Colonial Athletic Conference to the Atlantic 10.) His record of achievement allowed Smart to move on to Austin, presumably for a major pay raise and certainly where he will face major expectations to take the Longhorns to heights to what the Rams achieved.

Given all the advantages that go with coaching the Longhorns–substantially more money, a much higher profile athletic program, a (presumably) much better chance to land top recruits–moving from VCU to Texas would appear to be a no-brainer. Except…if you look at the overall record of both schools, you may start to wonder.

Number of Final Four appearances in the last five years: VCU 1, Texas 0. The figures are the same for last ten years. Indeed, the Longhorns have not made the Final Four since their only appearance in 2002-03–twelve long years of either losing in a Regional Final, dropping out after one or two rounds, or (in one instance) not even making the Tournament at all.  That probably explains why Rick Barnes, despite a record of winning that was arguably superior to Smart’s, was shown the door by the folks in Austin.

Despite the presumed advantages of coaching for the University of Texas–which is, among other things, the largest-endowed state university in the country–you can make a pretty good case that Smart had a more advantageous situation at VCU–certainly in terms of expectations and ability to meet them, at the very least.

Of course, that huge endowment is the real crux of the matter. Texas had the ability to pay Smart far more money to coach their team than VCU could ever hope to offer. And that’s where the question rises: which does Shaka Smart care more about? College basketball? Or the money?

When Smart led the Rams to the Final Four five seasons ago, it was a result that was unexpected and fresh and interesting. There’s a reason why “Cinderella” pixie dust routinely blankets coverage of the NCAA Tournament. It would be great and exciting for college basketball–and a validation for the sport’s competitiveness–if a “mid-major” were to make a bracket-busting run through the tournament and win the whole thing. Basketball fans far and wide would undoubtedly delight in such an outcome. Cinderella stories get played up in March because people are starved to see exactly that sort of thing happen.

And if Texas wins it all? Not so much.

Yes, anyone who roots for the Longhorns would find delight in such an outcome; Texas fans are known for being rabid about their Longhorns, and if the men’s hoops team could win its first ever national championship, many, many folks would stand up and cheer.

But outside that large but hardly universal circle, not nearly as many as would be so excited. Texas is already college sports royalty, despite it’s arguably underachieving basketball team. If you ask most fans–setting aside direct rooting interests–they’d probably tell you ten times out of ten that they’d prefer to see VCU win the championship rather than Texas.

Small wonder. It’s healthy for a sport when any team that competes in the field has a legitimate chance to win the championship. And that simply isn’t the case in college basketball. Currently, there are roughly 350 Division I basketball programs; only 35 have ever won the NCAA Tournament. That’s a Champs-Chumps ratio of 10%–a pitiful measurement of the competitiveness within men’s basketball. Whatever the March hype may say, come tournament time the Cinderellas get quickly escorted out of the ball so that the approved members of the exclusive club can claim the prize one more time.

How might an outsider school break into that exclusive club? Having a good young coach like Smart can raise a school up to that cusp of membership. But when Smart leaves VCU for Texas, or when Brad Stevens leaves Butler for the NBA…or even when Mike Krzyzewski leaves Army to take over Duke, the status quo is reinforced: the chosen schools continue to win, and everyone else gets to play patsy for them. Because when a coach who can make that difference–between just another school and a national title hopeful–leaves for greener (read: wealthier) pastures, it inevitably tears down everything that that talented individual has built up at the school left in the dust.

So while Shaka Smart’s move to Texas may have been good for him personally, how good was it really for college basketball? Will the Rams fade back into obscurity? Probably. (They’re 6-5 as of this writing–not exactly looking like world-beaters.) Will VCU and other mid-majors continue to be satisfied with playing second fiddle to a select few schools? Or will they ever get wise and stop playing this rigged game, and perhaps leave D1 to the teams with all the advantages and compete on their own, substantially more level playing field? The NFL has demonstrated the power of parity to make a good game that much more appealing; knowing your chosen team actually has a chance to win it all builds the kind of interest that most businesses can only dream about.

And the supreme irony of it all? One wonders if Smart will actually find fulfillment in Austin. After all, it will not be good enough for Smart to simply match his predecessor’s achievements. Texas dumped the highly successful Barnes not for more of the same, but for better results. If Smart can’t make the Final Four with the Longhorns–and soon–Texas’s patience may run out very quickly. And then Smart’s move may not turn out to have been so smart after all–and it would turn out to have not done anyone–the coach, the schools, the game–any good at all.


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