Shaka Smart ’99 is the head coach of the men’s basketball team for the University of Texas at Austin. As the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth University’s men’s basketball team, he led his team to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in 2011. VCU was the first 11th seed to make it to the final four. Over his career, Smart’s teams have an overall record of 194 wins and 91 losses, with six appearances in the Division One NCAA tournament. He will speak to the graduating class of 2017 on Saturday.
Any specific moments that you particularly remember throughout your time at Kenyon?
Yeah, there’s all kinds man. I’m still working on my graduation speech so I don’t want to give you anything I’m going to put in my speech. Well, before I even got to Kenyon, Peter Rutkoff called me. And, you know, the basketball coach at the time Bill Brown asked him to call me, and so he called me and he was supposed to talk to me about Kenyon and why it would be a good spot for me. But we ended up talking on the phone for like 30 or 40 minutes about the Civil War and the civil rights movement, and all kinds of history stuff, so I could tell from the beginning he was going to be a good friend.
How did you get into the world of coaching? Is it something you discovered you wanted to do after Kenyon, or did you always have a passion for it?
Well two things: one, I had coached my younger brother who’s five years younger than me on some different sports teams, like basketball and soccer. So, you know, obviously it is way different coaching your younger brother in youth sports than it is coaching college, but I just, I got a kick out of coaching. I thought it was fun and I liked the strategy part of the game and then probably more importantly, my coach that recruited me to Kenyon, and he left after my freshman year. It was one of the worst days of my life, because he was a father figure to me and someone that I was really close to. So when he left it was really sad, but the one silver lining was he told me when he left ― he said, when you get done playing, I’d like you to come work for me and get into coaching. And so, that’s what I did.
How do you think your experience at Kenyon shaped the way you approach your career and the sporting world?
It wasn’t so much about my career, it was just more about shaping me. And, you know Kenyon is a place where you learn to love learning. So for me in my career and in my life, I have just been fortunate that I really enjoy learning new things and having new experiences. I would definitely trace that back to Kenyon.
I read in a few articles that you did not grow up with a father figure in your life, and I was wondering how you think this has affected how you see yourself as a coach and how you build relationships with your players?
Well, it’s more the fact that, for me, ever since I was young, the coach ― in a variety of sports, but specifically basketball ― has kind of played that role for me as someone that I really looked up to and put on a pedestal, like he was just everything and his opinion was everything and I wanted to please him and I wanted to get his approval. And I would always be looking out of the corner of my eye to see if he was watching. And that was a variety of coaches, but specifically my high school basketball coach and Bill Brown, the coach that recruited me to Kenyon and coached me my first year. Those guys, they really spent a lot of time with me and invested in me as a person. They really effected a lot of change in me, and so that created a desire on my part to do the same thing for guys that I coach or at least try to.
Now after your VCU run in 2011, you and your team got a lot of media attention, and I was wondering, was it difficult to handle your new status as a celebrity, and how did you keep your team grounded in a time when all eyes seemed to be on them?
We just tried to focus on doing what’s next. You know, we tried to focus on what was in front of us as opposed to what was behind us. In terms of any kind of status, you know, that’s something that was out of our control, so we really tried not to put too much into it. So it revolved around just focusing on the present and focusing on what we can control.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.