Section: Sports

Smart to coach at Univ. of Texas

Smart to coach at Univ. of Texas

By Anna Dunlavey

Shaka Smart ’99 started making national headlines in 2011 after coaching Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to an NCAA Final Four appearance. Most recently, he signed a contract with the University of Texas at Austin to be their new head men’s basketball coach, making him the first African-American basketball coach in University of Texas history. However, the Kenyon community has known him for much longer. Smart was a Lord, playing on the basketball team for all four of his years at Kenyon before entering the Division I coaching scene.

Smart lived up to his last name when he was a Kenyon student, graduating magna cum laude with an honors degree in history. Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, Smart’s adviser, taught him all four years and described him as “a wonderful, excellent student.”

David Houston ’00, who was Smart’s teammate for three years, said Smart was a great teammate. He added that Smart was “very competitive, but not competitive in a way that was negative. He just wanted to drive himself and others to be as good as they could possibly be.”

After graduating from Kenyon, Smart earned a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) postgraduate scholarship, and worked at a graduate assistant at California University of Pennsylvania. He later became the director of basketball operations at the University of Dayton, and then was an assistant coach at three different schools before becoming head coach for VCU in 2010.

In 2011, which was only his second season as head coach for VCU, he led the team to the final four in the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s history. Before Smart, the program had not even reached the sweet 16. In total, Smart coached VCU through five straight NCAA tournament appearances.

Kenyon graduates eagerly followed Smart’s rise to national fame. Dave Rath ’89 started a Facebook group in 2011 for Kenyon graduates who support Smart. “I did it as a way to serve as a fan club for him,” Rath said. “It was a way of keeping the Kenyon community together.”

Rath said people use the group sporadically, but that participation picks up around March Madness time each year. Joan O’Hanlon Curry ’89, another member of the group, said being in the group makes watching games more interesting, saying the group members are often “actively commenting in that page while the game [is] going on.”

Smart has always been known as a coach who truly cared for his players and their best interests, serving as a mentor for them on and off the court. “He’s dedicated to the players,” Curry said. “It wasn’t about a paycheck.”

Rutkoff equated Smart’s coaching to teaching. “He’s a teacher, and it just happens to be basketball that he’s teaching,” he said. “He’s a teacher of a subject to people who are becoming grown-ups, and he understands that’s his job, to help them become responsible, mature adults.”

In a day and age where many players hear of their coach leaving via social media, Smart met his entire team in their facilities and told them in-person, before any major news source officially broke his signing with Texas.

Despite his connection to his players, many people were not surprised when Smart left VCU for the job at Texas. “At some point, he was going to make this jump,” Houston said. Rath agreed. “I think it was a matter of time,” he said. “Everyone has aspirations to move on.”

Rutkoff said that no matter where his coaching career takes him, Smart won’t let anything change him. “He’s basically the same guy I knew when he was 17,” said Rutkoff, who tries to go to at least one of Smart’s games a year. “He’s very true to himself and his character.”

Check out next week’s Collegian for a Q & A with Shaka Smart.

John Bray contributed reporting.

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