Voluntarily leaving the position of coach at Texas to become the coach at Marquette, on a surface level, doesn’t make much sense considering the UT job is the better job and actually considered one of the best jobs in college basketball because of its incredible resources and natural recruiting base. So some were surprised Friday morning when Shaka Smart agreed in principle to become the Golden Eagles’ next coach.But, as always, the context matters.Which is why it’s hard to intelligently argue Smart didn’t make a wise move when he left Texas for Marquette just six days after losing to Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And, yes, those two developments are almost certainly connected. Emergency podcast: Reacting to Shaka Smart’s move from Texas to Marquette. Smart led the Longhorns to a to 19-8 record this season. They finished tied for third in the Big 12. They won the Big 12 Tournament. They secured a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was a good season.But it ended poorly — with a 53-52 loss to Abilene Christian. Consequently, Texas fans quickly went right back to where they were heading into this season, which is to say looking forward to the day they could move on from Smart, whose six years in the Big 12 were up and down and devoid of a single NCAA Tournament win. The good is that he recruited well, made three of the past five NCAA Tournaments despite losing his leading scorer midseason twice, and finished no worse than tied for third in the league standings each of the past two years. The bad is that horrific loss to Abilene Christian that dropped Smart to 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament since replacing Rick Barnes. Was Smart about to be fired? No, I’m told.
But there’s no denying he would’ve entered next season, his seventh season, with real job-pressure at Texas and as the face of literally every hot-seat list. Could he have won his way out of those circumstances? Perhaps. But I’ve long believed, and stated, that once a coach gets on the hot seat, he never really gets off of it because he’s usually just one more bad season from getting whacked nearly regardless of what happens between now and then. Tom Crean at Indiana is a great example. Crean entered the 2015-16 season on everybody’s hot-seat list and thus in need of a good season to keep his job. He responded by winning his second outright Big Ten title and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. So he kept his job. But the following season, he went 18-16 and finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten. So then he lost his job. And it didn’t matter that he’d just won an outright Big Ten title a year earlier — or that future NBA player OG Anunoby was limited to just 16 games because of an injury. By that time, Indiana fans had stopped believing in Crean. So his next bad season was always going to be his last. And it was. Shaka Smart was in a similar situation at Texas. He could’ve coached the Longhorns next season, if he wanted. But when you’re picking between a win-or-get fired situation at Texas, where the fans have turned on you, or a great Big East job with wonderful facilities and tradition, in a terrific city with a fresh set of expectations, honestly, it’s not a hard decision from the perspective of quality of life and career preservation. Whether this turns into a good thing for Texas will ultimately be reliant on what Texas does next, specifically whether the school can lure Texas Tech’s Chris Beard or someone similarly great. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that Marquette did about as well as it could do in replacing Steve Wojciechowski. The Golden Eagles are getting a 43 year-old former Final Four coach who has led his team — first at VCU, then at Texas — to eight of the past 10 NCAA Tournaments while solidifying himself as a major player on the recruiting trail. So, I think, Marquette made a really smart move here.
But what Shaka Smart just did is even smarter.