This is not an article I will enjoy writing. I am not generally a person who gets a kick out of advocating for a person to lose their job because I understand the impact it has. Being fired means this person will have to uproot their family and relocate in whatever town will hire them. They have to put their kids into new schools, the kids have to find new friends, utility bills have to be sorted out, homes have to be bought and sold; it’s a lot. This happens not just to the head coach, but in all likelihood the three assistant coaches and a number of support staff. Advocating for a coaching change is advocating for a major disruption to a lot of lives.
There needs to be a rational view of the situation, one not swayed by an individual performance in a 30+ game season or even - in most instances - a single season in a tenure. 90% of D-I programs have ups and downs, talent cycles which peak and ebb, and not every season is going to end in March Madness. Coaches deserve a mulligan once in awhile if they’re performing well overall, even Roy Williams misses the NCAA Tournament here and there. Consideration needs to be given to the whole picture, including off-court issues such as graduation rates and whether the men in their charge stay out of trouble. These are all valid variables in the equation, all things that must be considered.
Injuries are as often as not freak occurrences; no amount of preparation can keep Jase Febres’ knee from bending the wrong way going for a loose ball, no stretch can 100% prevent a Kamaka Hepa high ankle sprain, and even responsible lifting programs created by a strength & conditioning coach with a Masters in sports biomechanics can’t guarantee Jericho Sims will make it through the season without injuring his back. High-major college basketball involves elite athletes pushing their body to the limit over and over again, and being on the bleeding edge means injuries are inevitable. They aren’t Shaka Smart’s fault.
These are some of the defenses you are likely to hear from the people who believe Shaka Smart deserves a sixth season. They are all valid points, and they deserve to be listened to. If an athletic director is making an informed decision on whether or not to retain a staff, he or she must take the pros and the cons into account and judge them accordingly. The athletic director is making a multi-million dollar decision, not just with the head coach but all of the resources that must be allocated to searching for and vetting a replacement as well as the bureaucratic energy devoted to onboarding a new hire who will be one of the highest-paid employees in the state of Texas. This is not a decision to be made lightly, and it is not as black and white as we may like to believe from the outside.
I came into this season believing a couple of things:
- This is finally, truly Shaka Smart’s team. There are zero players from Rick Barnes left on the squad, so every player who is (or is not) on the team is a statement of what Shaka Smart believes constitutes a successful team. These are his choices, they are - to the extent a coach can control recruiting - the players he wanted here in year 5. This is the Shaka Smart control sample, the team with the fewest variables from the tenure proceeding Shaka Smart.
- The performance of this team will be a good barometer for the next two years because there are no seniors, so what happens this year will portend (for better or worse) what we can reasonably expect in 2020-2021. If this team does not succeed, there isn’t a lot of reason to expect largely the same roster and coaching staff to significantly outperform next year. Greg Brown committing to Texas would alter this somewhat, but the house can only be built so high if the foundation is not very solid.
38-53 against Big 12 opponents
2-4 in the Big 12 Tournament
0 NCAA Tournament wins
1 winning record in Big 12 conference play
These are the totals during Shaka Smart’s tenure as of today. There is little reason to believe they will meaningfully change in the last 6+ games of the season, and there is less reason to believe next year things will be meaningfully better. Shaka Smart has made a number of well-reasoned changes over the years to address issues as they arise; Neill Berry and Luke Yaklich were good hires at the time and in their first year we saw improvement from each side of the ball. It wasn’t enough. Other than one 11-22 season, Shaka Smart’s tenure has been defined by an ability to get nearly where they need to be but never actually get there. I do not believe he will get over the hump in Year Six, or Year Seven, or Year Eight.
1-10 vs Kansas Jayhawks
2-9 vs Baylor Bears
The dataset is in front of us, the sample size is large enough to draw conclusions. This is not where Texas fans want to be, it is not where Texas basketball should be peaking; two NCAA Tournament bids in 5 years, zero wins, one win in 11 tries against Kansas. These are not acceptable results. No matter how good a person Shaka Smart is, no matter how much he truly believes in building men instead of simply churning out players, at the end of it all he and his staff are paid to win basketball games.
I wish Shaka Smart and his family well, I hope he finds a new place to start fresh and can build a program that succeeds at the level his new fanbase desires. I still believe he is a good coach and that somewhere down the road he will be at the helm of a successful high-major program, but his tenure here should end in March.