Texas hires VCU’s Shaka Smart as new basketball coach

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Shaka Smart has been a hot coaching commodity since leading Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four in 2011. He had reportedly shunned several big-time offers, but the lure of Texas was finally too much to turn down.

Texas officials formally announced the hiring of Smart as the Longhorns’ new basketball coach Friday and expect to introduce him at a news conference on campus. The announcement from Texas came a day after Smart met with athletic director Steve Patterson in Richmond, Virginia, to strike a deal.

Smart met with VCU players Thursday evening at the Siegel Center, the team’s home arena, and at least one player was seen crying when he left.

Smart, who has won at least 26 games in each of his six seasons at VCU, is bolting for a Texas program that hasn’t been able to unseat Kansas atop the Big 12. But the Longhorns also boast the wealthiest athletic department in the country and easy access to some of the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds in Dallas and Houston.

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Smart replaces Rick Barnes, who was fired last weekend after 17 seasons.

Terms of Smart’s contract were not immediately released and VCU said a statement would be released Friday. Barnes made $2.62 million last season, while Smart made $1.8 million with the Rams.

Patterson had zeroed in on bringing Smart to Texas immediately after firing Barnes.

Smart did not speak to the media gathered Thursday and VCU players were escorted from the building by university public relations without offering comments.

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That Barnes was pushed out shows Patterson, a former NBA executive, expects big things from basketball. Barnes won three Big 12 titles and recruited elite talent to Austin. Former Longhorns T.J. Ford (2003) and Kevin Durant (2007) won national player of the year honors.

But the program had plateaued and the early-round exits in the NCAA Tournament started to mount, despite rosters full of future NBA talent.

At VCU, Smart took over a program that had had great success under Jeff Capel, and then Anthony Grant. He hopes to avoid the pitfalls at Texas that his predecessors encountered when they left to take over programs at universities considered “football schools.”

Capel lasted five years at Oklahoma before being fired, and Grant spent six at Alabama before he was dismissed.

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By leaving before May 1, Smart owes VCU a $500,000 buyout. His contract also contains a provision that if he became a head coach at another institution, that school would have to play VCU in a home-and-home series, or pay VCU $250,000.

Barnes led Texas to 16 NCAA Tournaments in 17 seasons but his teams haven’t made it out of the first weekend since 2008.

His best years came from 2003-2008, when Texas made its first Final Four in more than 50 years and twice more reached the tournament’s final eight. Texas also earned the program’s first No. 1 ranking during the 2009-2010 season.

Smart had some success right away at VCU when the Rams won the CBI postseason tournament in his first year.

But it was VCU’s monumental run in the NCAA Tournament the following year that really got Smart noticed. The Rams went from being a questionable selection, barely getting a bid and playing in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, to beating five major-conference schools to reach the Final Four.

The Rams have been back in the NCAA Tournament each of the past four seasons, but were eliminated in the round of 32 in 2012 and 2013 and lost their first game in overtime each of the past two seasons.

Beyond the Final Four run, this year might have been Smart’s best coaching job at VCU.

The Rams lost Briante Weber, the leader of their “havoc” defensive style, on Jan. 31 to a knee injury, and played the last month and a half with scoring leader Treveon Graham bothered by a high left ankle sprain, sometimes even sidelined.

VCU (26-10) lost six of 10 late in the season, enduring its first three-game slide in Smart’s six seasons, before winning five straight, including four in four days, to win the Atlantic 10 title.

Smart’s 26 wins in six consecutive seasons is a feat matched only by Duke. With the interest he has generated in VCU basketball, a $25 million basketball practice facility is under construction and scheduled to be ready for use in the fall.