According to a report released Wednesday afternoon from the Chicago-Sun Times, VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart has turned down the offer to coach at Illinois.
Smart was offered $2.5 million a year to become the coach for the Big Ten program, the Times reported. The Illinois job is figured to be the most lucrative coaching position to open up this year, as well as the most prestigious in terms of program exposure and potential.
Those two carrots, however, were not enticing enough for Smart. He could not be lured away from a program that may soon have the same kind of prestige and opportunities—at least in basketball—that a Big Ten or other power-conference school enjoys.
In a statement released by VCU, Smart said he is “looking forward to building on the successes of our program and university.” That statement may sound a bit cliché, but it’s exactly what two other extremely successful mid-major coaches have already done.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few and more recently, Butler’s Brad Stevens, repeatedly shook off opportunities to coach at larger schools with more resources and prestige.
In the cases of both Few and Stevens, the chance to build on their early successes—Few reached the Sweet 16 his first two years, Stevens made two NCAA title games within his first four years—and create a brand-name program at the mid-major level was important to each of them. The fact that both Few, from the northwest, and Stevens, from Indiana, were coaching in their home areas also played a big role in their decisions.
Smart is not from Virginia, or the East Coast for that matter. However, the opportunity to build something similar to what Few already has at Gonzaga, and that Stevens appears to be in the midst of doing at Butler, has proven to be quite powerful.
Under the continued direction of Smart—still not even 35 years old—VCU has the chance to be the “Gonzaga of the East.” Think about what that could do for the program, particularly in regards to recruiting, scheduling and television appearances.
Gonzaga consistently gets some of the top talent on the west coast, players who turned down offers from top Pac-12 schools (I know that didn’t mean a whole lot his year) to go play in relatively unexciting Spokane, but at a high-caliber program. Under Smart, VCU could become a serious player in pulling in some big-time players from the DC and Virginia Beach areas, each loaded with talent.
What helped make Gonzaga what they now are was its willingness to schedule anybody, anywhere outside the West Coast Conference. Winning some of those games against power-conference teams away from home got Gonzaga the attention and respect needed to become a perennial NCAA Tournament team.
Now, teams have enough respect for the Gonzaga program that they are willing to travel all the way out west to play them (i.e. Michigan State this past December).
For Smart and VCU, with the many strong leagues on the east coast—Big East, ACC, Atlantic 10, among others—it has plenty of potential high-quality opponents available as long as it is willing to travel, at least initially.
In terms of exposure, last year’s Final Four run combined with the now well-known branding of the “havoc” style of defense that VCU plays has generated plenty of fan interest in seeing the team play on television. Smart and the VCU program will have an opportunity to build on that interest by playing higher-profile opponents and having those games televised.
For Smart and his program, the opportunities to build on the success of the last two years are definitely there. He does not plan on having VCU be just a one-or-two-year sensation, but a household name that holds just as much weight as Gonzaga or Butler on the national landscape.
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