Why Shaka Smart would be a great fit at Illinois

Why Shaka Smart would be a great fit at Illinois

With the Bruce Weber termination in Champaign all but official, it’s time for Illini fans to start looking at who his successor will be. And there’s a lot of factors pointing in the direction of VCU leader Shaka Smart. He’s currently making $1.2 million per year now at Virginia Commonwealth on an eight year deal. Before his Final Four run, he made “just” $350,000 per season. He could have gotten even longer dough at NC State, as they offered him about $2 million a year for 6 years.

So that’s what it’s going to cost, in addition to the $3.9 million Weber buyout. Therefore, in order to spend money to make money, to break some eggs to prepare that omelet, Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas needs a splash hire. Perhaps he’s got the wheels in motion already.


Illinois needs a HUGE hire for quite a few reasons.

First, Bruce Weber’s biggest crime was not spring-boarding the 2005 National title game appearance into more. “All of the lights” as Kanye would say, associated with coaching the team that tied the NCAA single season record for victories led to…..a second round exit the next season, barely squeaking in the tourney the following year, and a school record for losses just three years removed from being national runner-up. Unacceptable on multiple fronts.

Following that magical ’05 run, USA Today had a poll among 14-year-old males asking them to identify the most visible college basketball programs- Illinois was 5th. You can’t buy publicity like that, and Weber used that in recruiting top tier prospects like…Eric Gordon, who went Judas on him, and defected at the last possible second to the Indiana Hoosiers and one of the most corrupt college coaches in history. And there's Jereme Richmond, who left school after one season for the NBA draft, got charged with aggravated battery, unlawful use of a weapon (he's now on probation) and didn’t get drafted.  He now plays for a pro team that plays its home games in a high school gym.

Weber failed to use the glamor to land first tier talent, and even struggled getting a lot of second tier guys. He just wasn’t flashy; the next guy needs to be.

Interesting read from Lost Lettermen on this very topic, note this excerpt:

Fiction: Illinois fans believe the Illini coaching job is in the second cut of college basketball coaching gigs with Syracuse, Michigan State, Connecticut, Louisville, Georgetown and Arizona right behind the blue bloods (North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Indiana).

Fact: Illinois is squarely in the third cut of jobs with the likes of Maryland, Villanova, Purdue, Pitt and NC State. And you see the trouble both NC State and Maryland had filling their jobs last year with the inability to land Shaka Smart at either place.

Case in point: What does it say about the Illinois job that then-Marquette coach Tom Crean wasn’t interested in 2003 and then took the job at Indiana with the program on its knees and huge NCAA sanctions looming over it? The result was hiring Weber, a woefully under-qualified coach from Southern Illinois.

Some Illini fans may not want to believe that, but this is a brutally honest big boy news website. When you come here put on your big boy pants because we’re going to give you brutally honest truth.

(note: I don't agree with the assessment that Weber was woefully under-qualified though. I think he's a great mid-major level coach, and a below par high-major level coach)


Secondly, Thomas got a pass on the football coach hire because college football expectations in Champaign are low compared to basketball.

While you have to hire Shaka Smart (or equivalent) now in hoops, you could sort of get away with hiring Chaka Khan (or equivalent) in football. There were quite a few jobs better than Illinois open this past December so for the Illini to end up with Tim Beckman, someone no one had heard of, although disappointing, was not unexpected. Beckman was anything but an exciting hire, and probably not the school’s first choice, so the hoops one needs to be both. In Thomas defense, the pool of candidates was a bit underwhelming. What was so special about Kevin Sumlin?

And also both Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio were unknown when they were hired at Michigan State, so you never know how Beckman will pan out.

Thirdly, race could be a factor in the decision-making process.

Two UI board of trustee members voted against the appointment of Beckman, citing their disappointment with the lack of African-American men’s basketball and football head coaches hired by the school. Beckman’s contract was approved by 10 of the 12 trustees. However, James Montgomery and Lawrence Oliver II were the two trustees to vote against the appointment because Illinois has never hired an African-American men’s basketball or football head coach. The only other Big Ten school with such a dubious distinction is Purdue. It’s safe to say that qualified minority candidates will be given top priority in the hiring process.

Finally, if Illinois is going all in, they should get return on investment.

Smart grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and loves the city of Chicago. He threw out the first ball at a Chicago Cubs game a couple years ago. So he has strong Midwestern ties. The big wig donors ready to spend their money must truly believe something special is in the pipeline. Thomas committed the money to buy out Zook and now he’s ready to spend even more money buying out Weber. Unlike in football, he’s not competing with any primo open coaching jobs elsewhere in hoops. Both Thomas and Smart were at Akron University a few years ago, so obviously there’s a connection. Is it strong enough to bring Shaka to Champaign?

On paper, it all adds up.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.


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  • Absolutely, and I am glad you are starting dialogue about the possibility. Now I'm on that bandwagon. Smart or Bust!!!

    Great read. And I had my Big Boy pants on!

  • "So that’s what it’s going to cost, in addition to the $3.9 million Weber buyout." Not mentioned, but I figure, what it will take to buy out VCU to get Smart out of his contract. After all, technically it is a lateral move."

    And since you mentioned race, there was the commotion over Jimmy Collins not getting the U of I job and being sent to UIC.

    However, I have this feeling that Yvette Marie Stevens already has a song to welcome him (as implied by your football coach remark). Like TSOP ("Soul Train, Soul Train, dah dah.."), a certain song keeps running in my head.

  • Shaka Smart is one of the finest college BB coaches out there. I was going to write "up-and-coming" coaches, but the guy has already arrived in my opinion. Illinois would be lucky to have Shaka. He will have a lot of big-time programs going after him.

  • This is nice but what about Simeon's head coach Robert Smith? They need someone who wants to stay there forever.

  • @Curtis I'm excited too "big slices, that's how you cut the cake!"

    @Jack yes, you are correct, i forgot to mention Shaka's buyout since that info isn't available publicly. I'm assuming it's probably around $1.2-2 million.

    so $3.9 + 2 which they would pay him per year, plus the buyout equals $8 million to get this done...like Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri said "money ain't a thang" right?

  • oh yeah Jimmy Collins, race played a factor in why so many in the UI community were upset he wasn't given a true chance to be Lou Henson's successor. Especially since he had all the recruiting ties in the Chicago public league. given how bad at coaching, and corrupt he turned out to be, good thing Illinois didn't go there.

  • @gwill I think he's arrived too. A lot of teams will be after Brad Stevens as well

    @Evan Bill Self leaving after three years, and the short tenure of Lon Kruger have certainly heightened that feeling in Champaign

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