Shaka Smart to the Illini would make sense on many levels


shaka smart

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 Jereme Richmond, who left school early, didn’t get drafted, allegedly beat his girlfriend with a gun and 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, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, 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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  1. You listed a ton of reasons as to why Illinois would want Shaka, but not a single reason that Shaka would leave VCU for Illinois. This is especially important since he’s already turned down TWO of the schools that your article puts on the “same tier” as Illinois. Both Maryland and NC State offered Shaka.

  2. don’t think that just cuz he said no to Maryland to NCSU he’ll turn down Illinois. it’s totally different situations. I added in Smart’s Midwest ties, which will play a role.

    But the main lure is $$$ and making the jump from mid-major to high-major prestige/status

  3. I take it you’ve never spoken with Shaka before.

  4. That article has so many things that it got wrong in regards to Illinois. First, I’ll trust people like Doug Gottlieb, Jay Bilas, etc. in regards to where the Illinois basketball coaching position is situated among programs over some blogger.

    Second, your thoughts on the Tim Beckman hire are also completely off base. Anyone who did any research for their own actually did know who Tim Beckman was and knew that he was very much an up and comer in the coaching ranks. Many of the fans withheld judgement on the hire until they researched him for their own at which point they quickly figured out that this was a VERY solid hire and one that will likely lead to positive results.

    Other than most of the article being wrong, it was well done!

    Oh and by the way, any VCU fans thinking Shaka will stay there for the long haul are living in a dream land. He may not leave for Illinois but he’ll be leaving for somewhere soon.

  5. Two inaccuracies in that blog post. First, Nebraska has also not had an AA HC in football or basketball in addition to Purdue. Second, There never has been any evidence that Tom Crean turnewd down an offer from Illinois in 2003. Calling a press conference to issue a denial of interest (what Crean did) is merely self-promotion.

  6. paulmbanks says

    ok, I guess I was an idiot on this one. a delusional Illinois alum

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