published Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Mark Wiedmer: Smart shoppers lining up

Call it the Curse of Shaka Smart.

Ever since the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball coach seemingly came out of nowhere to, um, Shak-ingly guide his Rams to the 2011 Final Four, luring him away from the Richmond, Va., school has become the top priority of every major college athletic director unhappy with his or her current men's hoops boss.

As of yet, Smart has resisted all offers, apparently content to make a reported $1.4 million annually to work in a relatively pressure-free environment in one of the South's most invigorated cities.

But the chance to lure Smart away from that almost assuredly played a role in the somewhat surprising announcements over the past 36 hours that UCLA has parted company with Ben Howland after 10 seasons and Minnesota has severed ties with Tubby Smith after six years.

Both schools are said to have Smart at the top of their wish list after he guided the Rams to at least the third round of the NCAA tourney for a third straight year. Also, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague hired Smart at VCU.

And it's hard to argue with their desires. Smart -- who will turn 36 on April 8, the day of the national title game -- has never won fewer than 27 games and directs a wide-open, fan-friendly style that perfectly fits UCLA athletic director AD Dan Guerrero's stated desire to "bring someone here who excites the fan base. ... We want to play a fun brand of basketball, but a quality brand of basketball where we have the fundamentals and defend."

The Rams certainly have displayed all of those under Smart, producing 3s and thefts with equal proficiency.

Yet whether Smart can be lured to either Westwood or Lake Wobegone by bigger pay and brighter lights, the ousters of Howland and Smith are sobering reminders of how much is expected of coaches everywhere these days.

For to merely go back five years to the close of the 2007-08 season would be to find Howland and Smith on nearly everyone's list of the college game's 10 best coaches.

Howland had just guided his Bruins to their third straight Final Four appearance. Smith had just won 20 games in his first year with the Gophers after guiding Kentucky to one national championship and four Elite Eight appearances in his decade in the Bluegrass.

But despite those glowing resumes -- and the fact that both coaches reached this year's NCAA tournament, Minnesota ironically knocking out UCLA in the second round -- both men are now without jobs.

Surprising? Maybe. Troubling? Depends on how much you should expect for $2 million or more a season.

In Smith's case, you get the feeling he was almost ready to move on. Rumors have circulated for a year or two of his interest in a number of jobs below the Mason-Dixon line -- Auburn, Georgia Tech, Miami, Mississippi State, to name onlly four -- and it would not be surprising to see him return somewhere in the South in the next few weeks.

Nevertheless, Teague also may have given future suitors pause to wonder if the 61-year-old Smith might not need a break when he said Monday: "We feel it's time for a fresh set of eyes for our student-athletes and our program in general."

A fresh set of eyes? After winning the school its first NCAA tourney game since Smith took over? Don't look for Teague to get any AARP seal of approval anytime soon.

Yet these Gophers also started 15-1 before finishing 21-13 after a 14-point loss to Florida on Sunday evening. Making almost $2 million a year, Smith will receive a $2.5 million buyout as a consolation prize.

Howland's dismissal is more complicated. Yes, there were the three straight Final Fours. But the Bruins also missed the tournament entirely in two of the three seasons before this one and have now missed the Sweet 16 for five straight years -- the school's longest such drought in the post-John Wooden era.

Fair or not, when your employer has won a record 11 NCAA titles, you need to do better than Howland has done to keep both your boss and fan base happy.

But a single quote from Guerrero also should raise a red flag for Smart or whomever else UCLA pursues.

Because the Bruins won the Pac 12 regular-season title before falling to Oregon in the league tourney title game after second-leading scorer Jordan Adams went down with a season-ending injury the night before, someone asked if Howland might still be there if Adams hadn't been hurt and the Bruins had won.

"When you look at that particular injury and what was left of our roster," Guerrero told ESPN, "the fact that we had such a depleted roster is part of the reason for making the decision," he said.

Note to Smart: Make sure you never count on a player so much that his injury could cost you a postseason game or two.

Or, better yet, stay at VCU and hope that the next time Guerrero wants to make a coaching change after a 25-win season, the fans show him all the love he did Howland.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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