Shaka and $1.2 mill

Two days ago, before Virginia Commonwealth University announced that Shaka Smart had signed an eight-year contract to return as the school’s head basketball coach, this column was intended to beg the man to stay in Richmond.

I was going to talk about loyalty. About building a program from scratch, as opposed to merely joining an already established basketball machine and trying to reclaim glory. I was going to write about the players Smart was about to leave behind; about the kids who believed in him; who worked hard for him; who transformed him from an unknown mid-major coach to one of the hottest figures in the NCAA.

I was going to tell Smart that he needed to stay at VCU and continue to dazzle with his coaching magic.

Then, on Monday, Smart agreed to a deal that will pay him $1.2 million annually.

My viewpoint has changed.

You are Virgnia Commonwealth, a public university with 32,000 students and a Tier 1 academic rating from the latest US News & Report college guide. You have one of the best arts and design programs in the nation. Your advertising program is equally fantastic, as is your Masters of Science in Health Administration department. Among your prestigious faculty is Dr. John B. Fenn, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Four of your professors have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. Jennifer Johnson, a professor of sociology, won the 2006 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award.

So why, of all the people, would you hand a basketball coach a $900,000 raise?


This is not meant as a slap at Smart, a remarkable young sideline guru who lifted his team from the so-so Colonial Athletic Association all the way to the Final Four. Come day’s end, however, a basketball coach is, well, a basketball coach. You show how to shoot the ball, you show how to pass the ball, you show how to run the pick and roll, you show how to drive to the hoop. There are no lessons on world history or physics or social work. You don’t teach phys ed on the side, to make an extra few bucks. Your sole task, at its core, is to guide a small handful of kids in their efforts to beat the other team in an ultimately enjoyable-yet-fleeting game.

Truth is, a coach serves a school not as a teacher, but as a symbol of its overall priorities. When, two years back, the University of Kentucky brought in John Calipari and his one-year-and-off-to-the-NBA mantra, for example, it said to the nation that its sports mission was not personal development or the merging of academic-athletic goals, but to win, to win big and to win immediately. Consequently, when Fairfield University snagged Princeton’s Sidney Johnson earlier this week, it sent the opposite message—academics matter.

As this column is being written, the state of Virginia—along with much of the nation—is fighting to emerge from a terrible fiscal stretch. The most recent employment figures are far from stellar, and Gov. Bob McDonnell has placed significantly more emphasis on business development than increasing public educational budgets. In other words, at a time when VCU officials need to measure every move and weigh the pros/cons of spending large quantities of dough, are there more vital funding targets than basketball?

The question answers itself.