MILWAUKEE – Shaka Smart admits he’s happy to be returning to his home state, but says that isn’t necessarily why he decided to leave Texas for Marquette.
“I grew up about an hour from here,” Smart said at his introductory press conference Monday, three days after accepting the marquette job. “I was born in Madison and spent my entire childhood in Wisconsin. It’s phenomenal to be back. But the reason I came back is Marquette. Because of that, I’m here.”
Smart, who will turn 44 on April 8, welcomed the opportunity to train at a school where basketball was the main sport. He cited Marquette’s family atmosphere and the shared vision of the school hierarchy as further factors in his decision.
Marquette hopes Smart can restore his success at the VCU and bring the Golden Eagles back to the level they were a few years ago when they regularly advanced into the second week of the NCAA tournament.
“He’s hardworking,” said Marquette President Michael Lovell. “He’s innovative. And he was already in the Final Four. ”
This wasn’t the first time Marquette ran on Smart. Marquette pursued Smart in 2014 but stayed with VCU. The Golden Eagles instead hired longtime Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski, who was fired on March 19 after playing 128-95 in seven seasons without NCAA tournament wins.
Smart set a record 163: 56 in six seasons at VCU, including a Final Four appearance in 2011 before moving to Texas in 2015.
At that point, Smart was one of the best prospects for coaching. But he didn’t win a single NCAA tournament game in Texas.
Smart was 109-86 with three NCAA appearances in six years in Texas, and the Longhorns would have gotten a bid last year if the pandemic hadn’t ended the season.
Texas went 19-8 and won the Big 12 tournament that season to reach number 3, but Abilene Christian upset the Longhorns 53-52 in the first round.
That put pressure on Smart, who had two seasons left on a contract that paid him more than $ 3 million a year.
“I’m so grateful for all that Coach Smart has done for basketball in Texas, our university community and our athletics department,” said Texas Sports Director Chris Del Conte in a statement released over the weekend. “I really enjoyed our time together and very much appreciated the passion he has for his team and his student athletes. I learned a lot from him during our many conversations.”
Smart’s Wisconsin background was evident when he talked about his new job on Monday.
He received applause from fans attending his press conference when he discovered he was born in 1977, the year Marquette won his only NCAA championship. He discussed his childhood memories watching games with former Marquette coach Al McGuire on the broadcast crew.
“When I grew up in this part of the country, you couldn’t help but follow this basketball program,” said Smart.
Smart named the Philadelphia 76ers coach and former Marquette security guard Doc Rivers one of his mentors. He recalled working at Texas and VCU with Denny Kuiper, who was an advisor on Marquette’s 2003 Final Four team.
His challenge is to bring Marquette back to national relevance.
Marquette went 13-14 that season and made two NCAA tournament appearances in Wojciechowski’s seven-year tenure, though the Golden Eagles likely would have deserved a bid last year, if not for the pandemic.
But the golden eagles are not far from a much greater success.
Marquette played eight consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2006 to 2013, reached a regional final in 2013, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2011 and 2012.
Smart said his short-term goal is to establish the right culture.
“It’s not a comment on anything that happened before,” said Smart. “I think every time a new coach comes on you have to build a culture that you believe in.”
His long-term hopes are more ambitious.
“You want to have a season where you peck up, whether it’s a regular season Big East championship or a Big East tournament championship,” said Smart. “The ultimate goal is to get to the Final Four or beyond.”