Shaka Smart era begins: Marquette basketball head coach prioritizes relationships, growth, victory

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Marquette Athletics hired Shaka Smart as the new head men’s basketball coach last week. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

For Marquette University, March 29 was a historic day. It marked the start of the first African American men’s basketball head coach in program history’s tenure: the Shaka Smart era.

“I take a lot of responsibility and pride in being the first Black head coach here, especially because this is Doc (Rivers’) school,” Smart said. “If I’m the 18th head basketball coach at Marquette, hopefully down the road, there’s another Black coach not just at Marquette, but around the country.”

University President Michael Lovell, who spoke first at the introductory press conference, said after getting to know him, Smart is a man of tremendous character and someone who cares about personal relationships.

“I learned from my first days at Marquette just how important basketball is to our students, alumni, faculty (and) staff,” Lovell said. “He is an excellent fit for our basketball program and even better fit for our university.”

Athletic director Bill Scholl echoed Lovell’s praises of Smart and said he is a man of great principle. Scholl said he wishes the season started tomorrow.

“You can’t possibly overstate what a great fit he is for this storied program,” Scholl said. “He is smart. He is thoughtful. He is principled and he can coach. … This is going to be a thrilling new era of Marquette basketball.”

For Smart, this is his third head coaching job after stints at the University of Texas and Virginia Commonwealth University. Over his 12 years as a head coach, his overall record is 272-142 and he took his 2011 VCU team to the NCAA Final Four.

“Anytime you start at a program that has such a history like Marquette does, the first thing when you have that start is to make sure you understand the history of the program,” Smart said. “I take the responsibility very seriously of being your basketball coach. … Can’t wait to get to work.”

Not only was March 28, 1977 the day Marquette won its only NCAA Championship, but 11 days later, Smart was born to Monica King in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Growing up in this part of the country, you couldn’t help but follow this basketball program,” Smart said. “I remember listening to Al McGuire as a broadcaster and getting to know his personality through listening to him do games. … As I got more and more into the sport, into coaching, I’ve learned about what he did here … and truly understanding how special a basketball program this is.”

Smart’s biggest influence is his mother, who raised him and his three brothers mostly as a single mom.

“She did the best she could. She worked a lot. … My mom and I have always had a really close relationship,” Smart said. “When I told her I was coming here, words can’t express how overjoyed she is.”

Being from a single-parent household, Smart said his coaches were father figures for him. Smart’s Oregon High School basketball coach, Kevin Bavery, is the one who helped Smart fall in love with basketball.

“He used to open the gym Friday and Saturday nights,” Smart said. “He taught me about coaching even while I was still playing. … He was one of the many many coaches who spent the time to build a great relationship with me.”

Bavery is part of the reason why Smart’s number one priority is relationships. However, the relationships do not stop with the coaches and players. It is also between athletes.

“The best teams have a few things in common and one of those things that they have in common is that they’re truly connected around something common, a common goal: they want to do something special,” Smart said. “Whether you’re talking about 1977 or 2003 … you talk to those players and talk to those coaches, they’ll say ‘damn, we had a connected group.’ That starts with relationships.”

Smart’s second core value is growth because he is able to be around these players during a formative time in their lives from 18 to 22 years old.

“That’s a time when you really go from being a young man to being a grown man not just out here on the basketball court, but in life,” Smart said. “I take very very seriously the opportunity to play a role in helping these guys grow and become, as we say, the best version of themselves. That doesn’t just happen on its own.”

The third core value Smart mentioned was victory. He said every team and coach wants to win, but it is those who emphasize all the preparation behind the scenes that will succeed.

“In order to win large victories, we have to win small victories. Things like being on time. Things like being the first guy ready,” Smart said. “It’s really the teams that honor what goes into winning, and work at those things every single day, that are going to be highly successful.”

Another one of his goals is to build leaders and he said that is not something that is determined by a title or rank.

“(It’s) simply the ability to make people in situations better,” Smart said. “If our guys can come out here on the court and they can make the people around them better, if they can make the practice better, if they can make our games better, then they’re leaders. … The best teams are filled with leaders, not just a captain or two.”

The reason Smart took this position had to do with three things: being a basketball-centric institution, Marquette’s family atmosphere and the alignment of a common vision that Lovell, Scholl, deputy athletic director Mike Broeker and Smart all share.

Smart also was able to connect with Marquette basketball legend Doc Rivers, who has been one of Smart’s mentors since 2008 when he tried to recruit Doc’s son Austin as an assistant at University of Florida under Billy Donovan.

“He’s about as accomplished as any basketball coach in our day at any level and he also does it at a level of class that is out of this world,” Smart said. “He’s influenced me a lot more than he probably knows. … I’m really glad to be back (at) his university and part of his program and the same goes for all the greats, all the former players that have made this program what it is.”

Even though he has not been able to meet the team in person yet, Smart said the players are the ones who make the program go. But he has some expectations for them.

“We don’t have to practice, we get to practice. Huge difference,” Smart said. “We want to build a basketball program full of energy givers. Through that, things are fun. … Lastly, we’re going to compete. Everything we do in our workouts, in our practices, we will have a score.”

In terms of his coaching staff, Smart said he wants people who agree with his core values of relationships, growth and victory. When asked about whether he was considering breaking the glass ceiling to hire a woman assistant, he said he wants to add someone that is best qualified for the job. He said in a media press conference that he has hired a female strength coach at Texas a few years ago.

“That’s a great question,” Smart said. “I’ve actually interviewed females before for positions on the staff and have gotten to know a few female assistant coaches in the NBA that know more basketball than any male coach. I know our game is certainly moving to the point where I don’t think it’ll be long (before) you see a lot more female assistant coaches on the men’s side in college basketball.”

As a Madison native, Smart said he is looking forward to showing his daughter Zora Milwaukee and the rest of the state when time allows.

“I’m looking forward to … driving over to Madison and getting a chance to spend time with her grandmother. I know for a fact Zora’s going to love it up here,” Smart said. “I’m looking forward to taking her to some Marquette women’s soccer games.”

Though Smart said the hardest part of parting from Texas was leaving relationships, he said he is excited to be back in his home state.

“I’m really really happy to be close to home, close to my mom, close to a brother who lives in Chicago, but more than anything we’re happy to be at Marquette,” Smart said. “I spent my whole childhood in Wisconsin. It’s phenomenal being back, but the reason I came back is Marquette.”

At the end of the press conference, Smart had one thing to say to the current players on the roster and future recruits.

“I can promise you this, you will not find a coach who has (more) compassion and enthusiasm for pouring into you as a person (and) helping you become the best you can be,” Smart said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford