Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 13: VCU's Shaka Smart. On Thursday, we release No. 12.
It begins again each year. Ed McLaughlin anticipates the frenzy that will commence once Virginia Commonwealth’s season ends.
Powerful programs will contact Shaka Smart -- the courtesy calls between athletic directors is a practice of the past -- and attempt to lure the 37-year-old coach to a school with more money in the bank and more eyeballs locked onto their teams via lucrative TV deals.
It’s never a pleasant moment for McLaughlin, VCU’s athletics director -- or his colleagues in similar positions -- who must deal with the courtship of his program’s young leader. But he endures it with the knowledge that his school has unique advantages.
“[Smart] really feels like he can win here,” McLaughlin said. “I know we've invested a lot. … I'm with him every day. That relationship is so important.”
The postseason pursuit of rising stars and proven veterans on the collegiate coaching circuit is often viewed as a one-sided effort. Some major-conference college or NBA franchise promises a multimillion-dollar contract and an opportunity to work with the best players in the country. The employers who await their decisions often seem slighted within the conversation and powerless in the process. But many have channeled their inner Joni Mitchell and reminded tempted coaches about the things they'd leave behind.
Jamie Pollard, athletics director at Iowa State, doesn't want to lose Fred Hoiberg. Pollard also knows, however, that Hoiberg won’t find an NBA city that will show him the love that Ames, his hometown, does all year. And what pro team will match his 10-year contract? Eric Sexton understands that Gregg Marshall will be courted. That's why Wichita State's AD puts Marshall's team on charters to games and continues to increase his pay (Marshall makes $1.75 million). Everything about Marshall's gig is high-major.
A few months ago, Tennessee reportedly chased Louisiana Tech's Michael White. But the school's commitment to White and the program -- the university recently converted an old gym into a practice facility -- made it hard to leave for Knoxville, especially after a 29-win season suggested that the Bulldogs could snatch their first NCAA tourney bid since 1991 nine months from now.
“The reality is that the money is at such a different level [for some high-major jobs] that at some point, you can't compete,” said Tommy McClelland, Louisiana Tech's athletics director. “But we want him to be here. He's wanted. He's truly wanted here. There's something to be said about being wanted.”
Added White: “I've had some tough decisions to make but as we all know, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.”
Money in the NBA is plenty green, and both the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers wanted Tom Izzo. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis couldn't compete with the money. But the NBA can't match Izzo's relationships on the East Lansing campus.
That's why the underdogs have won so many fights for top candidates.
“It's really about having a vision for having the first-class student-athlete experience and providing coaches with all of the tools that they need, from their perspective, to accomplish what they want to do in an environment that is conducive to them being successful,” Sexton said. “That's what we want to do is provide as many tools as we can, understanding that we're not a BCS school … [but] most of our coaches would say they want for very little.”
Every season, McLaughlin deals with rumors about Smart. But rather than stress, he focuses on the efforts that VCU has made to keep him in Richmond.
Last year, Smart rejected UCLA's overtures, even though the Bruins, it seems, have everything that any college coach would crave.
You can recruit in one of America's richest talent pools. You have access to a strong fan base and a collection of wealthy boosters. Big salaries and an even bigger spotlight. But Smart said no -- or yes, depending on your perspective.
McLaughlin views Smart's choice to stay as an affirmation of the assets he has at VCU. Under Smart, the Rams have gone from mid-major player to perennial Atlantic 10 contender with solid national TV exposure and a fleet of high-level recruits. In March, the school announced plans for a 60,000-square foot practice facility with a $25 million price tag.
“It shows [Smart] how invested we are,” McLaughlin said.
And they must be. Facility upgrades are no longer luxuries. Schools without them are missing a key element that affects both the team and its recruiting efforts.
Iowa State turned to the Sukup family, which runs the largest family-owned grain bin manufacturing company in the world, when it wanted a practice facility. Steve Sukup said his family recognized the value of the $8 million facility, which is called the Sukup Basketball Complex, and wanted to give the Cyclones a proper headquarters. Plus, they want to keep Hoiberg.
“To be able to keep a coach of that class and recruit athletes, you're going to have to have a facility that matches what he needs to get it done,” Sukup said.
Hoiberg has fans that fill Hilton Coliseum every winter and open their wallets when necessary. He's the most popular man in town and he recently received a $600,000 raise -- more than the university's president makes in a year -- as part of a 10-year deal. Pollard, however, isn't foolish. He believes, like everyone else, that Hoiberg will ultimately leave Ames to take an NBA job. Right now, he just wants to make sure his coach has everything he wants and needs.
“Do I think he would coach in the NBA? I think yes, at some point he will,” Pollard said. “Just look at how he runs our team. He runs it like it's an NBA team. I think he's wired to do that but at this stage in his life with his young kids and his family situation, I think he's in the right place for him personally at this point and time. So I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it.”
Izzo is in a similar situation in East Lansing. He's just the second head coach that the program has had since 1976. Signs of the adoration that Spartans supporters have for Izzo? Take your pick. There was the pep rally in a Detroit mall that was packed with Spartans fans prior to a 2009 Final Four run. And the news conference when Izzo chose to stay at MSU after he was entertained by the Cleveland Cavaliers a few years ago turned into more of a celebration.
Hollis knows that Michigan State can't keep Izzo from the NBA if it's just about money. But it's about much more for Izzo.
“In college, a coach has the potential to have a bigger impact on individuals than you do in pro ball,” said Hollis, who was Izzo's college roommate. “That's something that drives him. The college game is better suited for that type of personality. … Tom is remarkable at pushing and loving at the same time. That's a trait that's very good for college basketball.”
They are not naïve. They know that they can't stop destiny. If a coach really wants another job, he'll take it. There's not much they can do about that.
But they can continue to build their respective programs and make their decision more difficult.
“It certainly makes the week after the NCAA tournament,” McLaughlin said, “busy.”