Shaka Smart's transition to Texas is an adjustment, for everybody

AUSTIN, Texas -- At 6:30 a.m., the dry breeze begins to rustle Central Texas from its deep slumber. But he's already skipping and hopping through the hallway like it's noon.

Daniel Roose, strength and conditioning coach for the Texas Longhorns men's basketball program, sets his internal dial to Ultimate Warrior, blasts Luke Bryan's "Play It Again" through the weight room's speakers and shouts at the young men who shuffle into the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion with an anchored stride.

"It's Enthusiasm Tuesday!" yells Roose, a member of a staff that employs a new theme every day (Appreciation Monday, Enthusiasm Tuesday, Competitiveness Wednesday, etc.).

New Texas coach Shaka Smart hustles ahead of his players, leaps and shoulder-bumps an unsuspecting Cameron Ridley, a 6-foot-9, 285-pound center for the Longhorns. Ridley looks to his right as if he's convinced that a mosquito has just tickled his ear before he notices Smart, 38, bubbling beside him and smirking.

"It was just a great opportunity," Smart said about leaving VCU to accept the offer from Texas in April. "It felt like Texas is a really unique place with a lot of potential. ... I didn't plan it out but at the same time, it'd be dishonest to say that any type of decision that you make as a coach, career-wise, there's not a context. For instance, there was no way I was leaving the year we went to the Final Four (in 2011). Everyone's like, you gotta jump on this opportunity, but I couldn't imagine having gone through that experience with those guys and literally, a week later, going somewhere else. So the timing of it is always a factor."

It's all rosy now in Austin, five months before the 2015-16 season starts. But that's largely because the Longhorns, like every team in America, are undefeated. This is a program that hasn't reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2008. The school's controversial athletic director, Steve Patterson, just fired a coach who missed one NCAA tournament (2013) in 17 years because he continued to struggle in a league that will return as much talent as any conference in the country next season.

"The coaches in this league, I mean it's a who's who and just the way that those programs are run and supported," Smart said. "Competing against those guys is a challenge. I haven't done it yet. I mean, we just got here. I think recruiting is both an opportunity and a challenge. We've got great players in this state. We're the University of Texas. We want them to have a desire and an attraction to play for the University of Texas, but at the same time, everyone comes and recruits in this state."

The attention that Texas attracts can help Smart achieve his mission. But, as the latter years of the Rick Barnes Era proved, it could also make it more difficult.

"You gotta embrace [the spotlight]," said former Texas star T.J. Ford, who has praised the program for hiring Smart. "That attention is not beneficial to everyone. You're going to be scrutinized. You're going to be criticized, like any established program. ... I think Coach Smart and his staff can handle it."

The native of Oregon, Wisconsin -- which rests a few miles south of Madison -- and first African-American basketball coach in Texas history liked the idea of raising his family (wife Maya, daughter Zora) in Austin, which finished fourth on Parenting Magazine's list of America's best places to raise a family in 2013 and 20th in WalletHub's rankings of the most diverse cities in America for 2015.

"He always had a formula for what it would take to leave VCU," said Monica King, Smart's mother. "Texas is the next step up. Quality resources, recruiting pool, good place, lots of diversity to raise his child. That took a lot of places off the list. He wasn't going to end up in southern Illinois with no diversity."

Now, he's locked into a Big 12 conference that sent seven of 10 teams to the 2015 NCAA tournament. He's the new men's basketball coach of an athletic department that boasts its own TV network and a $160 million revenue stream. Plus, influential boosters and alumni maintain an active presence on the campus. Smart welcomes that. The night he accepted the job, he spoke with former Longhorns Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant. And he's already invited others from the program's past to his summer workouts. Recent allegations of academic violations against the program under Barnes could require his attention, too.

"It's certainly going to be a much different experience than what he had there at VCU," said Lance Blanks, a Texas standout in the 1980s and a former general manager of the Phoenix Suns. "This program is on a much larger scale. The UT community, it's going to ask for and demand a lot of his time. He'll have to manage his time. But he's been well-received. ... There's no reason he shouldn't be able to play at a high level."

The monstrosity of this task does not worry Smart, it enlivens him. His peers say he's meticulous, effective and consistent. That's how he turned VCU into a perennial top-25 program, one which just signed a $20 million multimedia deal with Learfield Sports and completed a $25 million practice facility that will open in September. He has outcoached seasoned colleagues for years. He helped Briante Weber and Treveon Graham, a pair of two-star recruits, evolve into two of the top players in America. And he's confident that he'll elevate Texas and these Longhorns, too.

A chance to prove it, however, must wait. Right now, Smart just wants to jell with his players.

Two months into the gig, that's his most significant assignment.

"That's one of the challenges of being new, to be honest, because at VCU, I had six years of time that I had spent with those guys and our whole coaching staff had spent with those guys, and there was a history there," Smart said. "Here, we've been here for two-and-half months, so the way you get them to respond is just the relationship."

"How you gonna pick Batman?" Smart asks Mike Morrell, one of his assistants, during a dinnertime conversation about the world's greatest superheroes.

With players seated around them, both coaches position themselves on opposite ends of the table in a spiffy dining hall adjacent to the suites at Texas Memorial Stadium. Cameras hover for an all-access show that will tell the early tale of this team. The lenses and attention, initially, make for awkward dialogue but that eventually disappears. Smart pats players on their backs, grabs their shoulders and shakes their hands. It's a display that seems manufactured for a politician.

This, however, is not some made-for-TV branding effort.

Months before the cameras arrived, Smart commenced his tenure at Texas on a sidewalk outside an apartment shared by Javan Felix and some of his teammates. Felix had to stroll downstairs to open a gate that allowed the coach to enter the building.

His complex did not have any available visitor slots in its garage that night so Smart had to park down the street and walk. That didn't bother him. He just wanted to watch the national championship game with his new team. Get to know the guys. Hear from them.

"A lot of people in that position don't listen," said Roose, the strength and conditioning coach. "They get so wrapped up in what they want to say next. What am I gonna say next? He's probably the best listener I've ever been around as far as that goes, and that goes for everybody. He'll listen to a manager. That's a powerful, powerful tool to have. I mean, he's the best at it."

He's in the dorms with the players. He calls them. Their phones vibrate with words of encouragement. It's easy to view that approach as typical and tailored. Maybe even cheesy. But take a look at the roster. Every returning player and incoming recruit stayed, despite the coaching change -- even the big men who seem like poor fits for his HAVOC style.

"Once he got hired, there was a little questioning, a little wondering about what exactly, how big men are gonna fit in his system," 6-foot-9 forward Connor Lammert said. "But the next thing, after he introduced himself, he looked at us big guys and he was saying, 'Whatever system we had there, we didn't have the size, we didn't have some of the personnel that we're gonna have here.'"

Smart is a slender, former Division III point guard who stands 5-10 on his best day. Yet, the young men around him respect him because he's devoted.

That's why that scary night in Richmond still stings. Assistant David Cason's eyes begin to fill as he snacks on a salad at a taco joint and reflects.

"It still," he says, pausing, "... it still gets to me."

Weber, a VCU star who on defense had locked up opposing guards throughout his four-year career, suffered a season-ending knee injury during a January loss to Richmond. Smart asked Cason to join him at the school's medical facility where doctors told the senior that his collegiate career had come to an abrupt end. Smart couldn't keep himself together.

"I just felt like he loved me on a different level," Weber said. "He was very emotional. He started crying. That's how I knew he cared about me."

That's his gift. Compassion. That's all he ever wanted. To know that he belonged to something even when the events of his adolescence made him feel like an outcast.

That experience centered on his educated, disinterested father, a Trinidadian man named Winston Smart who met his mother while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.

He never approved of his son's passion for sports. And he eventually exited Smart's life for the last time on a date his son will never forget: Dec. 12, 1994.

"To be honest, there's probably a little area inside me that has [questions] I haven't really dealt with or accessed," Shaka Smart said. "For him to be here now [hypothetically], I've kind of moved on. [It's] 20 years ago, so it's not really something I've thought about. And my mom has been with me every step of the way."

He was a biracial kid with an afro in a predominately white community, the son of a white mother and a black father who abandoned him. Of his three brothers, two were white and one was biracial. The most influential men in his life, his grandfather Walter King and high school coach Kevin Bavery, were both white. He played on two basketball teams as a kid: one mostly black, the other primarily white. These realities factored into his battle with his own identity. He had to explain the makeup of his family to strangers, and he argued with other kids who didn't believe he was related to his white siblings.

A teacher once asked his mother, "Where in Africa did you get that child?"

It got worse.

Racial tension in his community escalated the day that members of a nearby KKK chapter passed leaflets to students in the parking lot of Oregon High School. His mother told Smart that he and his older brother could transfer to another school. But Smart rejected the idea.

"He said, 'We've gotta stay because, otherwise, they win,'" King recalled.

Smart's response to that hatred? He organized a multicultural event for folks in his high school who felt like outsiders. He invited kids with disabilities and members of the Hispanic, African-American and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered communities. He convinced Stu Jackson, the former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association and a former assistant at Wisconsin, to deliver the keynote speech.

He never wants those around him to feel marginalized or forgotten.

That's why he touches his players when he talks to them. Looks into their eyes. Asks about their families and their girlfriends. Calls them by their nicknames. Hey, Big Shaq! (Shaquille Cleare). Challenges them to pull-up contests. Lifts weights with them. Shows up at their dorms and apartments to check on them after sundown.

Cries with them.

"I've had some really fortunate breaks," Smart said. "I've been lucky to be around some people that looked out for me and mentored me."

He's turned coaching into a platform to build consensus and give young men, some without fathers, a sense of community.

"It just makes you want to play for him," said David Hinton, a former VCU walk-on who now works for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. "It was tough to see him leave [VCU]. They thought he was gonna stay forever."

Tevin Mack wants to live.

But his dazed look suggests that he's unsure if he'll survive his first time in Smart's "Ironman Drill," which requires players to take a charge, dive on the floor for a loose ball and save another ball headed toward the sideline. It's the same drill that Smart popularized at VCU. Players and coaches always participate; Mike Jones, Radford's coach and a former VCU assistant, once chipped a tooth.

Mack, a freshman who followed Smart to Texas after committing to him at VCU, stands across the lane from Ridley, who rushes forward. Mack braces himself and falls like he's taken a slap from Ric Flair in a wrestling match. Morrell, one of Smart's assistants, asks him to do it again. Another collision with Ridley. Another sloppy fall. One more time, Morrell says. Mack finally executes the drill, but only after guard Isaiah Taylor -- who says Smart talked him out of the NBA draft -- swaps spots with Ridley and erases his concerns for his immediate future.

Smart had previously gone through the entire drill as players hollered at the sight of their new coach hustling for a loose ball.

"It's pretty cool having a coach that demonstrates some stuff for you," Demarcus Holland said. "He dives on the floor to show us charge drills, he jumps out of bounds. He's usually the loudest one in the room every day."

The gym is buzzing.

Players scream as Ridley, somehow, slides across the floor without puncturing it. Cason, Smart's assistant, joins, too. He saves a ball toward the end of the session, smacks a mat on the wall and holds his hands up like a victorious prizefighter. The team erupts. "Yeeaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!"

Then, Smart blows his whistle and calls his players to midcourt.

"If we have that level of enthusiasm, that's going to win us some games," Smart says. "No one is above diving on the floor."