'We're going to try to go after it': Shaka Smart is ready to win again at Marquette

Shaka Smart is a hands-on kind of coach, ready to dive for a loose ball or lap his decades-younger players doing bear crawls across the court. Marquette Athletics

On a sultry August day, Marquette's new head coach, Shaka Smart, stood outside the Al McGuire Center, the team's practice facility, and surveyed the scene. Cars whizzed by the private Jesuit university in downtown Milwaukee as first-year students in masks stared in confusion at campus maps and grappled with directions in their new surroundings.

Smart, who arrived at the Big East school in March after six seasons at Texas, is not unlike those freshmen.

Although he grew up in the town of Oregon, Wisconsin, about 90 miles west of Milwaukee, he's still finding his way around his new town. He's proud that he and his wife, Maya, have found the right school for their daughter, Zora. His search for good restaurants near campus has also paid off.

"I'm a big seafood guy," Smart said. "So St. Paul Fish Company is a spot I've enjoyed many times."

A decade ago, the nation embraced a then-33-year-old, energized prodigy, who in his second season at VCU led the 11th-seeded Rams to the Final Four in 2011. It seemed Smart might be destined to become one of the coaching legends he admired, like UCLA's John Wooden. After his success at VCU, Illinois wanted him. He said no. UCLA reportedly made him an offer after firing Ben Howland. Smart said no, then signed an extension to stay at VCU.

Texas eventually lured him away in 2015, but he never won an NCAA tournament game in three appearances with the Longhorns. Then, the No. 3 seed school suffered a shocking first-round loss to No. 14 Abilene Christian in the 2021 tournament. Rumors of a pending divorce percolated -- Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte called the defeat to the smaller in-state program a "heartbreaker."

Smart had two years and $7.1 million remaining on his contract, but those close to him knew he felt the pressure to consider his future. Six days after losing to Abilene Christian, Smart left Austin, accepting Marquette's offer to replace Steve Wojciechowski, who had been fired after his seventh season with the program yielded a 13-14 record overall.

Smart arrives at Marquette amid questions. Is he still one of college basketball's elite coaches? Can he do at Marquette what he could not at Texas, and win an NCAA tournament game or two? And, equally important, can Smart meet the expectations of a demanding fan base that didn't hesitate to boo Wojciechowski when he missed the mark?

"I don't really follow what other people say, but I have family and friends that do, and they love to tell me about it, even though I don't want to hear about it," Smart said. "I've been talked about in the nicest way and the best way. And I've been on the other end of the spectrum."

Former Clemson and DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, whom Smart considers a mentor, warned the young coach that the pressure to win at Texas would only keep increasing. "If you coach long enough you're going to be in that barrel, where people are shooting at you," Purnell told ESPN. "I just wanted to make sure that he was ready for it and recognized where that's coming from. It's a product of being in the business."

At Marquette, Smart joins a program that won the national title in 1977 and made a run to the Final Four with Dwyane Wade in 2003. But he also inherits a program without last season's top five scorers, four of whom transferred: Dawson Garcia (North Carolina), Theo John (Duke), D.J. Carton (turned pro), Koby McEwen (Weber State) and Jamal Cain (Oakland) are all gone.

Yet, these are the circumstances that test a coach and also present the opportunity to rebuild. A decade after the former coaching star first found success at VCU, Smart will get another chance to elevate a program that's trying to find the magic again.

"We're going to try to go after it," said Smart, who led Texas to the school's first-ever Big 12 tournament title last season. "If you want to ask about results, I'm glad I've gotten the chance to coach in three conferences. We've cut down the nets in three conferences [VCU won conference tournament titles in both the CAA and the Atlantic 10 under Smart].

"Now we're in a fourth conference. Is that going to happen like that here? Not necessarily. There is a process that gets to that. I've really enjoyed getting the chance to be part of that journey with these guys at every stop that I've been at and it's no different here."

Alfie Olson first met Smart when they were high school classmates. Olson lived with his grandparents, but Smart eventually convinced his mother to legally adopt him. The two teenagers shared a love for sports and hip-hop, the latter frequently leading to freestyle sessions during car rides. "His raps back then were mostly about girls and money," Olson said. "It was funny.

"They were good times. I don't know if the flows were the drop-the-album, sign-him-to-a-deal level, though."

Smart had always been serious about his goals and aspirations. He was a star basketball and baseball player at Oregon High School in Oregon, Wisconsin, where his mother still lives. He also knew he wanted to coach one day.

When they were teenagers, Olson recalled, Smart showed him a note he'd written to himself when he was 5 years old. "I want to be a college basketball coach," it read.

He and Olson were two biracial kids in a predominantly white school district in the middle of Wisconsin. That isolation and the teasing from classmates about their race affected them differently: Where the taunting made Olson mad and ready to fight, Smart often took a more diplomatic approach.

"He had the mindset of, when someone does something wrong to you, he's the type of person that would think it through like a chess player; but not only to beat someone, also recognizing they need help, they need information, they're not a lost cause," Olson said.

Smart's knack for focusing on the best qualities and the redemptive elements of those around him fueled his rise when he was a young coach chasing a dream. He started as an assistant at Akron, Clemson and Florida before VCU hired him in 2009.

He then left VCU for Texas believing he could rebuild a program that had plateaued since reaching a pair of Elite Eights and a Final Four under Rick Barnes. Smart's passion for the game made an immediate impact. At one of his first practices with the Longhorns, he dove onto the court for a loose ball as his players swarmed him and cheered. He visited their dorm rooms and built bonds with them off the court. Players felt like they could talk to Coach Smart about life outside basketball.

Smart won 20 games that first season and reached the NCAA tournament, breeding optimism around the program. In the years that followed though, the Longhorns struggled. There were also a series of unexpected challenges, including leading scorer Andrew Jones' cancer diagnosis midway through the 2017-18 season and an adjustment to the one-and-done prospects Texas needed to recruit to compete nationally and in the Big 12.

"I never coached anyone that had the mentality of being in college a short amount of time," Smart said. "The cultural foundation, that was a learning curve for me, because I was used to doing it kind of the old-fashioned way.

"We were fortunate at VCU that we always had two or three older guys who had been through some stuff and had won. And they really put their arm around the young guys and taught them. We didn't have as much of that at Texas until my last year."

While Smart seemed to ignore the noise from Texas supporters -- who were vocal in their disappointment over his postseason results -- those close to him said the struggles affected him. Not because he worried about critics on Twitter but because, after significant losses, he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd let his players down.

"It was really difficult because you saw his own self-disappointment with not being able to deliver for those kids," Olson said.

Entering his sixth season, his future at Texas seemed uncertain. And after that first-round exit, Smart began to think about his future.

Then, Marquette called.

"Certainly, there were some rumblings toward the end of his tenure there," Purnell said, "but what I told him about Texas is, 'Look, you've been successful ... you've had some things that haven't gone your way that kept you from being as wildly successful as you were at VCU, but that's just the nature of it.'"

Purnell also advised Smart to consider the benefit of coaching at a school that really wanted him.

"The Big East is a different kind of job in that you're in a basketball-centric league, so that's different from being in a place where football is really important and there are advantages in that," Purnell said. "I told him, 'It's an opportunity to start in a place that really wants you to be there and will push for you to win.'"

Darryl Morsell had heard about Smart's intensity, energy and hands-on approach. It's what convinced the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year to transfer from Maryland to Marquette. When team workouts commenced, he witnessed firsthand Smart's passion.

When the "white" team lost to the "blue" team during a practice scrimmage, Smart made the losers do bear crawls across the floor. But soon after they started, he blew his whistle. They were moving too slowly.

"He got on the baseline with them and did a whole bear crawl, full court, with them," Morsell recounted. "He basically lapped them. It was crazy. Coaches tell you to sprint down and back, but they don't ever do it. He obliterated everybody. I've never seen a coach do anything like that."

At VCU, Smart was known for injecting that gumption into his players, who played at a high speed (VCU finished within the top-100 on KenPom in adjusted tempo in the last three seasons Smart was there), while swarming opposing teams with a relentless defense. His Texas teams however didn't crack the top-100 during his tenure. With elite bigs on his roster, he slowed the game down.

But Smart should return to his old ways with the Golden Eagles. Sophomore forward Justin Lewis, who averaged 7.8 points per game last season, said the message in practice thus far has been to push the ball and play a more aggressive style.

"You'll see toughness," Lewis said. "We'll play pretty fast and you'll see a lot of scoring and a connected team as well."

When Smart first arrived, all the players sat at separate tables, since they were still getting to know one another. Now, they're going on team retreats and cracking jokes as Smart tries to bring the group together.

"Now, we're family, we're brothers, we're friends," Lewis said. "I love it. We're beginning to get to know each other."

It's clear: Smart hasn't changed, per those that know him well. He is still true to his foundation as a hands-on coach who aims for a connection with his team that goes beyond basketball. Yet, he is also at a school that wants to do more than reach the NCAA tournament.

"We're kind of solidified in the state, as far as the brand of basketball and the names [Wade, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Markus Howard] that we've had going through there," said Jerel McNeal, a former player who averaged 15.3 PPG at Marquette from 2005 to 2009. "And now it's just about getting back on track, as far as the culture, and competing and being one of the teams that are going to be around the top and that you feel can compete for championships."

Smart has already connected with the stars from the past and made them feel valued by telling them their support would be a key component in the program's success. He's tried to merge the past with the present in pursuit of a brighter future. That's the right approach, according to Travis Diener, a former Marquette assistant and a member of the 2003 Final Four team.

"I know Shaka, and Shaka's expectation is to get Marquette back to the Final Four," Diener said. "And that should be every player's goal, too: to elevate that program back to a place that it hasn't been in almost 20 years."

You can win at Marquette. The school has reached the NCAA tournament 10 times since Wade turned pro in 2003. The competition within the Big East, however, is constant, with at least four teams making the NCAA tournament every year since 2014. Villanova is the king, but the league is a gauntlet that has finished top-three in five of the last seven seasons in KenPom's conference rankings.

But Smart seems prepared for what's ahead.

As he stood outside the team's practice facility that August day, entering the school's 45th season since the national title run, Smart was relaxed, confident. Marquette had given him another opportunity to do what he loves, even if it means he'll face more scrutiny.

That is likely to come from a Marquette fan base that still believes the 1977 title and the 2003 Final Four run were proof of what the program can be at its best, and the naysayers who will be out in force if the Golden Eagles struggle early, as expected.

But the most critical voice will come from inside a man who is constantly searching for a sense of achievement and seeking to satisfy his own standards.

"I'm as competitive as anyone but I would rather that [winning] be a byproduct of really trying to help these guys grow and help them become the best versions of themselves," Smart said. "And that's just never going to equate with the media or even fans or administrators, what they evaluate us on.

"My job is to be OK with that. If I ever get to a point where I'm not OK with that, then I should go and coach a rec league team."