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Shaka Smart says he’ll stay at VCU; search for Weber’s
replacement at Illinois moves on
Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart on Wednesday ended
speculation that he might take the open job at Illinois by announcing that he’ll stay
with the Rams.
The decision by the young coach was cause for celebration among VCU fans and
disappointment for their Illini counterparts — Illinois’ search for a replacement for
fired coach Bruce Weber has begun to resemble the search last year for a new
football coach, when the school’s top choices reportedly turned down the Illini.
VCU said in a news release that Smart’s $1.2 million contract will be adjusted, but
provided no details.
He said in the release that he appreciates VCU’s support of him and his staff.
“There are great things to accomplish at VCU and I’m looking forward to building
on the successes of our program and university,” the 34-year-old Smart said.
“Coach Smart recognizes — as do the rest of the university community, alumni
and fans — that VCU is the place to be right now,” VCU President Michael Rao
At Illinois, Athletic Director Mike Thomas declined comment through a school
Smart will bring back one of the country’s youngest teams. The Rams went 29-7
(15-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association) and were eliminated in the second
round of the NCAA tournament this year after making an improbable Final Four
run last season.
Neither school would say how much money Illinois offered Smart.
While VCU fans took to Twitter to celebrate — “Shaka is here to stay!” one wrote
Wednesday afternoon — Illinois’ fans were dejected.
“So which stage of grief are we in right now?” one wrote.
“Still anger here,” came the quick answer.
Thomas now continues to look for a replacement for Weber from a field that
reportedly includes Alabama coach Anthony Grant and Stanford’s Johnny
Alabama spokesman Ty Patton declined comment, as did Stanford spokesman Jim
In Chicago, where some of Weber’s toughest critics found ammunition in the fact
that he didn’t land the basketball-rich city’s top players, an AAU coach with a
number of former players on the Illini roster said Smart’s decision would likely
fuel skepticism about both Thomas and the Illini program.
“I would have assumed if you were swift in firing in that you would have the other
one already locked up and ready to go,” said Mike Mullins, whose Illinois Wolves
produced current Illini players Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu.
Thomas fired Weber on March 9 after Illinois finished 17-15, including a 2-12
collapse to finish the season, and tied for ninth place in the Big Ten. The Illini
missed the postseason, and it was the third time in five seasons they didn’t make
the NCAA tournament.
Weber was the third coach Thomas fired in less than four months, along with
women’s basketball coach Jolette Law and football coach Ron Zook.
Illinois hired Tim Beckman from Toledo to replace Zook, but only after reportedly
being turned down by Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, who took over at Texas A&M.
Thomas acknowledged the day he fired Weber that, in getting rid of high-profile
coaches so quickly and naming their replacements, he’d be putting himself up for
fans to quickly judge, too. He also said that hiring Weber’s replacement was
particularly crucial at Illinois.
“This program, this school is looked at in a different way than some of our other
programs,” Thomas said. “So it’s under a spotlight and people are paying
Illinois is also still looking for a replacement for Law, too. Buyouts for the three
fired coaches total $7.1 million, money the university has said will come from
The search for Weber’s replacement includes a potentially complicating racial
component. Two university trustees earlier this year refused to vote in favor of
Beckman’s contract because they said the school hadn’t done enough to hire black
head football or men’s basketball coaches, something it’s never had.
That condition and Smart’s resume and charisma put him at the top of the Illini
After last year’s Final Four run, Smart turned down an offer to jump to North
Carolina State and was rewarded with his current eight-year deal.