This article originally appeared on the Star-Telegram.
First, Charlie Strong.
And now Shaka Smart.
Cue that Walter Cronkite, Texas-sponsored voice-over?
“What Starts Here Changes the World.”
It certainly has had an immediate impact on the attitudes of many about the University of Texas and the state in general.
Texas is now one of three major Division 1 universities with black coaches leading their football and basketball programs. Stanford and Georgia State are the others.
Strong and Smart are arguably the two most important black coaches in the country because both are at Texas, the flagship school in a state with money and resources second to none in the country.
The potential impact of the success of this dynamic and historic duo can’t be understated.
Even in 2015, with a sitting black president in a second term of office.
Becoming the POTUS is one thing.
Becoming the face of Texas football and basketball is another.
None of this is lost on legendary coach Nolan Richardson, who grew up in El Paso and started his college coaching career at Western Texas (junior college) before having Hall of Fame success at Tulsa and Arkansas, where he won the national title in 1994.
“I would have never dreamed of it,” said Richardson, who will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday. “I’m glad I’m here to see it happen. In my day, I would have never dreamed of having a black football coach and black basketball coach at Texas. It makes my heart feel good.”
The barrier Strong broke when he was named head football coach last January was mountainous, given the deep history of racism (real and imagined) surrounding the football program dating to the days of the late Darrell Royal.
The immediate reaction Strong’s hiring drew from big-money donor Red McCombs, who said Strong “would make a great position coach, maybe a coordinator,” but wasn’t qualified to be a head coach, reeked of the age-old prejudices.
Strong certainly set the stage for Smart to replace the fired Rick Barnes last Friday without incident.
It was smoother. It was easier. It was without dissent.
But it still comes with great significance for Texas and college basketball.
“I take that very seriously,” Smart said, when asked about becoming the first black coach in the history of the Texas basketball program. “For me, I grew up and was able to learn from and benefit from some terrific role models, some great mentors, from some people that I can look at and say, ‘Hey maybe I can do what he’s doing someday,’” Smart said. “I hope that in this role as the men’s basketball coach at The University of Texas; I can play that role for someone else in this terrific state.”
Smart was already one of the emerging new leaders in the fight for more minority coaches in college basketball.
He and Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith are the headlining members of The National Association for Coaching Equity and Development, which was formed to replace the now defunct Black Coaches Association and the steep decline of minority coaches in college basketball.
A decade ago, minority coaches held more than 25 percent of the jobs across the country. It dropped to 22 percent last year. And another 12 minority coaches have been fired this season.
That’s not progress.
Only three basketball vacancies so far have been filled by a minority head coach — Smart at Texas, Dave Leitao at DePaul and Avery Johnson at Alabama.
Smart knows he can have a greater impact at Texas than at Virginia Commonwealth because of the unlimited resources at his disposal. Richardson, one of the founding members of the once powerful Black Coaches Association along with John Thompson, George Raveling and John Chaney, agrees.
“It’s important for us to get those kinds of opportunities,” Richardson said. “You’ve got everything there that you need. You are coaching for a lot of people. The percentages are still low. I think we can pick it up a little. It might start the hiring of others with the hiring of that young man. Now you have to go out and perform.”
The good news is that Smart didn’t come to Texas to break down barriers. He came to win games and a championship.
He truly believes he can do it at football-crazed Texas, which says a lot about the program and the rich talent base of recruits in the state.
Smart picked Texas after turning down UCLA, North Carolina State, Illinois, Maryland and Marquette in recent years.
Top Texas recruits have left the state in droves for much of the past decade. Now Smart hopes to keep them at home.
“I don’t want to take away from any of the programs, but there’s only one University of Texas,” Smart said. “From a long, long way away that was loud and clear. There’s unbelievable potential here.”
That’s also what Texas athletic director Steve Patterson saw when he tabbed Smart to revitalize a basketball program and a fan base that had grown stale under Barnes.
It was no different when he tabbed Strong to replace Mack Brown a year ago.
Patterson knows the impact and the history, but he wasn’t trying to make a social statement.
He is in the business of winning games and making money. He’s trying to fill seats and build a new basketball arena.
He just believed Strong and Smart were the right men to make it happen at Texas.
That it’s also the right time says a lot about how far Texas has come.
“From an old boy that came through Texas, that lived there my young life, coached junior college their way before they let me have a chance, it’s a great movement,” Richardson said. “To open these doors, a football and basketball coach, speaks loud to what is happening in Texas.”
That University of Texas promo might get an addendum: “Strong, Smart. Texas.”