SAN ANTONIO -- Today Shaka Smart is charismatic and brilliant, a fun guy and a great coach, but today doesn't last. It never does. In the coming years he will become less charismatic, less brilliant. Less fun. Less great.
And it will have nothing to do with Shaka Smart.
It will be all about us -- sportswriters, yes, but also sports fans -- because that's what we do. We do it to almost every fascinating, promising young coach. We lift him up early, probably to undeserved heights, and when we realize our mistake we turn on him. Like it was his fault.
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Turns out, VCU coach Shaka Smart won't set records every season. He's 9-0 now in national tournaments, but he won't win every postseason game. He won't nail every question he's asked. A coaching career is like a stock, and Shaka Smart's career is a blue-chipper. That arrow goes up a lot, but it doesn't always go up. It can't. Shaka Smart, as fun and great as he is today, isn't immortal. We'll find that out some day, and when we do, we'll make him pay for it.
We do it to everybody. Mortality comes in different shapes, different sizes, but it happens to all. It happened to the guy Shaka Smart will coach against Sunday in the Southwest Regional title game. It happened to Kansas coach Bill Self.
"The coaching life is definitely one of peaks and valleys," Self said Saturday. "If you don't go through hard times, then you've not coached."
Self was the brilliant young coach at Tulsa in 2000, a 30-something star who was impressive to watch coach, fun to hear speak. He was going places, and he had the wind at his back. Just like Shaka Smart.
It took seven years, but we got to Self. He had accelerated from Tulsa to Illinois to the destination job at Kansas, where his first team reached the 2004 Elite Eight but his next two suffered jaw-dropping losses in the first round to Bucknell and Bradley. I asked Self about that, about his once-skyrocketing stock dropping for several months.
"It was longer than a couple months," he said. He was smiling, but he wasn't smiling before the 2008 national title game when he noted, "If you follow us closely, we've won just about as much as any coach won at Kansas. But those two first-round losses definitely put a negative stigma to us."
Self has the wind at his back again after Kansas won that 2008 national title, and if it can happen for Self it can happen for Smart. Because Smart is that good. When someone -- OK, it was me -- told Self that Smart was the "flavor of the month," Self objected.
"He's not the 'flavor of the month.' He's not that," Self said. "He's going to be around a long time -- doing very, very well."
Doesn't matter. We'll pick him apart anyway. Look at Rick Barnes at Texas. He was celebrated at Providence and beloved at Clemson, but he is lampooned at Texas. Barnes' reputation nationally -- even among pockets of Texas fans -- is that of an underachiever. He wins big, but not big enough. I may have written that myself four years ago, when Barnes couldn't lead Texas, starring Kevin Durant, past the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament. Never mind that Texas had been a basketball graveyard, a place that buried the careers of Abe Lemons, Bob Weltlich and Tom Penders, before Barnes arrived in 1998 and turned Texas into a juggernaut. Nope, not good enough.
Unless you're getting to the Final Four all the time, it's never good enough. Nobody reached 200 wins faster than Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, and nobody won more games in his first eight years than Dixon's 216, and yet after gauging the reaction around town following top-seeded Pittsburgh's first-weekend loss to Butler, a Pittsburgh columnist wrote a column titled, "Don't give up on Dixon."
Because that's what we do. We give up on coaches who don't do what they promised. That's Shaka Smart. He has promised -- not with announcements, but with achievements -- to win bigger tomorrow than he has won today. And today he has VCU in the Elite Eight, a ridiculous accomplishment made all the more ridiculous by the fact that VCU actually has won enough tournament games (four) to be in the Final Four by now, were it not for the play-in game it was forced to win.
Been there, Self knows. Done that.
"[Smart's] life is going to become much -- crazier is not the right word, but he's going to live in the fast lane more going forward, because the expectations are going to change," Self said. "Everything is relative. Now that's the standard. ... It is a fun, exciting time, but certainly the reality sets in that the more you taste it, the more you like it -- and that makes you very hungry as a coach."
And it makes the rest of us, on the outside, salivate as well. We see what Smart has done today, but what about tomorrow? And I don't mean tomorrow as in March 27, 2011. Smart doesn't have to beat Kansas to keep his status. But what next? Assuming he goes to a more traditional basketball power eventually, we'll watch with beady eyes and sharpened teeth.
That's tomorrow. Today we love Smart for what he does and what he says. He met my question head-on about being "flavor of the month," even agreeing with it: "It goes with the territory of advancing in the NCAA tournament. It's just the way our basketball culture works. It's not necessarily right or fair, it just is what it is."
Smart melted the media's heart by talking about his single-parent childhood -- "the best thing my [mostly absent] dad did for me," he said, was give him his unusual first name -- and about his dying grandfather, in a hospice in Chicago, "trying to enjoy his last days."
Smart is intelligent enough to have been accepted at Harvard, Yale and Brown, but down-to-earth enough to quote Dumb and Dumber, as he did Saturday when he mentioned that one media pundit had given VCU a 0.9 percent chance at winning the title. Smart finished that thought by blurting out, "So you're telling me there's a chance!"
Terrific guy, Shaka Smart. Terrific coach, too.
No matter what happens after today, I better not forget that.