Attack the Day, Shaka Smart

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar

Brian Hamilton, Sports Illustrated (

It is Enthusiasm Tuesday. Smart assigns one of his five core values—appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, teamship and accountability—to each day of the week. Today he has asked his team to infuse passion into every activity. This helps explain why the 38-year-old coach is creeping slowly across the room, crouching like a predator in the underbrush. In a burst Smart pounces on Yancy’s back and attempts to wrestle him to the floor.

They may not exactly replicate Havoc, the defensive scheme and way of life that elevated VCU to national prominence in Smart’s six seasons there. But Smart has the Longhorns thinking his way so far. “We want to go out and just manhandle people,” senior guard DeMarcus Holland says. “When we step [off] the court, win or lose, you know you had a fight.”

Smart is gifted with uncommon charisma and a relentlessly positive outlook, but he is just like every other coach taking on a new job. He must motivate strangers to buy what he is selling. This is Appreciation Monday, and Smart gives every player homework. Each must demonstrate nonverbal appreciation to someone that day—a hug, a smile—and report back. “It’s tough to do,” says Holland, who will fulfill his duty by hugging the strength coaches, “but he wants to hear about it.” Smart demands that his players live his core values.

The Texas staff believes that nurturing strong relationships is fundamental to getting players to buy in. “The way that we want to play starts well beyond those lines,” says assistant coach Mike Morrell, who was on Smart’s VCU staff for four years. Days after he was hired on April 3, Smart dropped by the apartment shared by Felix and senior centers Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh to watch the NCAA tournament championship game. Not long after that, forward Shaq Cleare was finishing homework in San Jacinto Residence Hall when his phone buzzed. Smart was asking if he could visit. Then the new coach alerted guard Isaiah Taylor. “He texted me, ‘I’m at the dorms,'” Taylor says. “I’m like, What? What are you doing here?” The three watched NBA games, talked about life, family and the coaching change. “It’s just a good feeling,” Taylor says. “Never seen a coach in a dorm before.”

“I’m not doing it to make them surprised,” Smart says. “Every coach has his style, and no one way is necessarily the best. I just try to be around these guys. The relationship part of it is what’s going to allow us to move to the next step.”

The players understand what their new coaches are after in these daily torments. “You can’t go into Lawrence, Kansas, and win without being a dog,” says 6’9″ forward Connor Lammert. “There’s a method to what they’re doing. They’re turning us slowly into ravenous beasts.”

After debating next year’s Batman v Superman film—”Who you got in that? I got Superman,” Smart said—the table cleared out. In a few hours it would be Enthusiasm Tuesday. Smart told his players not to show up for morning practice unless they have “crazy” enthusiasm. Hearing this, Holland insisted he would outenthuse his coach.

It is a tricky thing, teaching on-court energy, especially to a roster of veterans. It starts with Smart and his coaches being the example. Smart has been known to dive for loose balls, and his assistants—Morrell, Cason and Horn—jump into full-court pressure drills. Celebrating small victories is common; Smart spikes a ball to the floor with two hands if he sees something he likes. Others are even more demonstrative. After the Longhorns hit all five shots to end a transition drill—a mini-challenge within the exercise—Morrell grabs a ball from a manager and punts it into the NCAA tournament banners hanging from the wall. “I don’t know if we’re the most enthusiastic coaching staff in the country,” Morrell says, “but I know if we’re not, we’re up near the top.”

“I would rather us be really simple and do the things that we do well,” Smart says later, “than be complicated and not be very good at anything.”

“It’s really important for us to practice what we preach to our guys,” Smart says. “If we’re going to talk to our guys about focusing on the control category, then we need to focus on the control category.”

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