GAINESVILLE -- Gator Clause caught up with Florida assistant basketball coach Shaka Smart on Tuesday. Smart, formerly of Clemson, was hired on Monday and made the rounds on Tuesday, speaking with reporters and radio stations in Gainesville.
Smart replaces Lewis Preston on coach Billy Donovan's staff. Only 31 years old, Smart is considered one of the profession's rising stars. Such a thorough interview might seem a little excessive for an assistant coach, but Gator Clause wanted to give readers a closer look at a young college basketball coach who has the potential to be one of the biggest names in college hoops. Smart is Donovan's third assistant behind Larry Shyatt and Rob Lanier.
SMART: I would say my willingness to work extremely hard and to learn.
GC: What was your connection to Florida before being hired by Coach Donovan?
SMART: I had a really good relationship with Rob Lanier and I’ve known Coach Shyatt for a few years. I really didn’t know Coach Donovan very well but through my relationship with Rob I was able to speak with Coach Donovan about the job.
GC: What is the most important thing a Magna cum laude graduate learns while he is in college?
SMART: Probably the biggest thing I learned is that the more you learn the more you realize there is so much more to learn. As a kid out of high school, you feel like you’re on top of the world and you know it all. But all the things you gain as you become an adult teaches you that there’s a lot more out there you need to learn.
GC: For all the youngsters out there who think they’re going to be the next Michael Jordan, how did academics get you to where you are today?
SMART: There’s a parallel between excellent athletics and excellent academics. To be an extremely good basketball player, to be the next Michael Jordan or just to make the NBA you have to work extremely hard, you have to be dedicated to your skills and your body. So, it’s no different than what it takes to be a good student. You have to put the time in to be a good student in the classroom. And there are some people components to it as well. You have to be a good teammate.
GC: Last book you read?
SMART: Well, I’m one of those guys who is reading about three books at one time. So, I would say the last full book I finished was called The Power of Intention by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. His basic premise is if you decide what you want in your life and you place everything in line with that goal, then it’s going to work out for you.
GC: Do college basketball student-athletes play too many video games?
SMART: [Laughs] It seems to be the thing to do. I learned a while back in recruiting that it’s not good to fight the guys on that one. If you can’t beat them, join them. I never was really good at video games but when kids come on campus and they want to play some video games with the players then I’m all about it. For some guys, that’s their way to get to know guys in a relaxed environment.
GC: Shaka Smart is a name easily remembered. Is there a story behind that handle?
SMART: It’s an African name. There was a man named Shaka who united a large group of people in southern Africa, so my father decided to name me after him.
GC: Greatest moment on the court as a player?
SMART: I wasn’t the best player in the world but I just loved playing the game. I was one of those guys who would just be on the court forever if you let them. But the biggest thing for me was helping my teammates, so one game in high school I had 20 assists in one game. So, that worked out well for us.
GC: Being an assist man yourself, what’s the best assist you could pass off to Nick Calathes in your first month on the job?
SMART: Nick had an extremely successful freshman year, so the best thing I can say to him and any of the freshmen is that the biggest jump you should make in college is from your freshman to sophomore years because now you have a year under you, you understand the way the SEC works, you understand college basketball at the highest level. So, if you’re willing to do the things you need to do over the summer to better your game and improve your body then you’re putting yourself into position to improve your body.
GC: Can you please teach him how to dunk?
SMART: Last time I checked a dunk is only worth two points.
GC: Greatest moment on the court as a coach?
SMART: We beat Duke last March in the ACC Tournament. Clemson hadn’t been to the ACC championship since 1962 and we beat Duke in the ACC semifinals to get to the championship game and that really validated a lot of things for us and what we were doing at Clemson.
GC: Worst moment on the court as a coach?
SMART: You remember the bad moments, too. One story that is significant to our staff here: While I was at Clemson we played Virginia and Rob Lanier was on staff there. Virginia had two really good guards that year. We were up by 15 points with four minutes left — maybe five — at home and they came back and beat us. That might have been the lowest I felt as a coach because when you’re up that much as a coach you feel like we need to bring this one home.
GC: Ever been ‘T’ed up?
SMART: Never. I know my role as an assistant coach, and it’s not my role to voice my opinions with a ref.
GC: I’m leaning toward going to Miami to be a shooting guard. Sell me on the Gators.
SMART: Billy Donovan. We got the best coach in the country and we have an unbelievable fan base and coach Donovan is going to let you play. He really does a good job of letting people do what they do best on the court. So this is a place you can come and thrive.
GC: I’m leaning toward going to Clemson to be a shooting guard. Sell me on the Gators.
SMART: That would be a tough one because anytime you leave a place you certainly want to leave on good terms and leave with a strong relationship with the people you just left. But Florida is the place to be for the same reasons I just gave you. It doesn’t really matter whom we’re recruiting against. Those things aren’t going to change. I don’t believe in negative recruiting. I firmly believe in showing a kid why the University of Florida is the best fit in the country for that young man.
GC: Do you plan to keep open lines of communication with recruiting contacts you made while at Clemson?
SMART: Of course. You have to do that. You want to take advantage of any contacts you have. There are still contacts I have from when I was a Division II coach. All of sudden an AAU coach has a high-level player. That’s one of the things you do as you go in this business: Just build more and more contacts. Plus, when you go to new jobs you have to branch out and be willing to make connections and build relationship with new people.
GC: Everyone in your profession has a mentor. Who was your mentor off the court?
SMART: Probably Bill Brown, who recruited me to play at Kenyon College and then left after my freshman year. It broke my heart but I forgave him and actually went to work for him right out of college at a school called California University of Pennsylvania. He’s a person who taught me a great deal about life and basketball but mostly importantly about treating people the right way. I still speak to him about every week.
GC: Coach Donovan has a history of grooming young and talented assistant coaches into young and talented head coaches. You’re a smart guy. Is that part of the reason you wanted to come to Florida?
SMART: There are three reasons I wanted to come to Florida. One, I wanted to be a part of a basketball program that has done tremendous things in the recent past and also has aspirations to do more tremendous things in the future. The second reason is to be around a great group of people. The vibe on this staff and team draws you to it. The third reason I came is the opportunity to learn a great deal while I’m here but also contribute and help this team win as many games as possible and find as much success as we can.