It wasn’t always about basketball for new head coach Shaka Smart.
He remembers sitting at a typewriter when he was young, sending letters to his father, who left for a supposed vacation to his native Trinidad.
He remembers his father coming home about eight years later, judgmental, difficult and harsh.
He remembers hearing the door slam as his father left for the final time in 1994 in the midst of a cold Wisconsin winter.
But Winston Smart was not your typical absent father. When the family heard from him for the first time years after the first disappearance, he was getting his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis — one of his four degrees. He valued education over everything.
“He just didn’t like that I was so into sports,” Smart told CBSSports. “He always wanted me to be just about academics, … and he crossed the line a few times.”
In Smart’s single-mother home, school was always first.
He had his share of basketball success at Oregon High School in Wisconsin, leaving as the all-time leader in assists and a second-team All-Badger pick, but he didn’t get any offers that would make you jump out of your chair.
No one would have second guessed him if he had called it a career and, instead of pursuing basketball, chosen between Harvard, Yale and Brown for his college education.
“Well, I love the game,” Smart said at his introductory press conference Friday afternoon. “Like these guys, at a young age, I just wanted to play as long as I could play.”
With those Harvard and Yale acceptance letters sitting on the table, Smart developed a close, paternal relationship with Bill Brown, the head coach at Division III Kenyon College.
That opportunity to play for the father he never had led him to the small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio.
Then, Brown left him after his freshman year.
“I remember just crying for like three days,” Smart said in December. “I was 19 and lost because this guy, my father figure, just left. And, honestly, that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed at VCU. It factors into my mind. It really does. What happened to me is a factor.”
That’s what’s led Smart to his loyalty. He builds as many relationships as he can wherever he is, and he doesn’t want to let anyone down.
That’s part of the reason he turned down North Carolina State. And UCLA. And Maryland. And Marquette. And Illinois. And Tennessee.
“I got the chance to help them along the way with that, but I really cherish those relationships,” Smart said. “As I mentioned, that’s the hardest part of leaving. I didn’t know if I would ever leave because of that.”
But when Texas came calling, Smart saw a “no-brainer” opportunity — a chance to lead Texas, with all the in-state talent and state-of-the-art resources, to its first national championship.
He looks forward to instilling “havoc” in the Frank Erwin Center. He looks forward to working with his first great set of big men and playing in a Power Five conference.
But all those take a backseat to his main goal — being that father figure and guiding them in the right direction.
“The hope is that you are creating a relationship and strong bond that is going to last forever,” Smart said. “I think when you go through certain shared experiences, particularly when those experiences involve first adversity and then triumph and preferably championships, there’s nothing like that to bring people together.”
Isn’t that the kind of man you want to run your program?
“We pride ourselves at the University of Texas in a great academic program and in a great athletics program and in doing it with integrity,” UT president William Powers Jr. said. “Given that background and criteria, I can’t think of a person to lead us into the future in men’s basketball than coach Smart.”