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May 24 2019

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Why Shaka Smart’s return to Texas next season seems inevitable, no matter how Longhorns fare this week

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Texas coach Shaka Smart talks to his players on the bench during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech, Monday, March 4, 2019, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

By Kevin Sherrington , Staff Columnist Contact Kevin Sherrington on Twitter: @KSherringtonDMN

The good news for Shaka Smart is Texas has beaten Kansas this season, so it’s not inconceivable that the Longhorns could do it again in the Big 12 tournament and salvage a season swirling to an end.

Bad news: If they pull a no-show like Saturday’s loss at home against TCU, Smart will prolong the worst run at Texas since the reign of Kaiser Bob Weltlich.

And the crazy thing is, it doesn’t matter one way or another. Because despite what you may hear, Smart’s coming back.

The caveat is if Texas’ athletic director, Chris Del Conte, somehow convinces Smart to agree to a buyout a little less painful than the $12.9 million he’s owed after this season. And why would he do that? The smart play — as opposed to the Smart play we’ve witnessed so far — is to make Texas pay while rehabilitating his career. The second half of that proposition is still open to question. The first seems inevitable for a couple reasons.

First, do you really think Texas would pay $13 million to rid itself of a hoops coach after giving Charlie Strong $10 million to go away? Especially when Del Conte would then be required to buy out the contract of a new coach, too?

Kansas might pull off something like that. Kentucky would. Duke, if Mike Krzyzewski didn’t already own Durham.

But all of the above live and die by their reputations as basketball schools, as Les Miles will soon learn. Texas, you may have noticed, is a football school. Attendance does not lie.

Pardon the economics lesson, which, granted, seems dubious coming from someone who’s not allowed next to the checkbook:

According to NCAA figures, Texas’ average attendance in 2015-16, Smart’s first season, was 12,828. It hasn’t been so good since. It was 10,601 last season, up slightly from 10,490 the previous year.

And here’s the thing about the attendance in Smart’s first season: After all the excitement of hiring a bright young coach, it represented a bump per game of only 1,579 from Rick Barnes’ final season.

For that matter, nothing has stirred Texas’ passion for hoops that much over the last 20 years. Only when Barnes demonstrated sustained success did Longhorns fans come around. From 2006-11, they averaged no fewer than 12,969 (’07) and built to 14,629 (’10), which came in 14th nationally

But ticket sales swelled only after Barnes coached up a decade of excellence, a run including the biggest names in school history, T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant. In Barnes’ last four years, attendance receded to what it is now.

Texas has conceded the point. When the Erwin Center’s replacement opens on Red River in 2021, the seating capacity for basketball will be 10,000. Officials say they want the $338 million facility, built with private funds, to be “intimate,” code for “no more empty seats.” In his designated role as “minister of culture” for the new digs, Matthew McConaughey, the Lincoln salesman, has said it will give Texas “an authentic home-court advantage.”

Whereas a 60-year-old barn in Lawrence, packed to the hayloft with 16,000, offers a more conventional approach. If you can’t grow a home-court advantage organically, you’ve got to create it artificially.

So let me ask: Does it make financial sense to spend wildly firing and hiring basketball coaches for a program that, good or average or worse, doesn’t really move the needle with the faithful?

A Texas athletic director’s first priority is to make sure the basketball team doesn’t embarrass the football program. Win at least 20 games annually, make the Sweet 16 occasionally, go deep once a decade. Barnes had the formula down. Even if Abe Lemons gets bonus points for laughs, Barnes remains the Longhorns’ all-time basketball coach.

Just the same, when Barnes’ program flagged near the end, it was enough for former AD Steve Patterson, who never liked anything he didn’t think of. In his defense, Patterson didn’t get any arguments at the time. Had he provided a buyout of, say, $5 million, all this angst could have been avoided. Barring an NCAA run, Smart probably would be done after this season. But Patterson probably needed to guarantee the contract in order to persuade Smart to risk everything on a football school in the first place.

Think what it would cost to get the next basketball coach. Chris Beard? The Texas Tech coach is a great story. Not to mention he’s led the Raiders to unprecedented heights, including a Big 12 co-championship this season.

He’s also tied up through 2023-24. And if he wanted to leave Lubbock, why choose Austin? In his next job, if there is one, he won’t have to sell the basketball team.

Best for Texas at the moment to stick it out with Smart and hope he turns it around. Or wait until the buyout isn’t so abominable. Now there’s a battle cry.

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