By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Illini Nation was fit to be tied on Thursday night.
And all because of a guy’s choice of neckwear.
Yes, when Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth’s coach and the apple of many an Illini fan’s eye, opted on Thursday to don an orange tie – and a blue shirt, to boot! – for VCU’s NCAA Tourney opener, both Twitter and Facebook burst alive with posts of breathless speculation.
Was Shaka’s fashion a statement? Does it mean he’s campaigning for the Illini job? Or, as one of my friends quite cleverly put it, would that be “Champaigning”?
Whatever the appropriate phrase, it appears that VCU’s hotshot coach may simply be superstitious. Last March, Smart wore the exact same shirt-and-tie combo when his Rams played in the Elite Eight and he might have just been hoping to keep that same mojo rolling in 2012.
Then again, in that contest, Smart did beat Illini nemesis Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks to reach the Final Four…
So, could it be that Shaka was already showing his Illini love a full year ago, and no one noticed?
On what was a pretty dang boring day of basketball by March Madness’ lofty standards, the amusing online analysis of Smart’s wardrobe was perhaps the juiciest storyline.
At least, it sure was around these parts.
Back to reality, though, after 12th-seeded VCU’s “Shaka-the-world … again” upset of fifth-seeded Wichita State, Smart was interviewed by a reporter as he scouted the Indiana-New Mexico State game from the stands of the Rose Garden in Portland.
By that time, the orange tie was gone, making me wonder if Smart had gotten wind of the ruckus that his orange-hued accessorizing had created, and he was making an attempt to quell it.
Heck, come Saturday night, I half expect him to show up for VCU’s game against Indiana wearing a mock turtleneck. Smart will think he’s being neutral, but Illini fans will probably interpret the outfit as an homage to Lon Kruger’s fashion stylings when he was coach at Illinois.
Or, perhaps, as @Hailtotheorange put it on Twitter last night, “On Saturday, look for Shaka to be coaching in a Chief costume, but don’t read into it too much.”
Prior to Thursday’s impressive victory over a darn good Wichita State team, what I had been wondering most about Smart is whether he’s truly worth the $2.5 million that it’s been rumored it may take to lure him to Champaign.
After all, just one year ago, Smart was making only $400,000 a year. Following the Rams’ remarkable run from the First Four to the Final Four, VCU tripled his salary, signing him to an eight-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, plus bonuses. If “Smart money” is to double again this spring to $2.5 million that would be an absolutely meteoric rise in pay for a 34-year-old who has never coached above the mid-major level.
To be sure, if Illinois truly is a “Top 10” job nationally as SI’s Seth Davis billed it to be – or even just a Top 25 job – Illini AD Mike Thomas needs to start treating it that way and paying big-boy bucks.
But, skeptical about whether Smart had yet done enough in his career to earn that kind of crazy coin, I asked a few hoops-savvy friends for their opinions about the topic.
“With no clear second option?,” one of them wrote when asked whether Smart deserved as much as $2.5 million. “Sure. Not my money.”
Another friend replied with an interesting insight, saying: “If Smart can help sell an Assembly Hall renovation, then I would say ‘yes’ to that kind of money.”
No doubt, Thursday night’s win over the Shockers earned Smart an offer with few hundred thousand dollars more packed into it. Clearly, he is the preferred choice of Illini fans to succeed Bruce Weber in Champaign.
But, right now, I would caution Illinois fans about putting all their orange-and-blue eggs in Shaka’s basket, because they could still end up with broken shells – and broken hearts. No stranger to disappointment, Illini Nation would be wise to not get its hopes ridiculously high, even if a Wall Street Journal blogger did write from press row before Thursday’s VCU-Wichita State game:
“Word on the street in Richmond, or at least the people around me, is that Shaka Smart is heading to Illinois when VCU’s season ends. Will that be tonight or a couple of weeks? And is that rumor true?”
But, going forward, the Smart move about Shaka is to try to just wait and see – patiently, if possible, and without interpreting anyone’s wardrobe choices. After all, lest Illini fans forget that in the fall of 2003, Peoria Central’s Shaun Livingston famously wore an orange Illinois basketball jersey to school … only to commit to Duke the next day.
And, besides, you know what they’ve always said about ties.
They’re like kissing your sister.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.