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Source: Illinois determined to land Shaka Smart as next coach

ShakSmart is No. 1 Illinois' search for coaching candidate source close situatisays school will do whatever it takes get him.

Shaka Smart is No. 1 on Illinois' search for a coaching candidate, and a source close to the situation says the school will do whatever it takes to get him. | AP

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Updated: March 21, 2012 3:05PM

Convinced he needs to get Shaka Smart, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas is making a no-holds-barred run at the Virginia Commonwealth coach, a source close to the negotiations said Monday.

Smart has shown solid interest, and money will not be a stumbling block, said the source, who has talked to two people involved in the talks.

``They’re going to make damn sure they don’t let him get away,’’ the source said.

However, another source close to the Smart camp said this is far from a done deal. Smart, who wasn’t interested in other BCS-conference jobs at N.C. State and Maryland a year ago, intends to consider his situation carefully.

With all but one of his top players returning next season, he’s under no pressure to leave VCU and Richmond, a city that he and his wife adore.

``He wants to make sure he doesn’t pull a Dan Monson,’’ said the source, referring to the successful Gonzaga coach who floundered at Minnesota. ``He doesn’t want to take a big-name job and wind up saying, `What did I do here?’ He can be probably gotten, but he’s going to need to be convinced.’’

One big issue is getting a handle on Chicago recruiting. While there are many talented players there, it’s complicated recruiting turf because of players’ entourages, academic realities and its tradition of being an open city that’s recruited by schools near and far.

Smart wants to make sure he assesses that situation carefully, the source said, rather than simply accept the view that Chicago makes Illinois a sleeping giant.

As the nation’s hottest up-and-coming coach, Smart, who will be 35 on April 8,

can afford to be circumspect. And as a candidate who addresses concerns that Illinois has never had a minority head coach in men’s basketball or football, he’s even more attractive.

Even though Thomas made a serious run at Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who wound up going to Texas A&M, two of the school’s trustees declined to sign off on new football coach Tim Beckman’s contract. Many Illinois alums of all backgrounds have voiced their interest in leaving Purdue and Nebraska as the only Big Ten schools that have not had a minority head coach in football or men’s basketball.

After taking VCU from the First Four to the Final Four a year ago, Smart signed an eight-year contract last spring worth about $1.21 million a year. The buyout on that deal would be $800,000 this year for Smart, who took 12th seeded VCU to 29 wins and the round of 32 this year despite losing four starters.

The buyout would not pose a problem for Thomas, who has taken on more than $7 million in buyouts for departed coach Ron Zook, Jolette Law and Bruce Weber since being hired at Illinois last August.

The buyouts are covered by the athletic department’s budget, with no state funds and no individual booster contributions involved. For Thomas, who’s embarking on an Assembly Hall renovation, it’s a business decision as much as anything else.

``I think Shaka is very pleased with where the contract is right now,’’ VCU athletic director Norwood Teague told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in its Sunday editions. ``We’ll talk at the end of the year if anything needs to be changed.’’

It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if Illinois offered Smart a multi-year deal worth $2.5 million, a number that would force him to give Illinois serious thought.

Smart, who was an assistant at Akron when Thomas as the Zips’ athletic director, would be an attractive candidate at any number of jobs, but Illinois is regarded as the best coaching position that’s currently open. It’s believed that Northwestern would be interested in Smart if its job became open.

One question is Smart thoughts about Illinois being a program where a coach can have sustained success at the highest level. Several national media have said Illinois is among the nation’s top 10 programs.

Smart, a native of Oregon, Wis., a small town near Madison, also would be returning to his Midwestern roots. His wife, writer Maya Payne, earned a master’s in journalism at Northwestern. Their first child, daughter Zora, was born last September.

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