After winning five IHSA state titles, more than any other coach in Illinois history, Simeon head coach Robert Smith has his eyes set on a loftier goal -- filling the recently vacated head coaching position at the University of Illinois.
Thats something I would definitely be interested in if the opportunity presented itself, said Smith on Thursday before the schools championship pep rally.
But hes not just interested. When asked if he was actively pursuing the position, the usually stone-faced Smith cracked a smile before admitting he is indeed making an effort to make it known that he wants the job. Despite winning five titles in seven years, and fostering the development (both on and off the court) of some of the most talented players in the country, there is a contingent who feels Smiths success at the high school level doesnt merit a promotion to the collegiate level.
A lot of people say youve been in high school so long, but I run this like a college already. Its not a typical high school, as you can see argued Smith. Ive coached some great kids, Ive had some talent, so I understand how to coach talent.
Some talent is a bit of an understatement. Smith won his first two titles in 2006 and 2007 with the help of future number one pick Derrick Rose. He brought in the last three with the help of the nations top junior, Jabari Parker, along with top Illinois senior and Marquette-bound Steve Taylor.
While there are plenty of arguments both for and against how Smiths high school success would translate to the next level, theres one trait he carries that few others in the country can claim as strongly as he can -- a deep and rich connection with the Chicago basketball community thats needed to keep the states best players from leaving to play college ball out of state.
The state of Illinois has produced a bevy of supremely talented players over the past several years, but few have decided to stick around. Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose, D.J. Cooper, Anthony Davis, Iman Shumpert, Ryan Boatright, Wayne Blackshearthats just a tiny sample of the number of athletes who call the state of Illinois home, but went on to attend schools like Duke and Kentucky. Smith feels that if hes given the opportunity, he can reopen the pipeline from Chicago to Champaign and keep the states best players at home.
Youve got to have good relationships. To Smith, its that simple. You have to be able to get into the communities, not just the players and the parents. The community has to feel comfortable with you as well, so when theyre talking up Illinois, the community is talking up Illinois as well. If youre a great player, theyre saying you should go to Illinois. You dont hear that inside the communities.
Smith thinks a lack of Chicago connections is one of the likely culprits behind Shaka Smarts Illini denial. Its kind of tough when youre not from the town, you dont know the town, and you get the negative stuff from everybody else, but Im here, I see it, and I know it.
You dont have to go far to see just how vital this connection could be. Jabari Parker, who many feel is the top overall player in the country as a junior, said hes keeping a close eye on whats happening with Coach Smith and the illini.
I pay attention pretty much a lot, because that would be a future coach I would be interested in playing for. If they happen to recruit me, then I have to do my research as a player to see where I can fit in their system.
Parker went on to say that even though the Illini are currently coach-less, hes still interested in the school because representing his home state is important to him, and if Smith were to get the job, it would be special. Steve Taylor, who committed to Marquette in the fall and is regarded as one of the top senior forwards in the country, echoed Parkers comments and said he thinks Smith would be a good fit.
The University of Illinois doesnt really get kids from Chicago, said Taylor. If Coach Rob was to get that job, he would be able to bring in a lot of talent from Illinois.
Junior guard Jaylon Tate continued the praise, adding, Hes an amazing coach. Hes a good disciplinary person. Hes just a good person. Hes a real good coach. I think at any level hell be a great coach.
The discipline Tate speaks of starts simply with keeping players in a routine during an extremely rigorous season (the Wolverines played as far away as Springfield, Massachusetts), but also means Smith knows when to punish his players for violating team rules. After nine players left their shoes on the court after defeating Proviso East for the 4A title, Smith promptly suspended them for the first game of next season. In February, Smith suspended five players for two crucial games during the teams run in the Chicago Public League playoffs. He commands respect from his players, they give it to him unflinchingly, and more often than not it turns into state titles.
With his ability to keep players in line (perhaps he could have been the mentor Jereme Richmond needed) and his deep roots in the Chicago Public League, Smith at least deserves to be in the conversation for a position at Illinois in some capacity. Its unclear, however, if he would be willing to accept a position as an assistant. Either way, Smith has made it clear that he is confident he has the tools and the know-how to restore the waning Illini basketball program.
As Smith himself put it, Lets take a chance on this guy and see what could happen.