What you may not know about Craig Smith, and his plans for resuscitating once-proud program
In a wide-ranging Q&A, the new Runnin’ Utes coach tells the Deseret News he’s not surprised so many Utes left the program after he was hired, saying that’s the nature of college basketball in 2021
New University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith likes to talk.
That’s evident to anyone who has spent even a few minutes with the man hired away from Utah State to replace 10-year coach Larry Krystkowiak and revive a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016.
Smith can take one question and give long, thoughtful, almost stream-of-consciousness-like answers. He tends to ramble on a bit, but he usually delivers some gold nuggets.
Of course, reporters and broadcasters love that. More material with which to work.
But there is far more to Smith than just the gift of gab, as the Deseret News recently learned after an introductory 30-minute interview last week with the Minnesotan who lifted Utah State to new heights the past three seasons and hopes to do the same on the Hill in Salt Lake City.
A question-and-answer section follows on some of the nuts and bolts of Smith’s first two months on the job. But first, here are a few things you might not know about the 48-year-old father of four from the upper Midwest who has been married to his wife, Darcy, for 25 years and was announced as Utah’s 16th head men’s basketball coach on March 26:
• He grew up in the tiny northern Minnesota town of Stephen (pop: 681) near the North Dakota border, and began driving snowmobiles by the time he was in kindergarten. That’s why one of the first purchases he made when he was hired by Utah State in 2018 — exactly three years to the day before getting the Utah job — was a RZR side-by-side off-road vehicle so he could explore the mountains above Logan.
“I can’t tell you how many snowmobiles I have rolled, or crashed, so when we moved here, we bought a Razor, and we have spent a lot of hours and driven a lot of miles up there,” he said. “I absolutely love it. By nature, I am a very curious person, and I think very open-minded to new things. … You have no cell service up in the mountains, which is not a bad thing. So you just go up there and get alone time and crank the music.”
“Obviously, we all know this is a bottom-line business and you win or you hit the road. And I know that as a head coach. Our coaching staff knows that. But I don’t worry about that. We are going to recruit the right guys in here. They have to have a talent level to win championships in the Pac-12.” — Craig Smith
The Smiths also own a Jeep Wrangler. The coach says he enjoys taking the top off and “letting my hair blow in the wind,” a humorous nod to his baldness.
Family rule: If you encounter water on the trail, you must conquer it.
“You crank the tunes, and let it ride, and you just feel like you are all alone on earth, and it is a real serene feeling, and there is a quiet peace that you get from it and I think it makes me a better husband, a better person, a better coach. So I love doing that,” he said.
• He was a huge fan of professional wrestling growing up, and his heroes were Hulk Hogan and the Road Warriors, a tag team. “I don’t watch wrestling a whole lot any more, but I used to love that,” he said.
• Being from the backwoods of Minnesota, he has done some hunting and fishing in his life, but doesn’t do as much of that now that his family has grown. He likes to hike — the family encountered a rattlesnake on the Crimson Trail above Logan last weekend “to get a little adrenaline going” and he also enjoys golf, but didn’t play at all last summer and only a couple times the previous year.
“Other than that, I just love hanging out with my family and our coaching staff,” he said.
• He loves watching basketball on television and in person, obviously, but he has a “weird infatuation” with the NFL draft. “I watch as much of it as I can,” he said.
• He can’t play the guitar, as Krystkowiak could, but he loves music, especially old-time rock and roll — much like Utes’ football coach Kyle Whittingham.
“I can bang the drums a little bit, or so I think,” he said. “I can’t sing a lick, unless I am in the shower.”
• His family means the world to him. He has lived in the hotel on the U. campus since he was hired, but made a few weekend trips back to Logan, where Darcy remains with the kids until school is out for the summer.
They recently found and bought a home in the North Salt Lake-Bountiful area of south Davis County, and hope to move in next month.
“I had to do the test drive to make sure it wasn’t too far,” he said. “I don’t want to be living in my car going back and forth. So I feel really fortunate with the location. Even during rush hour, I would deem it as a mild drive.”
Oldest son Landon, “the brains of the family,” is a sophomore at Utah State and plans to remain there. “He’s not in the transfer portal,” Smith joked.
Second son Brady is a junior at Green Canyon High, while Carson is a ninth grader at that relatively new Cache Valley high school. Their only daughter, Lauren, is a fifth grader “and she’s running the family,” Smith said, chuckling.
“Quite frankly, I haven’t seen my family a whole lot during this time,” he said, recounting a trip north a couple weeks ago when he was able to talk at length and in person to his kids for the first time in nearly a month.
• As could be expected, the first two months have been “crazy busy” and “fast and furious,” Smith said. He’s added three coaches to his staff — Eric Peterson, DeMarlo Slocum and Tim Morris — and assembled other key employees such as a director of basketball operations (Curran Walsh), a director of player personnel (Tramel Barnes), a director of scouting (Brandon Ubel), a special assistant to the head coach (Justin Johnson) and a strength and conditioning coach (Logan Ogden).
“I love our staff, and all of our support staff we have brought in,” he said. “I couldn’t be more excited about the people we have brought in here.”
All the while, big names in the program such as Timmy Allen, Rylan Jones, Mikael Jantunen, Ian Martinez, Alfonso Plummer and Pelle Larsson have transferred out or turned professional (Jantunen), leaving Smith with a major rebuilding job. Center Branden Carlson and Riley Battin opted to return, and Smith says he will build with those two as the cornerstones and with players transferring in such as UNLV’s David Jenkins, Jr., Bostyn Holt of Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, USU’s Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster and Cincinnati’s Gabe Madsen.OurAs of May 24, the Utes have three open scholarships, Smith said.
Of course, the No. 1 question most Utes fans want answered is this: Can he win basketball games?
Here’s a Q&A with the answer to that question and more. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Can the team you are assembling contend in the Pac-12 in 2021-22 and make postseason play?
Craig Smith: “Our expectations are to get to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there. We have high expectations for our program every single year. The transition is difficult. I wish we had a crystal ball. Things have to go right every single year. You have got to stay healthy. You have got to develop great chemistry.
“But we (USU) were in this exact same boat three years ago, and everyone picked us ninth out of 11 and we ended up being an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know if that is going to happen again. Nobody knows. A lot of things change from now until the season starts. You never know who is going to pick up on our system. Some guys will pick up on it quickly. Some guys might not pick up on it as quickly.
“Confidence is an amazing thing. Some guys play better in our style of play than they do in other peoples’ style of play. Some guys won’t do as well in our style as they will in others. I do know this: Our guys are going to work their hands to the bone. We are going to be the first (diving) on the floor to make plays. We are going to have great synergy and teamwork. How that translates to wins and losses, I don’t know.
“Obviously, we all know this is a bottom-line business and you win or you hit the road. And I know that as a head coach. Our coaching staff knows that. But I don’t worry about that. We are going to recruit the right guys in here. They have to have a talent level to win championships in the Pac-12.”
DN: How is scheduling coming along and will you play in a multi-team event (MTE) this season?
CS: “We will most definitely play in an MTE. It is not finalized yet. We have looked at any and all of them. It is like anything — you have to do your due diligence. How do the dates work? The Pac-12 is going to play two conference games in December, so you are working around that as well.
“You know, scheduling is one of the toughest jobs that we have, and we are spending a lot of time working on it. You have got to be thorough. It is one thing for us to want to play Team X, but they have to want to play us, and the dates have to align. There is a lot that goes into it.
“We want to play great teams. We want to bring on great competition, no question about it.” — Craig Smith
“We want to play great teams. We want to bring on great competition, no question about it. I think you will see more announced on that real soon with individual games and with an MTE as well. I can’t get into the specifics of it until all the contracts are signed and our legal team (signs off). But I anticipate something being announced here real soon.”
DN: What is your current scholarship situation and will you fill the spots with transfers, high schoolers, or both?
CS: “We have three scholarships available, but we are not going to reach for guys. We are going to get guys that are all-in and have the talent to compete at the championship level in the Pac-12, and guys that believe in what we are doing.
“We are looking in every direction. There are still good high school prospects out there. We are looking at the junior college ranks. Obviously, we signed Bostyn (Holt). And we are looking in the transfer portal and everything in between, whether it is a prospect from the United States or anywhere around the world. We are looking under every rock. We are looking all over the place.
“We find new leads every day and we are continuing to build great relationships with the prospects we are recruiting. We are looking at every different tentacle, I guess you could say. But it has to be the right fit. It has got to be a fit of guys that we feel like can come in and make an impact. Or if they are a freshman, can make an impact or are developing to be an impact player, a guy that believes in what we are trying to do, and a guy that will thrive in Salt Lake City and at the University of Utah.
“We are looking in every direction. There are still good high school prospects out there. We are looking at the junior college ranks.” — Craig Smith on recruiting
“We are particular in what we look for. I would anticipate that we will fill at least a couple of those (three openings), although if it is not the right fit, or we strike out on a guy, then we strike out on a guy.
But we are not going to sign a guy to sign a guy. There is a chance that we could only fill 10 scholarships this year. Or there is a chance we could fill all 13. We will just have to see what the future holds.”
DN: What’s your sales pitch to recruits?
CS: “We have so much to offer all of our guys in our program. It is incredible. There is literally nothing that we don’t have here — from facilities to our schools of leadership from academic services, to compliance to our athletic trainers to strength and conditioning and obviously the Pac-12 and an amazing city to live in, and the technology that we have, and the nutrition. It is unbelievable. So I couldn’t be more excited to get this thing rolling.
“Overall (recruiting to Utah) has been very, very positive. Prospective student-athletes all around the country, really all around the world have been receptive. When you get hired at a new program, it is difficult. … We work hard on the recruiting trail.
“We are who we are. We are very confident in the culture we are going to develop. And I know the culture word gets used a lot. I get it. But there is a certain way we do things, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. It has been very effective everywhere we’ve been. And I think just like anything in life, you tend to attract people that believe in the same things that you do as a head coach, that our coaching staff believes in and how we are going to do things at the University of Utah.
“It is not always a perfect science or an exact science. But I am so fired up about the guys that we have been able to bring into our program, in terms of the recruits. I am so excited about the guys who believe in us and have decided to stay in our program and build this thing the way we are going to build it. It has been interesting.
DN: Have the aforementioned transfers caused you to reexamine your pitch to guys to stay?
CS: “You are always going to have the naysayers out there. You are always going to have people out there saying, why is this guy transferring? Or why is that guy? But that stuff is all trivial in my eyes, and our eyes.
We want guys that want to be here. We want guys that believe with every fiber of their body in the University of Utah and in the University of Utah men’s basketball program, and that believe in us as a coaching staff and believe in their teammates. And that’s what we have.
“I mean, we have an unbelievable group that is going to be coming in here in a couple of weeks (June 7) that I think are going to have a great bond and develop great friendships and develop great relationships and who are going to earn tremendous experiences that last a lifetime.
And so I can’t wait to get going with these guys.”
DN: Have there been some transfers that caught you by surprise?
CS: No, not at all. Not in the least. I think if you look at typical schools that hired a new coach, it is a little bit of a perfect storm. First of all, any time you hire a new coach (there’s movement). I have been down this road three times now at the Division I level — South Dakota State, Utah State and here. Almost every time there is a new coach, there is a lot of change. Change is difficult.
“Most of these guys, when I got hired, didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. Right? So there is a lot that goes into it. Then you combine that with the first-time transfer rule and on top of that, the year of COVID. There are just so many things out there. I felt like there was a good chance that there was going to be a lot of guys to go through it.
“Some jumped in the first day. I mean, Mark Harlan introduced me to the team on Saturday morning, the day after I was hired — and one guy was gone the next Monday. He already had his plane ticket six weeks before that. And he was already outta here, and transferred to another school. That’s just part of the deal. Every culture is different when you inherit a culture and then you take over and do things your way.
“Then Utah, over the last three years prior, on average almost five guys per year were transferring out, for whatever reason. I can’t comment on that because I don’t know — everybody has a different reason why they will transfer out and why it is not the best fit for them.
“And then this year, you have a record high of men’s basketball players transferring out.
“We are at an all-time high: more than 1,500 players have transferred out.
“And when you do the math on that — there are 13 full rides in Division I basketball — and we know it is a full ride or nothing. And there are 357 Division I schools. So when you do the math, on average, 4.2 Division I basketball players are transferring out this year. So it is what it is.
“We have a great track record of players not transferring out. And I think that says a lot about who we are and how we run our program. And the transferring thing has been part of men’s basketball now for at least five years — but just not to this extent.
“So anyway, to each their own. We wish those guys that transferred out the best of luck. A lot of those guys are really good guys. I didn’t know a lot of them, but there are a few of them we built relationships with over the course of the two or three weeks they were here before they transferred out. So we wish them the best and both parties move on.”
DN: Finally, how would you sum up your first two months? What words would you use?
CS: “Well, it has been about every adjective that you can imagine. It has been exhilarating, it has been exciting and fulfilling. It has been chaotic at times. There have been some real highs, and there have been some lows, and everything in between.
“That’s normal, right? Organized chaos, to some extent. It has certainly been a whirlwind. It is like the old saying, it feels like we have been drinking through a fire hose. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We are adjusting on the fly a little bit. Every school is a little bit different in terms of their protocols and how you go about things within the (school). And then we are really trying to get out in the community and meet as many people as we can.
“So that’s been exciting — making new relationships and trying to get acquainted that way. … All in all, I think it has been great. But we haven’t lost a game yet. So you know how that goes.
“Transition can always be difficult, and change can be difficult. But I feel like the reception has been outstanding. I won’t get into specific names, but talking to former players who have played here, or had phone calls with guys, or things like that, have been positive experiences. I had lunch with a former player on Tuesday and have met with various boosters, alums, donors. It has been exciting.
“Going to the spring football game was awesome. I met so many people that day, like specifically up in the press boxes. It has been great, man.
“That is a big thing of what we do. We want to do community outreach. We want to have our guys dialed into the community and really try to have a positive impact on our community in any way that we can. It has been fantastic up to this point.”