Utah’s men’s basketball program needed a jolt of energy, a shot in the arm, after coach Craig Smith’s first year produced a historic 10-game losing streak and a 20-loss season.

The Runnin’ Utes got one Wednesday morning, as the Deseret News and other outlets reported that former Duke and Utah basketball player and current BYU assistant Chris Burgess is set to join Smith’s staff.

Burgess, whose place in the state’s colorful college basketball lore and the Utah-BYU rivalry is well documented, is the “Utah man” that Utah’s staff needs after Smith’s right hand man, assistant Eric Peterson, took the South Dakota head job on March 15. Hours after Peterson’s departure was made official, Burgess’ name surfaced as a possibility for the vacancy — especially among Runnin’ Utes fans eager to see a guy with strong Utah ties return to the program.

Sources from both schools told the Deseret News that Burgess and Utah have had discussions about the opening for several weeks and a deal was agreed upon, in principle, Tuesday.

It’s a great get for Smith, a home run hire, and a probable sizable pay increase for Burgess. The 42-year-old’s salary at BYU is unknown due to that school’s status as a private institution. But it will be made public at Utah because the state-owned school is subject to open records requests. Money aside, whether the move is a lateral step, career-wise, or a jump up is debatable, probably depending on one’s red or blue allegiances.

A year ago, when Smith should have hired Burgess, it would have been a no-brainer for the former Ute, but that was before BYU was invited to join the Big 12 in 2023. This decision was not made easily, according to a close friend.

Former Utah center Chris Burgess, who now plays basketball for a professional team in Puerto Rico, shows off jerseys from his college and international basketball career. | Trent Toone, Deseret News

Sweetening the pot for the likable ex-Ute is that his daughter, former Lone Peak volleyball star Kelli Jo “KJ” Burgess, signed to play volleyball for the Utes last November and has already enrolled at Utah. Who wouldn’t want to work on the same campus that houses their daughter or son?

Burgess and his wife, Lesa, have five children. KJ is the oldest. Smith, who puts a premium on spending quality time with his family, is not only getting a Utah man, he’s getting a family man familiar with the state’s unique makeup and culture.

It also doesn’t hurt that Smith was able to lure a popular and successful assistant away from the Utes’ top nonconference rival. That in and of itself is a win for the Utes after Smith’s first game against BYU as Utah’s head coach resulted in a 75-64 loss to the Cougars on Nov. 27.

Another factor that can’t be discounted: Burgess is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, adding that new component to the Utah staff.

That part of Burgess’ profile will be big for the Utes as they battle the Cougars and other instate schools for some of the top Latter-day Saint recruits in Utah and throughout the country. When legendary coach Rick Majerus was taking the Utes to a Final Four, high rankings and conference championships, Latter-day Saint Jeff Judkins — now BYU’s women’s basketball coach — was successful in recruiting top Latter-day Saint talent such as Britton and Jeff Johnsen, Marc Jackson, Craig and Mark Rydalch, and Alex Jensen to Utah.

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Center Branden Carlson and guard Jaxon Brenchley are the only Latter-day Saints on scholarship on Utah’s current roster; walk-ons Harrison Creer and Eli Ballstaedt also served missions for the church.

Utah fans surely remember that Burgess was highly instrumental in getting four-star guard Collin Chandler to sign with BYU last November when it appeared Smith and the Utes had the inside track on the versatile star from Farmington High in Davis County. Coincidentally, Chandler received his mission call Tuesday night and announced via Instagram Live that he will serve in Sierra Leone, South Africa, beginning July 25.

Reports of Burgess’ hiring were met enthusiastically by former Utes on social media, as expected. Many had been pushing behind the scenes for an assistant with ties to the program — even if Burgess was working for the hated institution to the south.

Former Ute Nick Jacobson tweeted that Burgess “is a great hire for us for a ton of reasons basketball-related. He was a great teammate and he’s a bridge to some of us old guys and he can connect with all the young talent we need.”

Burgess returns to the Hill after he began his coaching career there as a student assistant in 2013-14 while finishing his degree. He was a volunteer assistant at Salt Lake Community College the summer of 2014 and was at Indian Hills Community College during the 2014-15 season before joining now BYU coach Mark Pope’s staff at Utah Valley in 2015 when Dick Hunsaker stepped down.

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Burgess followed Pope from UVU to BYU when Pope was named Dave Rose’s successor in April 2019. He is well-respected in national coaching circles and many believe he will be a head coach some day at the Division I level.

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He should also be an asset to the Utes as an international recruiter, having played professionally overseas in Turkey, Australia, South Korea, Egypt, the Philippines, Ukraine, Puerto Rico, Poland and the United Arab Emirates for 11 seasons.

Burgess’ return to Utah from its chief rival is another twist in the basketball saga of the former top high school recruit from Orange County’s Woodbridge High in Southern California in the mid-1990s. After rejecting a scholarship offer from then-BYU coach Roger Reid in favor of Duke, Burgess was reportedly told by Reid that his decision disappointed millions of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Burgess then rejected BYU a second time when he chose Utah over the Cougars when transferring out of Duke.

Utah’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 season now appears set and includes DeMarlo Slocum and Tim Morris. Utah director of scouting, Brandon Ubel, joined Peterson’s staff on Tuesday in Vermillion, South Dakota, leaving that position open at Utah now. 

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