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Analysis: Firing Larry Krystkowiak amid a pandemic harsh, but necessary for a Utah program trending downward

Runnin’ Utes recent seasons were much like Larry Krystkowiak’s 10 years on the Hill, full of ups and downs and never quite reaching their potential

Utah’s head coach Larry Krystkowiak directs his players from the bench in the first half an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Utah’s head coach Larry Krystkowiak directs his players from the bench in the first half an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Cincinnati. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan announced Tuesday that the school and Krystkowiak are parting ways.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

During his final public comments as head coach of the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team, Larry Krystkowiak paused several times to regain his composure and hold back tears last Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“I think we all know how much hardship that everybody has gone through this year, certainly,” Krystkowiak said. “Not just our team, but the world.”

More hardship arrived Tuesday night, as Utah athletic director Mark Harlan announced that the school and Krystkowiak are parting ways after the former college and NBA player’s 10th season at the helm resulted in a 12-13 record and no postseason appearance.

At Utah, which owns of one of the more successful men’s basketball programs in the history of the sport, that’s just not good enough.

“Today, I informed head men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak that I am making a change in the leadership of our men’s basketball program,” Harlan said in a school news release. “The decision comes after a thorough evaluation of the program — both on and off the court — as I do with every head coach at the conclusion of their seasons.”

In other words, Krystkowiak was fired without cause. He didn’t step down on his own accord, and so he will be entitled to a $6.7 million buyout, as is written in his contract, acquired by the Deseret News last month.

The U. obviously knew that question would be coming, because the last paragraph of the news release says: “The costs associated with this termination and the hiring of a new head coach and staff will be fully funded from athletically-generated resources. We will launch an immediate national search for a new head coach.”

Why was Krystkowiak fired?

He wasn’t awful or incompetent, and he didn’t cheat. He took over a program that was, in the words of former AD Chris Hill, “below rock bottom,” and made it respectable again. He was above average, but that doesn’t quite cut it when you aren’t dancing more than a couple times a decade, not at a place with a proud basketball tradition such as Utah.

Krystkowiak’s teams always played hard and never quit, not even during the trying 2020-21 season held amid a pandemic. His players rarely got in trouble off the court during his decade of service, and he contributed to the university financially and with his time.

But when you are the 13th highest-paid coach in college basketball, according to USA Today’s figures, and you don’t take a team to the NCAA Tournament for five straight years, you are not giving your employer enough bang for the buck.

Simple as that.

Sure, there were other factors, such as instate rivals Utah State and BYU qualifying for or getting at-large bids to the Big Dance the past two seasons, while the Utes sit at home. Utah’s steady stream of postseason transfers — there will be at least three this season — under Krystkowiak’s watch certainly didn’t help matters, either.

The way he handled the fallout from then-BYU player Nick Emery’s punch of Ute Brandon Taylor, agreeing to pay the Cougars $80,000 of his own money rather than continue the rivalry in Provo, rubbed some the wrong way — including Utah fans.

Monday night, a couple of reserves who rarely played — center Lahat Thioune and guard Jordan Kellier — said they were entering the transfer portal. They were probably pushed out by the coaching staff, who needed a couple scholarships to upgrade their roster, but the outside optics aren’t good, based on what’s happened in the past when better players departed who really could have been used this season on one of the thinnest rosters in the Pac-12.

“Ultimately, our program needs a new voice, a new vision and a new leader who can build upon Larry’s foundation and lead us to greater heights in the years ahead,” Harlan said.

Who will that new leader be?

In the Intermountain West, Utah State’s Craig Smith and Colorado State’s Niko Medved might be considered, as both coach in the Mountain West Conference and aren’t making nearly what a program such as Utah’s will be willing to pay.

It is doubtful that Harlan will give anyone on Krystkowiak’s staff a second look, and that’s a shame because longtime assistant and former Ute Tommy Connor deserves consideration. Getting BYU’s Mark Pope is probably a pipe dream because the two-year Cougars coach doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would bolt Provo this soon, but the idea that Pope wouldn’t have to live in WCC king Gonzaga’s shadow any longer might be appealing.

Seriously, it might be easier to win the Pac-12 than the West Coast Conference as long as Mark Few and the Zags are around.

It is a balloon worth floating 30 miles south. Then again, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, Pope’s good friend and a BYU booster, might jump in and pop that notion if it gains any traction at all.

Before Krystkowiak was hired in 2011 to replace Jim Boylen, Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s was a candidate, and he might be worth considering again although the Gaels haven’t flourished as much the past year.

More names will surface in the coming days. Maybe Harlan will look at a former Ute working in the NBA, maybe a guy such as former Utah Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant, now with the New York Knicks. Or the Jazz’s own Alex Jensen, a Utah legend in the Rick Majerus years.

As for Krystkowiak’s tenure, it was as up-and-down as his final game, that 91-85 loss in double overtime to nationally ranked and NCAA Tournament-bound USC.

“There was no quit in us,” Krystkowiak said solemnly when the marathon game was over.

The same can be said of the coach, who gave no indication that night, or the Saturday before during Senior Day festivities, that he was growing tired of the job.

In fact, after the Utes dropped to 1-5 in Pac-12 Tournament games since their run to the championship game in 2016 — the last time they played in the NCAA Tournament — Krystkowiak said he usually looks forward to taking a vacation when the season ends, but not this year.

“I would love to keep coaching them,” he said.

And why not? Whoever inherits the job is going to have some considerable talent with which to work, assuming star forward Timmy Allen doesn’t opt for the NBA draft, senior guard Alfonso Plummer doesn’t bypass an NCAA-approved “extra year,” sophomore center Branden Carlson doesn’t get BYU-envy common among some returned missionaries and internationals Pelle Larsson and Mikael Jantunen don’t tire of life in these United States.

The new coach’s No. 1 task, though, will be to convince high-flying freshman Ian Martinez to stay. He’s got the most upside of anyone on the roster and is a superstar in the making. Remember, though, that Martinez’s father, Henry, was on Krystkowiak’s staff.

One of Krystkowiak’s recruits, former Sky View High star Mason Falslev, is currently on a church mission. Now he’s got a big decision to make upon his return, but nothing close to what Harlan is going through.

This will be the second major decision of Harlan’s tenure at Utah, which began in June of 2018. The first happened Tuesday.

“Larry has always been dedicated to our student-athletes, to our university and to the Salt Lake City community, and I am grateful for his decade of service to the University of Utah. In addition, he and his wife Jan have been incredibly generous in supporting university and community initiatives. I want to wish Larry, Jan and their family the very best,” Harlan said in the release.

Credit the third-year AD for not beating around the bush. His statement wasn’t ambiguous and filled with words such as “mutual agreement” or the like. It was decisive and direct.

Did Krystkowiak deserve at least another year? Firing anyone during a pandemic is harsh, especially when everybody in the department took pay cuts or were furloughed, and especially a coach who has been through what Krystkowiak has the past six months.

The coach contracted COVID-19 himself in November, his father-in-law passed away in September in his sleep and his mother-in-law tested positive for the coronavirus in September and was denied treatment at the University Hospital.

Those real-life setbacks were on Krystkowiak’s mind last week, when through pauses and while fighting off tears he said this was going to be a season he would never forget.

Unfortunately for the straight-talking big man from Montana, Tuesday’s development made that statement more real than ever.