University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan made the biggest decision of his 34-month tenure on Tuesday, firing basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak after initialing attempting to reach a settlement that would have enabled the 10-year Utes coach to step down in a more amicable fashion.
Harlan, who was hired in June 2018 to replace longtime AD Chris Hill, has already started the process that will lead to another decision that will go a long way toward establishing his legacy on the Hill. The former South Florida AD who graduated from the University of Arizona will be the point man on choosing Krystkowiak’s successor.
Krystkowiak, who compiled a 183-139 record as Utah’s head coach, did not return multiple requests for a comment on his dismissal Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. He took the Utes to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2015 and 2016, but hadn’t reached the Big Dance since, a shortcoming that no doubt led to his dismissal.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no indication that Utah would hire a search firm to help in the process, as many Power Five programs do. Hill, the man who hastily, and perhaps prematurely, signed the contract extension that made Krystkowiak one of the highest-paid coaches in college basketball in 2015, an exorbitant salary that contributed to the angst many Utah fans felt when the program trended backward the past few seasons, did not seek outside help when he hired Krystkowiak in 2011 to step in for Jim Boylen.
Getting a head start on the hiring process is important to Harlan, who acknowledged in a statement Tuesday that the roughly $6.7 million buyout owed to Krystkowiak will “be fully funded from athletically generated sources,” as will the costs associated with hiring a new head coach and staff.
Obviously, Harlan will turn to well-heeled boosters and previous donors to help with the funding, and those people will most likely want a say in the process.
Before Hill hired Krystkowiak in 2011, wealthy boosters were so involved in the process that they went to dinner with some of the candidates, including then-BYU head coach Dave Rose.
Another factor that may preclude Harlan from going the search firm route: a fiscal-budget deficit the U. athletic department faces of around $35 million due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hiring a new coach during a pandemic won’t be easy, as there will be less turnover than usual as schools everywhere face budget squeezes, but there is no shortage of fine candidates, locally and nationally.
Harlan must first decide if he wants a coach on the rise from a so-called mid-major program — Utah State’s Craig Smith and Colorado State’s Niko Medved fit that description — or an assistant from a high-major. Or he could look to the NBA and get an assistant there with Utah ties, such as Alex Jensen of the Utah Jazz or Johnnie Bryant of the New York Knicks.
Other mid-major head coaches whose names have popped up include Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates, UC Irvine’s Russell Turner and Porter Moser of Loyola-Chicago.
BYU coach Mark Pope’s contract runs through 2027, according to sources, so luring the two-year Cougars coach to Salt Lake City, if that is even a possibility, would come with a steep buyout payment to BYU.
Pope’s staff includes two assistant coaches with Utah ties — former Ute player Chris Burgess (2000-2002) and former Utah video coordinator Cody Fueger (2002-07). Neither has head coaching experience, which seems like a must for a Power Five program with demanding donors and fans looking for a return to its glory days, but would be excellent finds due to their recruiting prowess and knowledge of the area if Harlan takes a more national approach to the hire.
If Harlan stays in the West, top WCC coaches not named Mark are Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s, Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire and Pepperdine’s Lorenzo Romar. Boise State’s Leon Rice could also be an interesting candidate, having established a winning program in Idaho at what has always been known as a football school.
Stoudamire played in the NBA for 13 years and was an assistant coach in the league. He was an assistant at Memphis and Arizona, his alma mater, and has done some impressive things at Pacific since taking over that beleaguered program in 2016.
Romar was Washington’s head coach for 15 seasons, taking the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament seven times, and is already starting to make his mark in his second stint at Pepperdine.
Job One for the new coach will be retaining the core of seven to eight players that helped Utah post some impressive victories in 2020-21 over the likes of NCAA Tournament-bound Colorado and USC and a school that probably would have received a bid if not for a self-imposed postseason ban, Arizona.
Krystkowiak signed a top-25 recruiting class in November 2019, and several of those players began to live up to their billing after slow starts.
Ian Martinez, a 6-foot-3 guard from San Juan Capistrano, California, and 6-5 point guard Pelle Larsson of Sweden were instrumental in a couple big wins. Of course, another member of that signing class, Caleb Lohner of Mount Pleasant’s Wasatch Academy, was released from his NLI by Krystkowiak last summer and helped BYU get to the NCAA Tournament.
That one hurt.
Another member of that signing class that was ranked as high as No. 7 in the country by 247sports.com (before Lohner’s departure) was Sky View High guard Mason Falslev, who is currently on a church mission.
All-Pac-12 first team honoree Timmy Allen, oft-injured point guard Rylan Jones, rapidly improving center Branden Carlson and reliable forwards Mikael Jantunen and Riley Battin were also valuable contributors with the opportunity to return. Senior guard Alfonso Plummer can return for a fifth season of college basketball if he so desires.
A couple of scholarships opened up Monday when seldom-used reserves Lahat Thioune and Jordan Kellier entered the transfer portal.
So the cupboard is not bare, like it was when Krystkowiak replaced Boylen. Then again, if there is another mass exodus, the new coach will have to start all over again.
And Harlan’s big decision will be questioned even more.