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Utah State’s Craig Smith hired as Utah Utes men’s basketball coach

Smith, 48, will arrive in Salt Lake City after three seasons at Utah State in which he compiled a 74-23 record (42-13 in Mountain West Conference play) and qualified for the NCAA Tournament all three years.

Utah State Aggies head coach Craig Smith claps in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. BYU won 95-80.
Craig Smith claps in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Smith has been hired as the new men’s basketball head coach at the University of Utah.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Utah Utes have turned to a coach about 80 miles north of their Salt Lake City campus to fill their men’s basketball head coaching position.

Multiple outlets reported on Saturday morning and the Deseret News has confirmed that Utah State Aggies coach Craig Smith has reached an agreement with Utah to fill the vacancy created when Larry Krystkowiak was fired on March 16.

The school announced the hiring a few hours later.

“Craig Smith brings incredible energy and passion, and a proven record of success,” Utes athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement. “I’m thrilled to have him lead our men’s basketball program, and look forward to our student-athletes experiencing his incredible work ethic, dedication to being a teacher of the game, and his ability to relate with his players and help them achieve their greatest potential.”

Smith, 48, will arrive in Salt Lake City after three seasons at Utah State in which he compiled a 74-23 record (42-13 in Mountain West Conference play) and qualified for the NCAA Tournament all three years. That followed four seasons at South Dakota in which he went 79-55.

Prior to that, he was an assistant coach at Nebraska and Colorado State. Before that, he was the head coach at NAIA Mayville State, where he inherited a program that won one game in the 2003-2004 season and won 17 in the 2004-2005 campaign. Mayville State was the NAIA national runner-up in Smith’s third and final season at the helm.

“My family and I are thrilled to join the University of Utah and the community of Salt Lake City,” Smith said in a statement. “The Utah men’s basketball program has fantastic leadership at the top in Director of Athletics Mark Harlan and his executive team. After visiting with Mark, it became clear that our visions for Utah Basketball were aligned.

“This program has a rich tradition of excellence in the history of college basketball. Our facilities are state-of-the-art and first-class in every way. Our fan base has tremendous energy, knowledge and passion. We can’t wait to pack the Huntsman Center, feed off the energy of The MUSS and bring a consistent winner back to the U!”

Smith’s hiring comes after it was widely reported that the Utes went after former star and current Utah Jazz assistant coach Alex Jensen only to have him decline the opportunity. Another former Utah player, Johnnie Bryant, was also reportedly interested but he will remain the associate head coach of the New York Knicks.

The energetic Smith becomes the 16th head basketball coach in Ute history and will be tasked with reigniting a fan base that has grown somewhat apathetic over the past few seasons as Utah has failed to make the NCAA Tournament since 2016.

Smith’s more immediate priority, however, will be working to keep the core of last season’s roster intact, as five players have made it known they’re entering the transfer portal. The latest player to decide to enter the portal is also the most significant, as news broke on Friday night that team leader Timmy Allen intends to enter the portal (Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune, Jordan Kellier and Brendan Wenzel are the others).

A native of Stephen, Minnesota, Smith was linked to a number of big jobs this offseason. Most notably, he was reported to be a front runner for the opening at Minnesota after Richard Pitino was fired, but Xavier assistant coach Ben Johnson was hired.

Smith and his wife Darcy have four children.

This now leaves an opening at Utah State, and the new coach will be the program’s third leader since Stew Morrill retired after 17 seasons at the helm.

In both Smith and new head football coach Blake Anderson, Aggie athletic director John Hartwell has hired successful high-energy coaches from low-major programs.

“I would like to thank Craig and his family for their significant contributions to Utah State University,” Hartwell said in a statement. “Craig and his staff did an outstanding job making Aggie men’s basketball a nationally recognized program. We have a tremendous nucleus of student-athletes returning to our program that have helped create a culture of winning and we want to make sure we keep them our priority as we continue to strengthen that culture moving forward.

“This is an extremely attractive job and we have already had tremendous interest from some very good coaches. We will move as quickly and efficiently as we can with this search, but we want to make sure we have the right person to build upon our success of qualifying for each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and winning two of the last three Mountain West Tournament championships.”