Analysis: Craig Smith talks the talk after landing the Utah job. Can he walk the walk?
Passionate coach takes over a program mired in mediocrity, but has the enthusiasm and drive to restore it to past glory if he can duplicate his success at Utah State in Salt Lake City and the Pac-12
Craig Smith obviously wasn’t the University of Utah’s first choice to replace Larry Krystkowiak as its next men’s basketball coach.
But the three-year Utah State coach could end up being the best.
That’s the oft-expressed opinion of those who know the dynamic father of four from the tiny town of Stephen, Minnesota, who energized the Aggies’ foundering program after Tim Duryea was fired in March of 2018.
Smith, 48, was announced as Utah’s 16th men’s basketball coach Saturday morning by Utah Director of Athletics Mark Harlan, 11 days after the third-year AD fired Krystkowiak and two days after Harlan’s primary target for the position — Utah Jazz assistant Alex Jensen — withdrew his name from consideration for the job.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled. Our expectation is to win and win at the highest level, and do it in a significant way. … We are going to work our hands to the bone to put a fantastic, winning team together.” — New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
Smith may have already picked up his first victory, winning the hastily called news conference — via Zoom — just before noon Saturday with the kind of boundless enthusiasm and passion that USU fans were just getting accustomed to seeing in Logan.
Certainly, Smith can talk the talk. He is not quite BYU coach Mark Pope when it comes to spewing out hyperbole, but he’s close. Can he walk the walk? That remains to be seen.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Smith said. “Our expectation is to win and win at the highest level, and do it in a significant way. … We are going to work our hands to the bone to put a fantastic, winning team together.”
Smith, 48, compiled a 74-24 record at USU, including a 42-13 mark in the Mountain West Conference. He is known to be a solid recruiter, excellent at game-planning and making in-game adjustments and is so passionate about his job and teams that he often takes one question at news conferences and spends almost the entire allotted time discussing it.
He didn’t go that far Saturday morning, but he said all the things that the Utah fanbase which had grown tired of Krystkowiak’s years of mediocrity desperately wanted to hear.
Taking the Utah job and leaving a successful one in Logan behind “was just the right time for myself and my family professionally,” he said, expressing thanks to USU players, fans and administrators for his time in Logan.
Smith said he messaged his former USU players with the news when he accepted the Utah job, but had not met with them personally. He met with Utah’s players Saturday morning, and began the process of re-recruiting some to the program.
After going 17-17 in 2017-18 under Duryea, the Aggies went 28-7 in 2018-19, 26-8 in 2019-2020 and 20-9 in 2020-2021. Smith was 0-3 against BYU, losing to the instate rival in Provo, Salt Lake City and Logan. He hadn’t spoken personally to BYU ‘s Pope yet Saturday morning, but said he will put a priority on continuing the series with BYU and reigniting rivalries with other instate schools, which he didn’t specifically name.
At the same Zoom virtual news conference Saturday, Harlan called it a “historic day” for the University of Utah and said the past 12 days have been “a phenomenal journey to discover how many people care about Utah basketball.”
Harlan said there were “incredible candidates” for the job, including “some prominent alums” who have done great things professionally in basketball, but did not mention Jensen or another former Ute who is coaching in the NBA and was strongly considered before withdrawing his name, New York Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant.
“I have had my eye on Craig Smith for a while,” Harlan said.
Utah’s third-year AD said he was impressed by Smith’s ability to “develop deep, deep relationships” with people, especially his players.
Smith doesn’t face a similar rebuilding project at Utah — Krystkowiak didn’t leave the cupboard bare, unless the mass exodus that began the day before his firing continues — but he does face similar expectations, perhaps even greater ones.
“My family and I are thrilled to join the University of Utah and the community of Salt Lake City,” Smith said. “The Utah men’s basketball program has fantastic leadership at the top. ... After visiting with Mark, it became clear that our vision for Utah basketball were aligned. This program has a rich tradition of excellence in the history of college basketball.”’
Smith will likely double or even triple his salary, after signing a deal last December with Utah State that would have paid him $5.025 million over six years. The first contract he signed with USU, in 2018, was for five years for $3.5 million.
Ironically, Smith had a clause in his USU contract that would have paid him $5,000 for beating Utah or BYU, but Utah hasn’t been on USU’s schedule since 2017. Krystkowiak was the 14th-highest paid college basketball coach in the country after the 2019-20 season, making $3.76 million annually, according to USA Today.
Smith said he is “100 percent” committed to building an aggressive, top-notch non-conference schedule, which is music to the ears of Utah fans unimpressed with the non-league schedules that Krystkowiak put together.
“To be the best you have got to play the best,” Smith said. “My motto has always been ‘Bring on the competition.’ I think it is very important to play a very strong non-conference schedule.”
He said he wants to play as many Quad 1 opponents as possible to build Utah’s NET ranking and strength of schedule.
“Let’s bring in great teams to Salt Lake City and we will return the favor,” he said.
Smith becomes Utah’s fourth coach since Rick Majerus stepped down in 2004 not counting acting or interim coaches Joe Cravens (1989-90), Dick Hunsaker (2000-01) and Kerry Rupp (2004), who stepped in while Majerus battled health issues.
Ray Giacoletti (2004–07) and Jim Boylen (2007-11) preceded Krystkowiak, who went 183-139 in his 10 years at the helm. Krystkowiak, however, saw the program slip to mediocrity since guiding it to a Sweet 16 berth in 2015 and a Round of 32 berth in 2016.
Smith said the most immediate goal will be returning to the NCAA Tournament after taking Utah State to the Big Dance (or qualifying for it) all three of his years in Logan.
“We had three tremendous years at Utah State and delivered what we said we were going to deliver,” he said. “… We can’t wait to pack the Huntsman Center, feed off the energy of the MUSS (student section) and bring a consistent winner back to the U.”
Smith said he watched Utah game film well into the night Friday night and also early Saturday morning before meeting with the remaining players. He said he will meet with each of them individually this week. He said he’s been able to “flip” a program’s fortunes everywhere he’s been, from NAIA Mayville State in North Dakota to South Dakota, where he went 79-55 in four seasons, to Utah State.
“I think we have a great nucleus” at Utah, he said.
Asked about staffing and whether he will keep some current Utah assistants on The Hill, Smith said “no final decisions” have been made and he will certainly talk to all of them, along with his former assistants at USU. He said he will look “broadly” for his assistants, which also applies to his search for players.
“We are going to recruit nationally and internationally,” he said.
Smith was able to bring USU star Neemias Queta to Logan from Portugal. Will he bring the 7-footer to Salt Lake City? He immediately dampened those hopes of Utah fans, saying, “No, that’s not something we are going to do. … That’s not a road we will go down.”
Within a week of Krystkowiak’s release, Harlan or one of his top administrators personally contacted 8-9 players who were part of Krystkowiak’s rotation last season and asked them to be patient and give the new coach a chance before making a decision whether to enter the transfer portal or stay with the program.
Battin was the fourth Ute and Allen the fifth to enter the portal since the 2020-21 season began, joining sophomore forward Lahat Thioune, sophomore guard Jordan Kellier and guard Brendan Wenzel.
It is also expected that senior guard Alfonso Plummer, who is eligible for the “extra year” granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will chose to move on, although the native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, has not publicly indicated anything yet.
Barring any more transfers, and if he’s able to persuade Allen, Battin or both to stay, Smith will inherit a talented roster at Utah, and will have plenty of open scholarships with the departures of the aforementioned.
Two international players — Norbert Thelissen of The Netherlands and Lazar Stefanovic of Serbia — have signed in the past year and were set to join the team for the 2021-22 season before Krystkowiak was dismissed.
The Deseret News has been told that Battin and Allen are not ruling out a return to Utah, if the situation “feels right” with Smith at the helm.
Utah basketball coaches
1908-09 — Erastus J. Milne (3-8)
1909-10 — Robert Richardson (17-3)
1911-14 — Fred Bennion (44-9)
1914-17 — Nelson H. Nordgren (26-7)
1917-25 — Thomas Fitzpatrick (42-30)
1925-27 — Ike Armstrong (9-18)
1927-53 — Vadal Peterson (385-230)
1953-71 — Jack Gardner (339-154)
1971-74 — Bill Foster (43-39)
1974-83 — Jerry Pimm (173-86)
1983-89 — Lynn Archibald (98-86)
1989-04 — Rick Majerus (323-95)
* Joe Cravens, acting 1989-90 (12-12)
* Dick Hunsaker, acting 2000-01 (18-12)
* Kerry Rupp, interim 2004 (9-4)
2004-07 — Ray Giacoletti (54-40)
2007-11 — Jim Boylen (69-60)
2011-2021 — Larry Krystkowiak (183-139)
2021 — Craig Smith