Boy Scouts and athletic directors have one big thing in common in the eyes of John Hartwell.
“You’ve always got to be prepared in this business,” Hartwell said Monday afternoon during a conference call with media.
“This was a very attractive opening three years ago, and with our level success the past three years, an even more attractive job now. I’ve already had a plethora of coaches, agents and representatives reach out for a variety of coaches, and we do have a very strong field of candidates and potential candidates to select from.” — Utah State athletic director John Hartwell
Last Friday night, Utah State’s athletic director said he was settling in for a quiet weekend at home by watching former Aggie Sam Merrill play the best game of his rookie season for the Milwaukee Bucks. But just after Merrill had put up a career-best 15 points against the Celtics, Hartwell received a phone call from USU head basketball coach Craig Smith at around 9 p.m.
There was certainly some reason for Hartwell to be concerned about the nature of the call, but USU’s AD had also spoken to Smith just six hours earlier. And even though Smith’s name had been popping up in connection with several other jobs around the country, the Minnesota position had been filled earlier in the week and Smith suggested that there was nothing to the buzz of him relocating to Salt Lake City to take over the Utes.
“I thought we had somewhat weathered the storm,” Hartwell said. “The Minnesota opening had come and gone, and I knew the University of Utah was looking at some other candidates.”
After guiding the Aggies to a 74-24 record and three straight NCAA Tournament bids, Smith was understandably a hot commodity. But when he didn’t return to his native state to take over the Gophers, and rumors had the University of Utah looking primarily at Alex Jensen or Johnnie Bryant as Larry Krystkowiak’s replacement, Hartwell was understandably optimistic that Smith might actually stay in Cache Valley for at least one more year.
“I had asked Craig specifically, ‘Hey, anything with the U?’ And he said ‘No.’” Hartwell recalled. “But obviously some things transpired late Friday afternoon and into Friday evening, and it came about very quickly.”
Smith informed Hartwell Friday night that he would actually be filling the open position at Utah. And while some rumors of Smith’s departure from Utah State started to trickle out later that evening, by early Saturday morning it was everywhere on social media and, soon after, it was announced through official channels that Smith would be trading in Aggie blue for crimson.
Caught in the middle, however, were the Aggies themselves. According to Hartwell, because of the speed with which everything materialized, Smith had to inform his former players that he was leaving via a group text.
“I told the team Saturday morning that Craig felt really bad about that,” Hartwell said. “… It’s not ideal, but it’s kind of the world we live in with today’s social media.”
Now in his sixth year as athletic director at Utah State, Hartwell said he wasted no time in turning his focus towards finding Smith’s replacement, and he believes that USU might have a new head coach in place by sometime next week.
“Once I got that call Friday evening, the wheels started turning,” Hartwell said. “This was a very attractive opening three years ago, and with our level success the past three years, an even more attractive job now. I’ve already had a plethora of coaches, agents and representatives reach out for a variety of coaches, and we do have a very strong field of candidates and potential candidates to select from.
“And in terms of the process, it’s already started, and I like to establish reasonable timelines. I would say by a week from this Friday, I hope to have it wrapped up. But I hope to have it done sooner than that.”
Hartwell said that the Smith’s coaching staff is still in place and currently overseeing the Aggie program, but that he believed at least one of Smith’s assistants, whom he declined to identify, has already committed to joining Smith at Utah.
Eric Peterson and Austin Hansen have both spent seven seasons as an assistant under Smith at USU and South Dakota, and Peterson served as head coach of the Aggies back in December for two games after Smith tested positive for COVID-19. David Ragland joined Smith’s staff in June 2018.
Hartwell said Smith’s assistants would be considered as candidates if they apply for the position, and he also added that the Aggies’ next coach doesn’t necessarily have to have experience as a head coach.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole experience or characteristics that would potentially keep somebody who is very qualified from being a candidate,” Hartwell said. “So, I’m not going to say that they have to have had head coaching experience. But certainly, if you’ve got two candidates who are very equal, I think there’s something to be said for head coaching experience. Because no matter what you face as an assistant coach, as an associate head coach, when the buck stops with you, sometimes that transition to the No. 2 guy to the guy is difficult.
“But I’m wide open in our search.”
Retaining players and recruits is, of course, very vital in the age of the transfer portal, and Hartwell said when he met with the team, he encouraged them to patient with their decision making.
“We’re real fortunate to have some veterans on our team who were in middle of this process three years ago when we hired Craig,” Hartwell pointed out. “Justin Bean and Brock Miller, those guys were around, and they’ve been a really strong voice to the younger guys about, ‘Hey, you’ve got to trust the process. You’ve got to trust, John.’
“… I’ve also had some correspondence back and forth with Sam Merrill, and he’s obviously still very close with many of the members of our team and I know he’s provided them with the same message, as well.”
Monday afternoon, USU center Neemias Queta made it official that he would be leaving the Aggies following three standout seasons and make himself eligible for the 2021 NBA Draft on July 29. That announcement was expected, however, and USU’s all-time leader in blocked shots likely would have made the decision to go pro regardless of Smith’s status.
Senior forward Alphonso Anderson has also declared that he will leave the program as a grad transfer, leaving USU without its leading scorer and rebounder (Queta, 14.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg) and sixth-leading scorer (Anderson, 6.8 ppg).
Bean (11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Miller (8.8 ppg, team-best 57 3-pointers) are currently expected to be back for their senior seasons in 2021-22, along with guard Marco Anthony (10.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Freshman guard Rollie Worster (9.1 ppg) started nearly every game last season, while guard Steven Ashworth (6.1 ppg) played a key role coming off the bench in his first season in Logan after serving a mission.
The Aggies ended up 20-9 in 2020-21, finishing second in the Mountain West before losing to San Diego State in the championship game of the MW tourney, and then falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Texas Tech.
Picked in the preseason to finish ninth in the Mountain West in 2018-19, Smith led Utah State to a 28-7 mark, a second-place finish in conference play and a MW tournament title before losing to Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2019-20, the Aggies went 26-8 and repeated as Mountain West tournament champs, but they were denied a second-straight trip to the NCAA tourney due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith’s first contract in March 2018 was for five years and $3.5 million, but an extension quietly signed last December called Smith to make about $5 million over a six-year period. Depending on experience, Smith noted that USU’s new coach would likely be signed for similar money – but certainly nothing like Smith’s contract with the Utes, which calls for him to make a guaranteed $12.6 million over six years.
Although Hartwell utilized a search firm to help bring in Smith, he said he’s not certain if USU will use one this time around. In addition to Smith, Hartwell’s other two high-profile hires have been former USU head football coach Gary Andersen, who was fired last season, and new football coach Blake Anderson.
Hartwell inherited Tim Duryea as head basketball coach when he was hired in 2015, but Hartwell fired Duryea in March 2018 after the longtime Aggie assistant went 47-49 in three seasons. Stew Morrill was the last USU coach to be hired after the Aggies lost a head coach to a bigger program – Larry Eustachy to Iowa State in 1998 – and Morrill ended up staying 17 seasons and winning a school-record 402 games.