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Behind the scenes: Utah AD Mark Harlan on firing Larry Krystkowiak and hiring Craig Smith

‘We just had a disagreement on where things stood with the program’: Why Utah athletic director Mark Harlan made a change two weeks ago and led to his hiring of Utah State’s successful coach

Utah Runnin’ Utes basketball coach Craig Smith motions with his hand during tour of the team’s basketball facilities.
Utah basketball coach Craig Smith in the Huntsman Center on Saturday, March 27, 2021.
University of Utah Athletics

In what could easily be described as the two most important weeks in Mark Harlan’s nearly three-year tenure as the University of Utah’s director of athletics, the 50-year-old graduate of the University of Arizona made the two biggest decisions during his time so far in Salt Lake City.

Harlan sat down with men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak on March 16, and, “after a healthy conversation, completely professional,” told the 10-year coach that the U. was releasing him of his duties.

“We just had a disagreement on where things stood with the program,” Harlan told the Deseret News on Monday. “We shook hands at the end, and he wished me the best of luck, and I said the same to him. He loves the Utes.”

Krystkowiak declined an interview offer the night of his firing, but issued a heartfelt thank-you message on March 24 via Twitter for his time at the U. He referenced the AD who hired him in 2011, Chris Hill, but made no mention of Harlan.

“It was a very difficult process, but obviously more so for Larry, and I am very cognizant of that,” Harlan said. “It is not so much about me. He is such a great person, great father, great coach, great man. Nothing changes in this transition.”

The transition comes with a cost — at both ends — as Utah owes Krystkowiak approximately $6.9 million left on his contract, payouts to his assistants, and then has agreed to pay Utah State University $400,000 after luring new head coach Craig Smith from the Aggies. Smith is on the hook for the remaining $700,000 of the buyout in his USU contract.

“It was certainly a process that as you would expect with Larry, very professional,” Harlan said. “But the thing about our business is that sometimes you have to part ways with really, really good people. And sometimes it is really, really hard to do that. I have such great respect for Larry, and I know whatever he chooses to do next, he will be very successful.”

Although Krystkowiak’s original deal with the Utes was for five years, both Smith and Harlan wanted a six-year agreement for the new coach, the Deseret News reported Monday. Smith is getting $1.85 million per year, with $100,000 yearly escalators.

As the process to replace Krystkowiak unfolded, Harlan said nothing caught him off guard, but he was struck by the amount of interest in the opening from the Utah fanbase, which was seemingly losing interest with each passing year of the Krystkowiak tenure.

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak talks to players, including guard Parker Van Dyke (5), during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. Utah won 77-70.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak talks to players, including guard Parker Van Dyke (5), during the second half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Washington State on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. Utah won 77-70.
Associated Press

“What was impactful for me, and certainly validating, was the incredible interest that everyone had in the process, which was great,” Harlan said. “That’s what you want of any fanbase, to be highly engaged, who cares tremendously, that has great passion. … That just kinda gave us that extra jump in our step to just be really, really thoughtful in the way that we handled this search.”

As was widely reported, the 12-day search initially focused on Utah Jazz assistant Alex Jensen and then New York Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant. But as those former Utes withdrew their names from consideration late last week, Harlan turned his attention to Smith sometime Friday afternoon.

“Since I arrived here, which is about the same time Craig arrived in Logan, it has been hard not to notice the incredible success the Utah State basketball program has had,” Harlan said. “When you come into a (tough) situation and win conference championships and conference tournament championships, and certainly get entrance into the Big Dance, that is going to get anyone’s attention, much less mine. So I have always admired that success from afar.”

Harlan said Smith is one of the first candidates that came to mind when he decided to fire Krystkowiak.

“There were some things that became apparent, and that is what a great person he is, what a great family man he is, and also what a keen ability he has to develop deep relationships with people, whether they were people within the department, whether they were people he coached, basically anybody he surrounded himself with at his multiple stops,” Harlan said. “All of it just made a lot of sense and as such made him very attractive to me.”

Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said in a conference call Monday that Smith called him around 9 p.m. Friday with the news.

A few hours before that, Smith’s legal representatives, led by coaching agent Bret Just, of Chicago-based WME Sports, had met with Utah senior associate athletic director for business and chief financial officer Steve Smith and hammered out a contract. Harlan said his deputy ADs, Scott Kull and Charmelle Green joined him in the negotiations.

“We have a great team here at Utah, and Craig’s representatives are terrific as well,” Harlan said. “I have worked with them before with other clients that they have. So there was a lot of trust on both sides. We came out with a really fair deal for both sides.”

Craig Smith and his family drove to Salt Lake City Saturday morning and toured the basketball facilities, then met with Utah’s players in a meeting that was supposed to go 10 minutes but lasted nearly an hour.

Harlan said every player attended the meeting except a walk-on who was out of town, even players who had expressed their intentions to enter the transfer portal or already had: Lahat Thioune, Jordan Kellier, Riley Battin and Timmy Allen. Monday, shooting guard Alfonso Plummer announced on Twitter that he will “test the waters” by entering the NBA draft, but also said he will enter the transfer portal to keep his options open if he chooses to return to college ball.

“They have to make choices on what they want to do, and I am going to respect those choices,” Harlan said. “I just asked them to (take) the opportunity to sit down with our new head coach, and have conversations before they make any decisions, to at least do that. I have been really, really proud of them for doing that.”

Harlan said he turned the time over to Smith and left the meeting, so he doesn’t know all that was said, but is hopeful a solid nucleus returns to the U.

“Everybody was at the team meeting (but the walk-on), right on time, and they were very engaged. … Now, again, some will go, and some will stay, and we will march forward with who we have,” he said. “But it is always really important for student-athletes to understand that the best thing for them is to get the full picture before they make decisions. And I believe that is what they are doing.”

Harlan said one of the things he discussed with Smith before Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. news conference announcing the hire was the need to get fans back in the seats at the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center. The upper bowl was curtained off last season, but it didn’t matter because no spectators were allowed anyway.

Harlan said interest in the job opening indicated to him that the “fanbase is still solidly with us and we can fill the place up again.’

Interestingly, there are incentives in Smith’s contract for attracting more fans to the arena. The coach gets $25,000 if gate receipts exceed $2 million, $35,000 if they exceed $2.25 million, $45,000 if they exceed that $2.5 million and $75,000 if they exceed $3 million.

Based on feedback he received throughout the weekend and Monday, Harlan believes he made the right choice to get the program going again.

“I believe we can be great here,” he said. “We have proved it before with the right mix of a great culture, with great players, great fan support. I see no reason why we can’t be in the conversation most years for the (NCAA) tournament and obviously in the top grouping in the Pac-12. We have certainly seen our conference rise, particularly in the last few years. We want to be a part of that, and we believe strongly there is no reason that we can’t be.”