Assistants help to turn Utah’s program around

By Marco Villano, Staff Writer

Last season, the Runnin’ Utes lost assistant coaches Marty Wilson and Chris Jones. The two left to work their way toward careers at head coaching positions, which left head coach Jim Boylen with a void to fill.

Wilson took the job at Pepperdine in February 2008. A month later, Jones moved north to take an assistant coaching position at Utah State University. With Jeff Smith being the only assistant to stay on with Boylen, the Runnin’ Utes started a nationwide search that included some NBA assistants.

Within two months, Boylen found his guys in Stan Johnson and Barret Peery, both young faces from winning programs who were ready to bring a strong work ethic to the U.

Smith has been here since day one with Boylen and was the former associate head coach at Oakland University. Peery was the Scenic West Athletic Conference Coach of the Year as head coach of the College of Southern Idaho and Johnson is the former assistant at Cal State Northridge.

All three know what it’s like to win and have helped instill that in the Utes’ program this season.

Following the win against TCU and a share of the Mountain West Conference title that followed, Boylen made sure to thank his guys.

One of the main reasons Boylen’s three assistants are here is to rebuild a program that has been known for winning. For Smith and Boylen, it took two years of hard work to begin turning things around. Peery and Johnson helped accelerate that process.

“I don’t think we’ve even scraped the surface yet of what we can be,” Johnson said. “People forget we’re only two years into it and two years is really nothing. We’ve been very fortunate to be where we’re at, but we still have a long way to go and the potential is there for this place to be better than it’s ever been.”

Other than coming from winning programs, they relate to each other because they have come up through the system in similar forms. It took a lot of work for them to get to the position they’re in now and they relay that message to the players.

“We’ve had some experiences where we can provide the players and each other with some reference points as to how we’re progressing and how we can build this thing,” Smith said. “All of us understand and respect the profession that we’re in and how we got to where we are now.”

He has climbed the ranks throughout his coaching career. At Oakland, Smith helped build an NCAA Tournament-caliber program in five seasons. In 2005, the Grizzlies reached the NCAA Tournament and lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the first round.

Smith has been around the block a few times, just as every coach on the staff has. He began his coaching career at Alma College, where he played basketball for two seasons before ending his career with a knee injury. From there he worked with the team as a student assistant, then took over as junior varsity coach in the 1994-95 season.

From Alma College, Smith worked as an assistant at Central Michigan for five years. From there he went to Oakland, where he was a big part in their 2005 recruiting class which was ranked No. 23 in the country by Hoop Scoop.

For Smith, coming to Utah was a no-brainer based on Utah’s history.

“It was easy for me to come here,” Smith said. “Utah is 100 years of basketball and it’s one of the most successful programs in the history of college basketball.”

It was an easy move for Peery as well. Having grown up in Payson, Utah, taking a job up on the hill wasn’t a tough decision for him.

Peery has been a part of the coaching staff on six different programs, including Utah. His best gig was being the head coach at CSI, where he was at the helm for three seasons. Peery coached the Golden Eagles to an 85-19 record in his time there, and helped 23 players get to the Division-I level.

They talk a lot about being able to relay different reference points at different times in their careers. Peery had the ability to do that with every coach on staff, including Boylen, who has never been a head coach of a program prior to Utah.

“Barret can tell me sometimes why coach feels the way he feels,” Smith said. “Cause he’s been a head coach and he’s been on that side.”

Johnson is the relatively young guy on the sidelines, having graduated from SUU in 2003. His best success came at a program that took down the Utes earlier this season, Southwest Baptist. He worked with the Bearcats for three seasons and was a part of a 2005-2006 season, in which the team went 27-5

Like Peery, Johnson grew up in Utah, but a little closer to Salt Lake City. Johnson played high school ball at Taylorsville, then went on to play three seasons with SUU.

Just like any place of work, good chemistry with co-workers is vital to productivity. This is one thing that these guys feel really fortunate to have in the short time they’ve known each other. Smith mentioned that their wives have even become a tight-knit group and act like sisters.

“That chemistry is really nice to go and show up day in and day out and get along with who you work with,” Peery said. “You don’t always have that, and for us, we’re smart enough to know we’re in a good place.”

That being said, Utah could be a home for these three for a long time to come. If that’s the case, the Utes’ basketball program could be put back on the map, and with the early success they’ve already had, it might be shorter than initially expected.

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