New Runnin’ Utes Head Coach Smith Talks Tradition and Recruiting

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New University of Utah head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith tours the Jon M. Huntsman Center. (Image courtesy Utah Athletics)

By Justin Prather, Sports Writer

 

The writing on the wall was clear for former Runnin’ Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak when he sat down at the table for his post-game press conference on March 11. His team had just lost a Pac-12 Tournament heartbreaker in double overtime to the USC Trojans. While he talked openly about the challenges his team, and collegiate sports in general, had faced over the past year, the question most pressing in his mind most certainly concerned his future with Utah Basketball. 

Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan answered the question for him five days later in a statement declaring that Krystkowiak’s time with Utah had come to a close, stating, “Ultimately, our program needs a new voice, a new vision and a new leader who can build upon Larry’s foundation and lead us to greater heights in the years ahead.”

Just 11 days later, Harlan announced he had found Utah basketball’s new leader while sitting next to former Utah State University head coach Craig Smith at a Zoom press conference. Smith had traded his Aggie Blue for Utah Crimson and looked the part of the man with a plan. Utah fans should hope he has one, too, because after the honeymoon is over, Smith has the difficult task of reviving a storied basketball program from the depths.

In the ten years of Krystkowiak’s tenure, the Runnin’ Utes went from being a common fixture of the NCAA Tournament to only appearing twice, in 2015 and 2016. Krystkowiak has been Utah’s only coach of the Pac-12 era and had never led the Utes to a conference title, coming in as the runner-up in 2016.

Utah’s new man behind the clipboard comes to Salt Lake City from USU, where Smith spent three seasons as head coach. In 2019, Smith was brought in to lead an Aggie team with a losing conference record over the previous three seasons. At the end of Smith’s first season, the Aggies had a 28-7 record, took their first Mountain West conference title and made their first March Madness appearance since 2011.

“I’ve had my eye on Craig Smith for a while. It’s hard not to see the unbelievable success that has gone on in Logan, Utah over these last few years,” Harlan said.

Smith repeated his performance the next season, going 26-8, winning another conference title and another ticket to the big show. The NCAA tournament was ultimately canceled due to the emergence of COVID-19. However, the Aggies had gotten used to winning and wouldn’t be slowed by the pandemic. In a shortened schedule, they went 20-9 and made their third consecutive postseason bid in three years.

“We’ve always taken over programs that were kinda average or below average and been able to flip it and flip it quicker than people realize,” Smith said in the joint press conference with Harlan. “I think that’s a constant everywhere we’ve been, is our guys get better and we have a great time doing it.”

With the NCAA tournament wrapping up, the Runnin’ Utes have their eyes set on the 2021-22 season. While an official schedule has not yet been released, Smith signaled his preference for a tough non-conference schedule to build up his team.

“I’ve always believed to be the best you have to play the best, and our motto is ‘bring on the competition,'” Smith said. “My mentality is let’s be a part of a program to make it the best possible program you can, and to do that you’ve got to play up.”

At press time, staffing decisions have not yet been made. Harlan had only just introduced the new coach to his players. Smith said that it would be a lengthy process to meet with current Utah staff on an individual basis to determine the best course of action to right the ship. Smith also credited his staff at USU for their role in restoring the Aggies, signaling that there may be a shake-up in the near future.

The main talking point for Smith when discussing office staff was the need to start recruiting players. Utah has been hemorrhaging talent over the last few years, with two sophomore bench players, Jordan Kellier and Lahat Thioune, announcing their intent to depart a day before Smith’s hiring was announced. The most recent and impactful blow to the roster was a farewell from senior forward Timmy Allen, who announced his intent to enter the transfer portal. Senior Alfonso Plummer announced his intent to put his name into the NBA draft and then possibly transfer if he decides to come back for another year. Smith gave no indication on how he would plug Utah’s leaky boat, but he referenced the thousand or so players already in the portal before college basketball recruiting has begun in earnest.  

“Obviously we want to have great connections in the state of Utah and on the west coast, specifically California. We are going to recruit nationally. We’ve had some success with guys from all over the world, certainly at the University of Utah,” Smith said. “We are going to look under rocks on the recruiting trail, but it all starts with your staff.”

Smith touched on everything that Utah has done right so far in building the Runnin’ Utes program, including maintaining academics, training facilities and tradition alluding to a similar situation he found himself in three years ago moving to Logan. As a coach, he wants to build upon that foundation and remind the Utes that they have the potential to be a great basketball team.

“We have a great nucleus here to build upon. I think our style of play really fits a lot of these guys that are currently in the program. I think they have a chance to really shine in a way that maybe they don’t even realize at this point,” Smith said of his new team. “They better have high expectations.”

 

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@JP_at_TheChrony