Krystkowiak the right man for the Utes, supporters say
Shaquille O'Neal might have been one of the biggest guys in the NBA, but he wasn't aggressive enough in the eyes of Larry Krystkowiak.
Once, when the NBA journeyman was O'Neal's teammate with the Orlando Magic, Krystkowiak stood toe-to-big-toe with O'Neal and told him he needed to get tougher.
It was a daring, edgy accusation in the eyes of some, but not Montana athletic director Jim O'Day.
"Those were the kinds of things Larry did," he said. "He was always a fighter, definitely a battler. He'd never back down."
Utah fans should hope Krystkowiak hasn't lost that edge, for he'll need every bit of fortitude to rebuild the university's basketball program.
Krystkowiak was given the challenge of leading the Runnin' Utes on Sunday, when he and Utah athletic director Chris Hill agreed to a five-year contract worth $950,000 annually. He will be formally introduced Monday at a 2 p.m. news conference in the Huntsman Center.
The now-former New Jersey Nets assistant becomes the 15th head coach in Utah men's basketball history, but arguably the one who faces the greatest challenge.
Not only must he rebuild Utah's program, but he also must get the Utes to a level in which they can compete in the Pac-12. Off the floor, he must win back a fan base that has grown tired of the rebuilding years under Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen and perhaps prove to Utah fans he is the right man for the job.
If anyone can handle those tasks, Krystkowiak can, say those who have known him the longest.
"Larry only knows one speed and that is all-out," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, Krystkowiak's former assistant with the Grizzlies. "If he has lost anything in the last five years, which I doubt he has, he is going to get right back on the horse. He'll surround himself with the right people and he has a great basketball mind and is a tireless worker."
A Montana native and star player for Montana, Krystkowiak was hired to coach his alma mater in 2004 and led the Grizzlies to a 42-20 mark and two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
That bit of success drew the interest of several programs, including Utah, which tried to hire him when the Utes needed a replacement for Giacoletti.
Instead he turned down the Utes and took a position with the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant and was promoted to head coach when Terry Stotts was fired during the 2006-07 season.
What appeared to be a golden opportunity turned into a disaster instead, as the Bucks finished that year 5-13 then struggled to a 26-56 mark in 2007-08. Injuries played a part in the poor showing but weren't enough of an excuse for Krystkowiak to keep his job. He was fired at season's end and didn't get back into the game until he joined the Nets' staff in July.
While his days as the Bucks coach might make him a suspicious hire in the eyes of some, those who have played for him and coached with him believe he will be a success.
"I'm excited for Larry, well deserved," Nets coach Avery Johnson said. "We're going to be losing a man of strong character, solid family, really good basketball coach."
The 46-year-old's journey through the NBA included a stint with the Jazz in 1992-93. He played in 71 games and averaged just seven points and four rebounds, but worked hard enough to leave an impression on former coach Jerry Sloan.
"He was a terrific teammate and a terrific guy to coach when he was here with us," Sloan said. "I have a lot of respect for Larry."
Former players respect him, too, characterizing him as a demanding but energetic and fair coach who had the drive to take a Montana program that went 39-50 from 2001-2004 and turn it into a winner his first year.
"He brought a sense of urgency to everybody; obviously he turned around the Montana program, going to the tournament two years in a row," said Stuart Mayes, a backup swingman who played for Krystkowiak during his final season at Montana. "They looked up to him like he was God at Montana. He's a good guy, but he gives that cockiness he expects to win."
Can he turn another program around? Can he recruit the Pac-12 and win over the local connections as well? Those are questions that can only be answered with time, but some believe they already know the answers.
"He is a good hire," said O'Day, the Montana athletic director. "He is a tenacious guy who works his kids hard and plays good defense but is a very, very respectable person as a coach and individual. There is no doubt in my mind, he'll succeed."
Staff writers Steve Luhm and Bill Oram contributed to this report.
Larry Krystkowiak bio
Born • Sept. 23, 1964, in Missoula, Mont.
Personal • He and his wife, Jan, have five children (Cam, Luc, Ben and twin girls Samantha and Finley).
College career • Montana (1982-86) â¦ set school records for career points (2,017) and rebounds (1,105) and was the Big Sky MVP three times
Pro career • Drafted by Chicago in 1986 with the 28th overall pick. Played with San Antonio Spurs (1986-87), Milwaukee Bucks (1988-92), Utah Jazz (1992-93), Orlando Magic (1993-94), Chicago Bulls (1994-95), Los Angeles Lakers (1996).
Head coaching career • CBA
2003-04 • Idaho Stampede 37-16 (Reached CBA championship game)
2004-05 • Montana, 18-13 (Reached first round of NCAA Tournament)
2005-06 • Montana 24-7 (Reached second round of NCAA Tournament)
2006-07 • Milwaukee Bucks, 5-13
2007-08 • Milwaukee Bucks, 26-56
Utah's Recent Coaches
Rick Majerus 1989-04 323-95
Joe Cravens (acting) 1989-90 12-12
Dick Hunsaker (acting) 2000-01 18-12
Kerry Rupp (interim) 2004 9-4
Ray Giacoletti 2004-07 54-40
Jim Boylen 2007-2011 69-60
Years Overall Conference
2001-02 21-9 10-4
2002-03 25-8 11-3
2003-04 24-9 9-5
2004-05 29-6 13-1
2005-06 14-15 6-10
2006-07 11-19 6-10
2007-08 18-15 7-9
2008-09 24-10 12-4
2009-10 14-17 7-9
2010-11 13-18 6-10