For the 2013-14 basketball season, new University of Utah assistant coach Eric Peterson was the head coach and athletic director at Williston State College, a small Division I junior college located in Williston, N.D.
Peterson’s 27-win team that season featured Trey Dickerson, the nation’s No. 1-rated junior college point guard, which meant any number of mid-major and high-major coaching staffs made the trek to North Dakota’s sixth-largest city to recruit, not only Dickerson, but teammate Tre Burnette.
One of those high-major assistants was Utes head coach Craig Smith, then a second-year assistant at the University of Nebraska under Tim Miles. Smith made the trip from Lincoln to Williston several times that fall and winter, so Peterson had gotten to know him.
“The biggest thing I was impressed with was he was a normal dude,” Peterson told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month. “He didn’t try to give you the coach talk, he told you like it was. The more I got to know Craig, he’s a genuine person.”
That spring, Smith landed his first Division I head coaching job at the University of South Dakota. There was mutual interest in Peterson getting a spot on Smith’s first coaching staff, but as Peterson tells it, it was not an automatic that he was going to follow Smith to the rural campus in Vermillion, about an hour outside of Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city.
Peterson had a good job as head coach and athletic director at Williston, which he had turned into a top-25 program that produced two junior college All-Americans in 2014 in Burnette and another guard, Marquel Curtis. The more Peterson spoke with Smith, though, he began to believe that Smith would make him a better coach, which is what he wanted for his career.
Peterson joined Smith at South Dakota for the 2014-15 season. The two have been together ever since. The West Salem, Wis. native spent four mostly productive seasons with Smith and the Coyotes, then three highly successful seasons at Utah State, and is now one of two assistant coaches officially on board for Smith at Utah, the other being former Utes and UNLV assistant DeMarlo Slocum.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported Thursday evening that Smith’s third assistant was expected to be Tim Morris, a former John Brannen assistant at the University of Cincinnati. Morris’ hiring was made official Monday by the university.
Peterson getting hired, then getting retained twice by the same head coach is not an out-of-the-ordinary career path for an assistant coach. That sequence of events speaks to not only how far Peterson has come in his career, going from Williston State, to the Summit League, to the Mountain West, and now to the Pac-12, but the level of trust Smith must have had to bring Peterson along to those stops.
When Smith went from South Dakota to Utah State, he didn’t hire Peterson immediately. Peterson wanted to go — he thought there was a good chance he would end up in Logan — but in hindsight, he knew Smith wanted to get the lay of the land first. It was a higher level of college basketball, in a different part of the country, which meant a different recruiting base. It took roughly two weeks after he got the job for Smith to hire Peterson at Utah State.
The move to Utah was a different story. After seven seasons of winning, not to mention a major geographical move not part of the equation this time, Peterson was brought on board by Smith within days of his March 27 hiring.
“Obviously, this was much quicker,” Peterson said. “I expressed interest in the head coaching job at Utah State, but when it became apparent that was not an option, I was in constant contact with Craig and he said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ We would move much quicker than South Dakota to Utah State.”
Head coach-assistant coach relationships need to be two-way streets in order to function at a high level, and they certainly need to be that in order to function at the level Smith and Peterson have grown accustomed to. In seven seasons together, Smith and Peterson have gained five postseason berths, including three NCAA Tournament bids in Logan. Before that, South Dakota won the Summit League and got to the NIT in 2017, then went to the CBI in 2018 as part of a 26-win season.
In that time, Smith and Peterson have both gained reputations for player development, as well as strong recruiting. Peterson, specifically, is credited with unearthing former Utah State star Neemias Queta. The Portuguese-born 7-foot center is a likely NBA draft selection this summer following three dominant seasons in the Mountain West.
“He just gives his assistants lots of freedom and lots of responsibility, so it’s hard not to get better,” Peterson said. “He doesn’t micromanage. He gives you duties and he expects you to do them at a high level. He’s not calling you every night at 9 o’clock, but when you’ve been with him for a while, he develops that level of trust that you’re going to do what you’re asked.
“As far as how he’s grown as a coach, I think he’s the same person. He’s not going to change depending on the level. He knows who he is, and I think that’s his biggest strength. He’s a tremendous basketball mind, I think he’s always been really good with the X’s and O’s, but he’s gotten better at changing things from year to year.”