Logan • When he was an assistant coach at Colorado State, scouting the rest of the Mountain West Conference, Craig Smith first took notice of Utah State basketball.
“I loved watching them,” he said, “because the spirit and atmosphere was incredible.”
Nearly a decade later, Smith is now responsible for bringing that feeling back to Cache Valley.
On Tuesday, Utah State introduced the über-enthusiastic Minnesotan as its new men’s basketball coach, during a news conference high on energy and heavy on promises of a return to the program’s glory days.
“One of the things I keep hearing is, ‘We’ve got to get the Spectrum magic back,’” athletics director John Hartwell said. “… I can’t wait for that to be there every night.”
Middling performances in the Mountain West conference, falling season-ticket sales and “fan apathy” led Hartwell to fire coach Tim Duryea earlier this month. After two weeks of searching, including meetings with seven potential coaching candidates, Hartwell said he knew Smith was the right person for USU.
“There was just an instant chemistry there,” Hartwell said.
With a pep band, mascot and cheerleaders hyping his arrival in Logan — and bleachers filled with university fans and boosters — Smith said he welcomed the pressure of reviving a program that has stagnated.
“I have tremendous expectations for Utah State basketball,” Smith said. “And I will work my hands to the bone to get this program back to where it belongs — and that’s on top of the Mountain West Conference.”
Smith’s experience in college basketball spans over 22 years. In addition to assistant coaching jobs at Colorado State and Nebraska, Smith has led rebuilds of Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota, and most recently the University of South Dakota.
At Hartwell’s first meeting with Smith last week in Chicago, the coach came prepared with a binder mapping out his plan of attack in Logan. Hartwell and Smith also spent more than 30 minutes going over Xs and Os on a whiteboard in the interview room. Smith said he plans to play uptempo style of basketball in Logan.
“We’re going to be the toughest dudes out there,” the coach said. “We’re going to be high fiveing, diving on the floor, playing aggressive man-to-man defense. We’re going to push the pace. We are going to play on attack. We are going to be in attack mode all the time.”
Smith has yet to finalize his coaching staff, but has already begun holding individual meetings with his players. On Thursday, star guard Sam Merrill said the uncertainty of the past few weeks have been difficult on the Aggies but Merrill and his teammates feel good about Smith’s hire.
“Obviously you could see the passion that he has for the game and the passion that he has for winning and the excitement he wants to bring to the program,” Merrill said. “… I think we got the right guy and we’re excited moving forward to see how it goes.”
Smith, as ever, is excited about the future too.
He and his family arrived in Cache Valley on Sunday to tour the campus and its athletic facilities before finalizing his contract. Inside the Spectrum, Smith said, he knew he was in the right place.
“Going from the locker room and they open the door to that tunnel … all I could imagine is that feeling of hearing the crowd,” he said. “We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better. We have to reengage some some people. But I could just envision how special that’s going to be.”