How passion and nurturing led Utah State coach Craig Smith to a stellar career

Smith knew he wanted to coach at an early age and has turned around every college basketball program at which he’s coached.

(Isaac Brekken | AP) Utah State head coach Craig Smith instructs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UNLV in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference men's tournament Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. Smith is taking the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

Craig Smith grew up surrounded by children. His mother, Beverly, ran a daycare out of his childhood home for 34 years. He babysat his four younger brothers, as well as some of the neighborhood kids.

And since he was a child in the small of town of Stephen, Minnesota, Smith had his eye on becoming a basketball coach. As a sophomore at Stephen-Argyle Central High School, he led a team of fifth- and sixth-graders as part of a coaching program usually reserved for upperclassmen.

Now at 48 years old, Smith, coach of the Utah State men’s basketball team, has three sons and a daughter of his own. And no matter to whom he’s relaying instructions, lessons or advice, he sees both groups of people exactly the same.

“I think I have some nurturing in me,” Smith said. “I coach our team and treat our players like they’re my sons and and … I parent my kids like they’re our players.”

Maybe that’s why Smith has seen success at each of his coaching stops. He took a one-win Mayville State team in North Dakota to an NAIA national championship game in just three years. He turned around a bottom-feeding South Dakota team and went 26-9 in final year with the Coyotes. He’s led the Aggies to three straight NCAA Tournament berths when the last time USU qualified was in 2011.

And at the center of all that, those close to him say, is Smith’s passion for not just basketball, but positively affecting people’s lives.

“At the end of the day, I think he truly just loves what he’s doing,” said Gameli Ahelegbe, an assistant at South Dakota who coached under Smith. “I think he loves impacting people and the way you do that is by just being a positive person.”

The power of passion

USU athletic director John Hartwell interviewed Smith for the Aggies job over dinner back in 2018. Just a few minutes into the meeting, Hartwell said, he and Smith were already high-fiving across the table when discussing recruiting.

When Smith had his first meeting with his new team inside The Spectrum, what jumped out to then-redshirt freshman guard Brock Miller was his energy and demand for greatness.

“You could tell he was a winner in his demeanor on and off the court,” Miller said.

Whether Smith is coaching on the sidelines or off-roading in the Logan mountains while music blares, passion permeates his entire existence. His infectious personality was evident even as a high schooler at Stephen-Argyle Central, principal and athletic director Kevin Kuznia said.

Garry Kotts, Smith’s former science teacher and track coach, recalled when a teenage Smith ran the 3,200-meter race at a state track meet and didn’t place. But it wasn’t the finish that mattered. It was the fact that he ran his best on the biggest stage.

“That to me kind of typifies Craig,” Kotts said. “At the biggest time, he’s going to give you his best and do his best.”

The Aggies lost a total of five games from their schedule this season due to COVID-19, and Smith even tested positive at one point. In addition, the team dealt with ups and downs, injuries and lower expectations.

But Hartwell said this past season has been when Smith’s passion and positivity mattered most.

“There’s no doubt he’s a glass-half-full guy,” Hartwell said. “His positivity and enthusiasm, not only does he have it himself, but he does a great job of instilling that in everybody around him, whether it’s his assistant coaches, his staff, obviously the student-athletes — it’s across the board.”

Smith said his positive outlook and work ethic comes from his upbringing. As a child, he smiled so much that one his teachers nicknamed him Smiley. He witnessed his father, Vernon, start his own auto mechanic business. He was also deeply affected by a story he heard about his father — also a Vietnam veteran — helping put out a fire and saving one of his best friends’ homes.

Smith said his family didn’t have much money. They qualified for food stamps, but his parents never accepted them. He and his siblings used to collect aluminum cans for extra cash. The example his parents set taught him “anything is possible in the world.”

On some level, passion, joy and nurturing was always destined to be part of his coaching philosophy.

“I just have always felt like I unleash the passion in people,” Smith said. “It’s amazing what they can accomplish when you show somebody you believe in them. … So it’s our job as coaches to show them, to just guide them in the right direction and let them grow, let them flourish and let them develop. And it’s amazing what will happen.”

Coach of inclusion

USU players and coaches say when it comes to Smith, “what you see is what you get.” And that authenticity and openness impacts everyone on and off the court.

Those who suit up for him describe Smith as a players’ coach. He listens to suggestions for practice times, defensive assignments, play calling and the like. Although the USU playbook has upwards of 100 sets, senior forward Alphonso Anderson said Smith often lets the team play freely.

“It may sound really, really simple, but when you have a coach that believes in you and is willing to listen to you and work with you, it just makes everything so much better because it’s not just completely one-sided.”

But that’s not the only way Smith strives to make others feel included. As an assistant at Minot State in North Dakota, he made T-shirts for his scout team that read “Minot State Nut Squad: Let ‘Em Hang” and displayed two basketballs. It was born from a nickname that became a team mantra.

Smith has gotten shirts made for his Aggies teams as well. He wore one with “Culture” written on it on the day USU earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Three others the teams wear right now read “Road Warriors,” “No Compromise” and “Nobody Cares, Work Harder.”

Smith said he knows players love gear. But the underlying reason he creates T-shirts for his teams is to make sure everyone feels important to the program.

“The shirt thing has always been a thing,” Smith said. “Guys love it. I think it makes people feel good and it becomes a little bit of a mantra. They love wearing that stuff. You see it every day, it becomes infectious.”

Ahelegbe said the way Smith integrates an entire program is what has led to success at each coaching stop.

“Whether you’re the trainer, whether you’re the manager, whether the the strength coach — everyone has their piece and part of the program that he empowers to make them feel like they’ve got ownership,” Ahelegbe said. “And so when you have that ability to empower people, it makes people just want to give their best to the program.”

Smith even helped empower younger children as a teenager. In the small town of Stephen where less than 800 people lived during his formative years, he was seen as a mentor to young kids.

“He was great for us,” Kotts said. “As a small town, we love to have kids that kind of become leaders, especially for our younger kids. He was definitely that. You can count on him at pretty much everything.”

Getting attention

Smith has made a name for himself over the last three seasons at the helm of the Aggies. Whenever a job in college basketball opens, his name is usually floated as one of the potential candidates. That’s evidenced recently by the job opening at Minnesota (Smith’s home state) and the University of Utah after Larry Krystkowiak’s firing.

Smith recently signed a contract extension through the 2025-26 season, but the buzz around him isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. Hartwell told The Tribune that he’s very aware that his star basketball coach could get poached, but he tries not to think about it much.

“That’s something that, regardless of the sport, an athletic director can either wake up in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. worrying about or, you know what, you provide the resources and the tools for coaches and student-athletes to be successful,” Hartwell said. “And if that success is to a level to where somebody makes a decision for their family, for their professional life, for everything else, that they take one of those opportunities ... then I’m not going to have a whole lot of heartache about that.”

Smith also said that he also doesn’t pay attention to the chatter surrounding where he might go. He said he learned early in coaching career to “be where your feet are.”

“I’ve been in this thing for 25 years and I’ve never looked for, ‘Oh, what’s next?’ That’s just not how I think,” Smith said. “And so my family loves where we’re at. We love where we’re at. It’s been an unbelievable journey up to this point, and we want to continue building this thing because we’ve got a very, very bright future in front of us at Utah State.”

But Ahelegbe thinks Smith would thrive at a program with more money and resources because of his history of exceeding expectations at schools not considered to be the “best job” in a conference.

“I can only imagine the type of success he would have with those resources because just look what he’s done throughout his career as a head coach,” Ahelegbe said.