Two former Utah State coaches facing off in the NIT share a bond forged through their sons

Utah’s Craig Smith and VCU’s Ryan Odom’s sons are best friends, and have kept the friendship between the two former Aggies coaches going.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah basketball coach Craig Smith keeps an eye on the action in PAC-12 basketball between the Utah Utes and the Arizona Wildcats at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

When the NIT quarterfinal matchup between Utah and Virginia Commonwealth was set, Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith received a text message. It was from his buddy Ryan Odom, who coaches the Rams.

“I think our boys might’ve willed this game to happen,” the text message read.

Smith and Odom’s teams will face off Wednesday at the Huntsman Center for a chance to advance to the NIT semifinals in Indianapolis. They’ve only known each other a few years due to them both having previously coached at Utah State.

The pair became close when Odom took the job over for Smith in 2021, when Smith left the Aggies to join the Runnin’ Utes. Smith’s son, Brady, finished high school in Logan. Odom’s son, Owen, went to the same school.

So when Smith explained what has kept his friendship with Odom going while the two lived across the country from each other, his answer was simple.

“It’s through our kids,” Smith said.

Smith coached the Aggies there three seasons, from 2018-2021, and led the team to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, though they didn’t play in 2020 due to the pandemic. Odom coached from 2021-2023. Before leaving last season, he led the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament.

“Certainly it’s pretty ironic, right?” Odom said Tuesday of the pair’s Utah State connection.

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) Utah State head coach Ryan Odom, center, celebrates with players in the locker room after defeating Nevada in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, in Logan, Utah.

Smith said he and Odom “check in randomly” and that he sent his congratulations when Odom got the VCU job. He added that Odom once rented his house for about a month.

But it’s really the bond between their sons that has kept Smith and Odom’s friendship going strong. The boys used to stay at the other’s house frequently. On VCU’s trip to Salt Lake City, Owen Odom will stay at Smith’s house, Smith said.

“You’re staying out of my office because you don’t need to find the game plan,” Smith said he joked to Owen Odom.

Smith also said his son, Brady, spent many nights sleeping in Odom’s guest room while he finished high school in Logan.

“They just nicknamed it ‘Brady’s Room,’” Smith said. “I’m forever indebted to him and his family for really taking in Brady and welcoming him with open arms.”

But when it comes to competing against each other, friendships and past player-coach connections go out the window. “It’s just basketball at that point,” Odom said.

VCU will have to contend with a “balanced” and “impressive” Utah team and rely on its 3-point defense, Odom said. Smith said the Runnin’ Utes will be “really tested” against the Rams defense.

“I have this feeling tomorrow it’s going to feel like we’re playing five against seven because they’re everywhere,” Smith said.

VCU guards Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow also played under Smith at Utah State. They stayed when Odom came on, and transferred to VCU when Odom left Logan to take that job.

Smith said it will be “interesting” seeing and playing against his former players. He recalled doing a home visit in Brisbane, Australia, while recruiting Bairstow.

“It’s really unique, quite frankly, but super cool,” Smith said Sunday after Utah beat Iowa. “Really proud of those guys and what they’ve been able to do. They’ve both had great college careers.”

Playing against friends is nothing new for Smith and Odom, who have coached long enough to have to compete against a former player or mentor or staff member. What Smith will be eyeing, though, is how their boys are going to comport themselves during the game between their dads.

“I’m sure they’ll have it out and they’ll have fun,” Smith said. “I’d be interested in how they handle it. You want good entertainment — because they’re both really funny and outgoing — you should put a microphone on those guys during the game because that’s probably more of where you’ll see it.”