The Utah athletic department’s letter informing football season-ticket holders of higher fees for stadium expansion and access to seats naturally stirred some grumbling last week. The empty seats in the Huntsman Center the next night for a meeting of top-four basketball teams in the Pac-12 made another statement.
No tickets will go unsold at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the coming season, with a 3,000-person waiting list backstopping any fans who balk about price increases. Ute basketball is another story. With the home team in second place in the conference, Utah’s second-biggest crowd (announced attendance: 12,585) of the season was 81 percent of capacity for Saturday’s game vs. Arizona State.
College basketball’s dwindling attendance around the country is a story in itself. So the popularity of Ute football is not fully an endorsement of coach Kyle Whittingham, nor is basketball attendance simply an indictment of Krystkowiak. Yet the fact Utah could sell out a basketball game three years ago and not come close to that level in 2018-19 suggests some dissatisfaction.
The research is anecdotal; the findings are clear. Among Ute fans, Whittingham unquestionably has a higher approval rating than Krystkowiak — to a mystifying degree, based on their bodies of work. Whittingham has been less consistent than Krystkowiak in the Pac-12 and has a worse record, as judged both by the school’s eight-year tenure in the conference and the five years that followed a phase-in period to this level of competition.
Yet fans use labels such as “stagnant,” “stalled” and “lethargy” for Krystkowiak's program.
Conversely, Whittingham is credited with a “perennial top 25” program, even though the Utes have finished in the AP Top 25 only three times (2014-16) in the Pac-12 era. What’s evident is that Whittingham survived two critical, coinciding phases of his career: the transition to the Pac-12 and the period when any long-tenured coach’s program is judged as becoming stale. If anything, Krystkowiak may have succeeded too soon.
Krystkowiak is not unaware of criticism, as shown by his response to a question last week about Arizona coach Sean Miller’s struggles. “It’s not always a fun business to be in,” he said. “Things can compound and there’s a lot of opinions out there and sometimes … those people make a lot louder noise. So it gets hard to get beat up, [in] family life and different things.”
KYLE VS. LARRY
Here's how Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham's record in Pac-12 games compares with Ute basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak's:
Whittingham • 4-5, 3-6, 2-7, 5-4, 6-3, 5-4, 3-6, 6-3. Total: 34-38 (.472).
Krystkowiak • 3-15, 5-13, 9-9, 13-5, 13-5, 11-7, 11-7, 8-5. Total: 73-66 (.525).
Past five seasons
Whittingham – 25-20 (.555).
Krystkowiak – 56-29 (.659).
Krystkowiak, 54, is insulated by a contract that runs through the 2022-23 season, although his completion (and potential extension) of the deal is subject to first-year athletic director Mark Harlan’s judgment. Harlan is publicly supportive and knows the history of how Krystkowiak’s teams usually improve during the year and outperform expectations. This season, based largely on nonconference performance, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projected 6.1 wins for Utah in Pac-12 play. Krystkowiak’s team is 8-5 with five games left, including Wednesday night’s visit to league-leading Washington.
Fans want more from him, though. These are five reasons Whittingham is more popular than Krystkowiak:
This subject could be Nos. 1-5, or Nos. 1-3.4 million.
For the sake of the fan base's acceptance, Krystkowiak should have turned down the raise he received from former athletic director Chris Hill in November 2016 (his contract's duration remained the same). USA Today's published salary database last March listed him as the No. 8 highest-paid coach in college basketball, a ranking continually cited by his detractors.
“Pac-12 basketball is weak right now,” said James Williams, of Centerville. “For as much money as he makes, the program should be winning conference titles and making the NCAA Tournament.”
Deven Serr, of South Jordan, ranks Whittingham above Krystkowiak based on “how much success they are having vs. how much they are being paid, relative to the competition.”
Whitttingham makes more money ($3.8 million), but his salary ranks third among Pac-12 football coaches and 28th nationally.
Alan Macfarlane, of Salt Lake City, wonders why fans are so preoccupied with coaching income, asking, “Would they be OK with Krystkowiak's results if he made half as much?”
Macfarlane added, “I think some fans have never been sold on Larry and they've built up the case in their minds for years about why the school should part ways with him, and a 'paid too much' notion fits their narrative.”
Transfers hardly are uncommon in college basketball, but Utah's volume of departures provides some anti-Krystkowiak material.
A starting five could be formed among ex-Utes: guards Isaiah Wright (San Diego) and Devon Daniels (North Carolina State), center Makol Mawien (Kansas State) and forwards Brekkott Chapman (Weber State) and Vante Hendrix (Fresno State). JoJo Zamora (New Mexico State) would come off the bench.
In defense of Krystkowiak, the players have to absorb some percentage of blame for not thriving at Utah. The Utes also have benefitted from transfers such as leading scorer Sedrick Barefield and former players Justin Bibbins and David Collette.
Chapman, from Roy, remains Krystkowiak's top-ranked high school recruit, according to 247Sports. In Krystkowiak's favor, though, his next six top recruits are on Utah's 2019-20 roster: current players Jayce Johnson (No. 2), Both Gach (No. 5) and Timmy Allen (No. 7), plus Olympus guard Rylan Jones (No. 3), returning missionary Branden Carlson (No. 4) and Finnish forward Mikael Jantunen (No. 6).
Miller, whose $4.1 million salary tops Krystkowiak's, pointed to the development of Utah's players after losing to the Utes. “They get guys that often times aren't the five-star coming out of high school and man, they sure look like five-star players in college,” he said.
Missing the NCAA Tournament
College basketball is a postseason-driven sport. In a program with Utah's tradition, not making the NCAA Tournament is considered a failure. Krystkowiak's team will miss the event for a third straight year, unless the Utes win the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
Whittingham has taken the Utes to five straight bowl games, winning four. In the Pac-12's postseason structure, all but the 2018 Holiday Bowl could be considered the football equivalent of the NIT. Yet Whittingham gets credit for winning those other games, and he's also forgiven for missing bowl games (with losing records) in Utah's second and third seasons of Pac-12 membership.
Krystkowiak seemingly is not given such allowances, even in the context of the downtrodden program he took over. “Eight years and two tourney appearances. Not good enough,” said Brian Joyce, of Sandy.
Rebuilding can occur more quickly in basketball than football, and Utah reached the Sweet 16 in his fourth season with NBA first-round picks Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl, followed by a No. 3 seeding the next year with Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma.
Krystkowiak's problem is those achievements are viewed are a baseline of expectations. Utah's reaching the NIT championship game, as he did last year, is categorized as just another non-NCAA season.
Losing to BYU
Whittingham's eight-game winning streak vs. BYU, one short of the series record for either school, definitely helps him. Krystkowiak, meanwhile, produced a remarkable feat of uniting segments of both fan bases against him when he canceled the team's 2016 meeting. And then the Utes lost convincingly to BYU each of the past two seasons.
“The whole BYU saga looked bad,” said Ute fan David Cooper, of Twin Falls, Idaho.
Football’s divisional structure
Whittingham won the school's first Pac-12 South championship in 2018, when the Utes tied for the third-best record (6-3) in the conference. His average leaguewide finish of the past five seasons is slightly below fifth, but that's masked by football's divisional structure.
Krystkowiak’s program is judged against the entire Pac-12. His critics seemingly don’t award him for consistency, even with the Utes possibly emerging as the only Pac-12 school to finish in the conference’s top four in each of the past five seasons. If the Utes remain in the top four this season, Krystkowiak will have done a remarkable job. Will it be good enough? Evidently not.
UTAH AT WASHINGTON
At Alaska Airlines Arena, Seattle
Tipoff: Wednesday, 9 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Washington 20-5 (11-1 Pac-12); Utah 14-11 (8-5 Pac-12).
Series history: Utah leads, 15-10.
Last meeting: Washington 69, Utah 53 (Jan. 10).
About the Utes: Utah made one field goal in a 10-minute stretch of the second half at home last month. The Utes were 5 of 29 from 3-point range until the final few seconds, when Parker Van Dyke made his only basket of the night. … Van Dyke has been Utah’s offensive player lately, scoring 55 points in three games. … The Utes are tied with Arizona State for third place in the Pac-12, only 1½ games ahead of eighth-place Oregon. … Utah will play at Washington State on Saturday.
About the Huskies: Washington blocked nine Utah shots in the teams’ first meeting this season. UW’s zone defense caused considerable problems for the Utes. … The Huskies have a three-game lead over second-place Oregon State in the Pac-12 with six games remaining. … Washington rallied from 14 points down in the first half of a 72-70 win at Washington State last Saturday. … Mike Hopkins is the first UW coach since 1953 to post 20 wins in each of his first two seasons.