NCAA places Utah men’s basketball on probation; Tommy Connor no longer is the Utes’ ‘coach in waiting’

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah associate head coach Tommy Connor center yells instruction to his team during a time out during game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City Sunday January 7, 2018.

During his eight years as Utah’s associate head basketball coach, Tommy Connor has been viewed widely as a potential successor to Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak. Connor’s official status as the coach in waiting, however, never was published until Tuesday when the NCAA’s report of mid-level recruiting violations noted the school had taken away that designation.

Utah's rescinding of the 2015 agreement and the school's self-imposed, one-week suspension of Connor last November are the biggest effects of the NCAA investigation that resulted in two years' probation, a $5,000 fine and some recruiting restrictions for the program.

In the hearing process, the NCAA overturned its original two-game suspension of Krystkowiak, the report said.

“You can't run from the fact that there were NCAA violations committed here,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in an interview. “But again, there's a big difference between inadvertent mistakes and perhaps some of the other things we've seen in the country.”

The violations stemmed from what a school news release labeled “a misreading of the NCAA calendar” in the spring of 2018, when Utah’s four full-time coaches (including DeMarlo Slocum, now on UNLV’s staff) visited an out-of-state prospect at his school during a recruiting quiet period. Connor then collaborated with former Salt Lake Community College coach Todd Phillips to bring the player — believed to be Utah sophomore Both Gach, based on the timing — to Salt Lake City at SLCC’s expense, making the visit “unofficial” from Utah’s perspective. Each school was recruiting the player, amid uncertainty about his Division I academic qualifications.

In that context, though, the NCAA treated Phillips as a “booster” and regarded the player’s tour of Utah’s campus as an official visit, exceeding Utah’s allowed number in that recruiting cycle. Phillips, now a Utah Valley University assistant coach, and the player are not subject to any NCAA sanctions.

In Utah's news release, Krystkowiak described the violations as “inadvertent and unintentional mistakes.”

Harlan said, “I certainly appreciate Larry for the way he's handled this. There's no one who was more broken up when he realized what had happened.”

Harlan also commended Connor's attitude toward the investigation, saying, “You look for that in people. You make a mistake, how do you own it, and how do you act after it?”

The NCAA banned Connor from off-campus recruiting during July. His seven-day suspension included a Nov. 15 home game vs. Mississippi Valley State.

Utah's penalties were labeled “Level II-Mitigation” by the NCAA, citing the school's self-disclosure, acknowledgment of violations and history of reporting minor violations. During the investigation, Utah was cited for a Level III (less significant) violation for allowing Krystkowiak's son to practice with the team in July 2018, viewing him as a recruitable athlete. Cameron Krystkowiak, a Brighton High School graduate, attended a Massachusetts prep school in 2018-19. He committed to Dartmouth in May, although the Ivy League school has not updated its roster for the coming season.

The sanctions come during a challenging time for Larry Krystkowiak’s program, with veteran players Jayce Johnson (Marquette) and Donnie Tillman (UNLV) among six scholarship athletes who have entered the NCAA transfer portal since November. Harlan reiterated his support of Krystkowiak, who has four years left on his contract, saying he “has the kind of integrity you want in a coach” and is “a great teacher.”

Utah will start official practice for the 2019-20 season in late September.