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Gordon Monson: Utah basketball is stuck in an expensive rut

Larry Krystkowiak has had his share of triumphs since taking over in 2011, but Utes have been spinning their wheels for past four seasons, with no end in sight

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Larry Krystkowiak as Utah hosts Colorado, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

Larry Krystkowiak is a smart man. And a wealthy one.

But …

He’s not what he once was.

He’s a coach versed in basketball’s reaches, near and far, from the bushes to the big leagues. He played in the NBA for a decade, and worked as an assistant for his alma mater Montana, for Old Dominion, for the Milwaukee Bucks, for the New Jersey Nets. He was the head coach with the Idaho Stampede, at Montana and for the Bucks. As coach at Utah, he’s won 175 games and lost 131.

And that last part is what we’re here to hammer through.

If you read his bio online, at utahutes.com, the way it reads is that the coach has accomplished amazing things while leading the Utah program, including qualifying for postseason play five times.

But …

There are holes in his achievements — three of his postseason trips were just to the NIT, and in four of his seasons, the Utes qualified for nothing — foremost among them, a general slide over the past three years.

After taking over the program in 2011-12, as it spiraled into a nadir, bumping and skidding, mostly skidding, mostly falling off a cliff, to a so-sad-it-was-kind-of-comedic 6-25 record, Krystkowiak then hauled the Utes up and out of the weepy laughter, chunk by chunk.

They were 15-18 his second year, and from there, his teams ascended to 21-12, 26-9, 27-9, 20-12, and 23-12. In one of the two seasons Utah made the NCAA Tournament, the Utes got to the Sweet 16 — beating Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown before losing to Duke.

But …

That seems like a long time ago.

Krystkowiak took advantage of having three future NBA players over his better years — Delon Wright, Jakob Poetl and Kyle Kuzma.

During that time, the sky hovering over Utah basketball was clearer than clear, bluer than blue, everything else around the program was the prettiest shade of crimson. Under Krystkowiak, a proud basketball tradition had been built back to where it had been in more advantageous times, and where it should be presently.

The future looked just as bold, just as bright. And in that optimistic climate, then-athletic director Chris Hill rewarded Krystkowiak with a contract extension that was sweet by anyone’s standards. He got a longterm deal that pays him nearly $4 million per season, running through 2023-24. It’s a contract that places him 14th nationally in coaching salary, according to USA Today. He’s second in the Pac-12 among payouts. Krystkowiak, like other Utah athletic department personnel took a bit of a haircut during the virus crisis, but his remuneration remains substantial. His buyout, as of mid-2020, was reported to be $9.75 million.

Hill had succeeded in keeping and maintaining his coach by reaching deep into Utah’s financial resources.

But …

Should he have?

Over the last three seasons, Krystkowiak has put together records that indicate he’s become the Master of Mediocrity.

His teams have gone 17-14, 16-15, and, thus far this season, 5-5 going into Saturday’s home game against Cal.

That means his last 38 wins have come at the price of somewhere around $300,000 per.

Under Krystkowiak, the Utes have never won the Pac-12 title.

Making matters worse is that on Krystkowiak’s watch, fans are losing interest. Attendance figures in the recent past have been happily announced as considerably high.

But …

The actual body count walking through the turnstiles is much lower.

Long before the pandemic hit, the days of a full, rocking, raucous Huntsman Center had become rare. There were games over the last two years during which large sections of red, vacant seats, jabbed anyone in attendance straight in the eyes, especially old-timers who remembered headier days. Where was everybody? On some occasions, you could have floated the Hindenburg through the building and blocked exactly nobody’s view.

Why?

Attendance at college basketball games has dwindled at a lot of places, but it’s been certainly noticeable here. COVID-19 has pretty much emptied most arenas, including Utah’s, but a once-profitable, full-capacity endeavor had sagged prior to the current limitations.

The only way to get those fans, or at least some of them, back in healthier times is to capture their imaginations, to make them believe they might see something unique, something extraordinary. The Utes have provided anything but that since the 2015-16 season, the last time they qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

These kids in the program now practice hard and play hard. They aren’t professionals. It’s not their fault they’re not winning titles. They can’t be better than they are. They don’t recruit themselves. They don’t organize themselves. They play the best they can.

That’s why so much glory — and money — goes to head coaches in college hoop. They judge the available talent, they draw it in, they coordinate it, they keep it, they coach it. Or, they don’t. It’s on them. It’s fully acknowledged here that some of them have bag men who take care of some dirty details.

But …

Krystkowiak, as smart as he is, as near and far as his basketball reaches extend, is responsible for Utah’s results. That’s it. And for the amount of green the Utes are unloading on him, they are not getting their money’s worth. Not even close.

That’s fact.

He may be a decent coach, a charitable individual, who gladly contributes to good causes. He may be a fine educator. He might be a saint. His win-loss record might be the last thing he would ever want one day etched on his tombstone.

But …

It is etched into Utah’s record books and into the consciousness of Utah basketball fans.

In a time of financial distress in college sports, brought on by a pandemic that blew everyone’s normal well-being and thought processes out of the water, nobody’s suggesting, at least not here, that Utah should forthrightly fire Krystkowiak and absorb the penalty of paying him the remainder of what he is contractually owed while simultaneously slapping more cash on the barrel for an additional, supposedly better — or, more productive — head coach. Not as long as others in the department have suffered, some of them losing their jobs.

However, if the Utes keep him through the end of his deal, Krystkowiak must improve, he must do better. Find a way. It’s not easy, everyone is fully aware of how competitive the college basketball scene is, the difficulty — and, in some cases, the underhandedness — involved in luring in top talent.

That’s not anyone’s problem but Krystkowiak’s.

He’s the one with the whistle around his neck. He’s the one cashing the checks. He’s the one getting paid. He’s the one who must be held to account. He’s the one who has to make himself worth the university’s investment.

If he doesn’t do it, and soon, yesterday, there will be a proper Krystkowiak Krisis at Utah. Then, there will be someone else with the problem, maybe he already possesses it — Mark Harlan, the Utes athletic director who must decide precisely where crossing the threshold of holding the line and letting it go, to the benefit of all, begins and ends.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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