There was no singular ‘aha’ moment that compelled Mark Harlan to fire Larry Krystkowiak late Tuesday afternoon.
It wasn’t one game, one loss, one season that compelled the University of Utah athletic director to move toward the first major coaching change of his tenure in Salt Lake City. Removing his basketball coach on Tuesday was the byproduct of what this season was, and what the last few seasons have been in the wake of back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2015 and 2016.
“A deep evaluation of this year, but particularly the last 3-5 years, knowing that there was good in the last five, finishing in the top-5 in the league, getting a first-round bye (in the Pac-12 Tournament),” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday evening, roughly two hours after the athletic department announced Krystkowiak’s firing. “These last three years in particular, finishing sub-.500 twice, the inability to even be in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
“It was time to make a move, which is very difficult because Larry is a terrific person in every single regard.”
However it played out in the days that followed Utah’s 91-85 double-overtime loss to USC in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal March 11, Krystkowiak is out, and now owed the roughly $6.7 million across the two years left on his contract.
How that $6.7 million gets paid out, plus whatever Krystkowiak’s staff is owed, plus how the new coach and his staff will get paid has been a point of emphasis in the time since the news broke.
Utah’s athletic department is facing a fiscal-budget deficit of roughly $35 million in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The eight figures it will take to buy out Krystkowiak and his staff, then pay the next guy isn’t just lying around, so now consider the verbiage of Utah’s statement about the firing from Tuesday. It reads that the buyout and the new hire “will be fully funded from athletically-generated resources.”
What exactly “athletically-generated resources” means is up for some debate, but it stands to reason that high-level booster/donor help is part of the equation, which is not uncommon at this level of college athletics when a buyout has to be paid and a new staff hired.
“It’s going to come from various sources,” Harlan said. “There’s going to be multiple sources of revenue that we can tap into to help manage the situation.”
Harlan told The Tribune that, at least at the outset, he will not retain a search firm in an effort to identify his next head coach, but he wouldn’t rule using one as the process moves along.
Harlan opting to go without a search firm may indicate things are already in motion, or that he at least has a plan and things may move quickly. In a Harlan-signed letter, which was sent to Crimson Club members late Tuesday afternoon and obtained by The Tribune, he has “already begun the process to identify and hire a new head coach for our men’s basketball program.”
“There is no timeline, but I’m very excited to begin the search, it’s already formally begun,” Harlan told The Tribune. “Interest is high. This is a great place and a great opportunity. We can get into the NCAA Tournament with this program and I am confident we’re going to find somebody great.”
Head-coaching volatility inside the state’s highest-profile athletic department comes just as two in-state mid-majors, Utah State and BYU, ready to play their respective NCAA Tournament first-round games later this week.
Aggies coach Craig Smith, Colorado State coach Niko Medved, and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett are among the names being tossed around to succeed Krystkowiak at what should be one of the region’s attractive coaching positions.
Two ex-Utes currently on NBA staffs, neither of which have any college head coaching experience, could figure into the mix in Johnnie Bryant and Alex Jensen. Bryant was a Jazz assistant under Quin Snyder and is currently the associate head coach of the New York Knicks, while Jensen has been a Jazz assistant since 2013.
“I want someone who has incredible ethics, someone who’s passionate, someone who’s developing the whole time, outworking everyone else,” Harlan said. “This is the greatest university in the state and I’m going to find someone I really enjoy working with, just like I did with Larry.”