As far as general chatter goes, the early days of the University of Utah’s basketball coaching search have been much like any coaching search at any Power Five school.
Names of potential successors to Larry Krystkowiak are being tossed around. Some make perfect sense, some make no sense, some you can certainly debate into making sense. To put it mildly, just like with any coaching search, there is a great deal of, at best, educated guessing going on right now.
Whatever Mark Harlan is looking for in his next basketball coach, the Utah athletic director has what should be considered a prime head coaching position, not only regionally, but nationally. If you look at the college basketball landscape from a macro perspective, there were 18 Division I head coaching positions open as of Thursday morning. Harlan has on his hands the second-most attractive job out of those 18, behind only perceived blueblood Indiana University.
In discussing Krystkowiak’s dismissal and Utah’s head coaching position in general with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday evening, one West Coast-based assistant coach called the school’s basketball program a “sleeping giant.” That choice of words is interesting because it offers two different perspectives. On one hand, a proverbial sleeping giant has not reached its potential and has not accomplished anything of real merit. On the other hand, the perception of a proverbial sleeping giant is that it remains capable of great things.
Calling Utah a “sleeping giant” is apropos because objectively, there are perfectly valid reasons to believe this basketball program could, even should return to prominence.
When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, it tried to dive into the facilities arms race. To that end, the 90,000-square foot Huntsman Basketball Facility is the crown jewel of those efforts over the past decade. That building, which sits adjacent to the Huntsman Center, should be a massive selling point to recruits.
There are certain college basketball arenas that are considered cathedrals of the sport, Rupp Arena, The Palestra, Assembly Hall, Hinkle Fieldhouse among them. The Huntsman Center generally does not get that designation, but the truth of the matter is, the 15,000-seat, 51-year old building is iconic, and should also work in a coach’s favor in trying to sell the program. Remember, the Huntsman Center hosted one of the most-famous college basketball games ever, the 1979 national championship game between Larry Bird’s Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State, and many other great NCAA Tournament moments in the ensuing years.
Fan support eroded in recent years amid a succession of mediocre finishes, but when the Utes have it rolling, the fan base will show up at the Huntsman Center. At the height of Krystkowiak’s tenure, the 2016 season coming off a Sweet 16 appearance the year before, the program averaged 13,053 fans per game across 17 home dates.
As Utah has faded from NCAA Tournament contention in the years since, that per-game average has only dropped. It was 12,051 in 2017, 11,710 in 2018, 11,393 in 2019, and 10,561 in 2020. Fans were not permitted at the Huntsman Center in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, the administration supports athletics, and the proof can be found solely in what it was willing to pay Krystkowiak. Weeks removed from that 2015 Sweet 16 trip, then-Utah AD Chris Hill handed Krystkowiak a contract extension through the 2022-23 season, totaling roughly $25 million, making him the highest-paid coach in the Pac-12, and one of the 15-highest paid in the nation.
Furthermore, Utah’s assistant pool has been competitive at the top of the Pac-12. During the 2019-20 season, Krystkowiak assistants Tommy Connor, Andy Hill and Henry Martinez combined to make almost $830,000 according to their employment contracts, which were obtained by The Tribune. Connor, the program’s associate head coach, made roughly $443,000 that season.
“Chris’ reasoning all those years ago was that Larry was doing a hell of a job, the program was rolling, people were nipping at Larry’s heels, and Chris was afraid he might get away,” said a person with knowledge of the situation, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to compromise relationships with Hill and Krystkowiak. “As time went on, what [Krystkowiak] was putting out on the floor didn’t match the investment.”
Hill declined to be interviewed by The Tribune for this story.
As mediocrity permeated the program in the seasons after the NCAA Tournament trips, the contract, and more specifically the buyout attached to it, became a point of contention. This situation is not exclusive to Utah, a highly paid coach having an exorbitant buyout, which may have staved off being terminated earlier.
That is now a subplot of this coaching search, not only how much the next guy gets paid, but who pays it. In an athletic department statement on Tuesday announcing Krystkowiak’s firing, Utah said “the costs associated with this termination and the hiring of a new head coach and staff will be fully funded from athletically-generated resources.”
What exactly “athletically-generated resources” means is up for debate, but if there is going to he high-level booster/donor help in paying the next coach, that would qualify as another plus for Utah basketball. It means there are people with money connected to the athletic department who are willing to pay for a quality product. Conversely, those same people are willing to pay to get rid of a poor product.
“Certain guys have certain juice, and it’s always that way up there,” the same person with knowledge wishing to remain anonymous told The Tribune. “There are boosters there willing to pay to get something done. If the next coach walked in at $3 million per season, I wouldn’t be surprised. That would be my guess.”