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Gordon Monson: Thieving Utah steals away Craig Smith from Utah State — and comes away with a diamond

The new Utah coach oozes energy and enthusiam, just the right tonic for a program suffering from iron-poor blood

Utah State head coach Craig Smith instructs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UNLV in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference men's tournament Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

There’s an old Indian proverb that says, “A thief is a thief, whether he steals a diamond or a cucumber.”

It is yet to be determined what it is exactly that the Utah Utes just stole from Utah State. But steal they did, hiring away from the Aggies their basketball coach, Craig Smith, a man who has taken USU to the NCAA Tournament twice in his three years in Logan, and would have been 3-for-3 had it not been for a freaking pandemic last year.

Over that same span, the Utes didn’t sniff the tournament.

It seems like a diamond, then, that Utah has pilfered.

And only in the Hundred-Acre Wood would anyone hold the move in any severe way against either the thief or the gem.

Although, it is notable that just a few days ago, Smith told his players not to have any concerns, no way, no how, about their coach leaving. He was staying right where he was, sure as sure could be.

Sure.

Pinocchio’s nose just blew through the window.

That was back when Utah was waist-deep in the attempt to run off with Alex Jensen. But stealing from the Jazz was a little more like sneaking into Fort Knox. That gold really was staying put.

But here’s another proverb: “Lying and stealing are next-door neighbors.”

How about lying and stealing from your next-door neighbor?

When the paycheck can double or triple or quadruple, honesty is such a lonely word. And all those preachments from a coach to his players about making personal sacrifices for the good of the team, about playing for the name on the front of the jersey not the back get thrown into a very large trash heap.

So here’s what we know about Craig Smith.

He’s not Larry Krystkowiak.

He kind of fell out of a Norman Rockwell painting, growing up in a small town in Minnesota, marrying his sweetheart, Darcy, having four kids and going on to coach basketball on a winding road through the bushes, places like Mayville State, Northern State, Minot State, North Dakota State, Colorado State, Nebraska, all as an assistant, and at South Dakota and Utah State as head coach. That path has taken him from the small time to now the big time, if that’s what the Utes are.

That’s what they once were, and that’s what they want to be again. And they want to do that in a full house, in front of a large crowd. Hence the hiring of Smith.

Utah State basketball under the coach transformed itself from a dry leaf about to fall to the ground off a spent maple tree to a vibrant verdant branch sprouting on an evergreen. Under earlier USU coaches, the Spectrum, once as holy and rowdy a basketball cathedral as there was in all of Utah college basketball, had become a wasteland of hoop worship.

Smith brought an energy with him to Aggie basketball that was plain to see, palpable, inescapable.

And by the end of his first year in Logan, the cathedral was loaded up and rocking again.

He’ll likely do the same at Utah, the Huntsman Center having become a constant, painful reminder to the few, hearty, remaining Ute basketball fans of how glorious the program used to be. Somewhere along the line, somehow, Utah had gone from being a basketball school to a football school.

If Smith does on the hill what he did in Cache Valley, those designations might even up a little bit.

The man has energy and likability for days. He’ll do what he can not only to get resurrected Utah fans back into the building, but also to keep players in the locker room, too. That’s been a problem at Utah for a long while, players coming into the program, and players leaving it, for one reason or another. Krystkowiak may have been a good man, but he was never Mr. Personality.

Smith is.

Winning, of course, embellishes all of that more.

The attendant enthusiasm from the coach is a big bonus.

How enthusiastic is Smith?

He once did a coach’s show in Logan at a restaurant out of a closet, forced into that confined space — literally shoulder to shoulder — along with the show’s host by a technical glitch and a short wire. When the broadcaster informed the coach about the ridiculously tight space and that he might not want to do the show, Smith said, “Come on, let’s roll, let’s do it.”

The two of them were in that closet, all chummy, for an hour.

The Salt Lake media will like this guy, as will the fans.

Again, if he wins.

To that end, Smith is rather selective in identifying and landing recruits. At Utah State, he passed on a number of guys who could have helped the program. Sam Merrill was already in the fold. He did bring in Neemias Queta, a terrific find, but did not reel in a bevy of super talented game-changers. His teams didn’t win the layup line, but the players Smith did circle and lure in, he got the most out of. It could be said he got more out of what he had than anybody anywhere out there.

The care factor from him is ionospheric. When he was at South Dakota, he once jumped in a car on a recruiting trip and drove from there to Las Vegas to Idaho to Washington, making stops at each place along the way. The man has a passion for what he does.

From a schematic standpoint, he’s elite.

During games, he’s intense on and in front of the bench, working the officials hard, but he doesn’t get technicals on the reg. He’s nobody’s maniac.

His all-time winning record as a head coach: 225-107.

Everybody he’s worked with seems to love him.

They do — did — in Logan.

Now we’ll see how the diamond shines in a thief’s hand.

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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