University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan only needed to look 90 miles north to find his next basketball coach.
Utah State head coach Craig Smith will become the next Utes head coach, Harlan announced Saturday morning. Smith’s hiring will come more than a week after Utah fired Larry Krystkowiak on March 16 after 10 seasons at the helm.
“This basketball program has one of the steepest traditions in all of college basketball,” Smith told reporters via Zoom during his introductory press conference. “Our expectation is to win and win at the highest level and do it a certain way.”
In three seasons with the Aggies, Smith, 48, was 74-23, including three NCAA Tournament berths, two Mountain West tournament crowns and a share of the league’s regular-season crown in 2019 with Fresno State.
Smith said making the move from the Aggies to the Utes occurred at the right time for him professionally and for his family. He thanked USU Athletic Director John Hartwell and university president Noelle Cockett.
Smith was also complimentary of his players, who he said he informed of his move to Utah but could not meet with in person due to the timing of how his transition unfolded.
Smith said he is excited to be making the move to Salt Lake City and can’t wait to get going.
“We’re going to work our hands to the bone to put a fantastic, winning team on the floor,” Smith said.
Part of that drive to turn around a Utes program that hasn’t performed up to expectations in recent years will be ramping up the team’s nonconference schedule, Smith said, much like he did at Utah State. He also wants to keep the series against BYU going, and mentioned his desire to play other in-state schools during the season.
“I think it’s important to play the state schools,” Smith said before adding that playing every school every year is not feasible and may actually not be beneficial from an NCAA NET ranking standpoint.
Harlan’s coaching search at first zeroed in on Jazz assistant Alex Jensen, a one-time standout Utes forward during the late-1990s under Rick Majerus. Jensen removed his name from consideration on Thursday evening.
On Friday afternoon, multiple sources told The Tribune that another former Utes whose name had been floating around for the job, Johnnie Bryant, was no longer under consideration. Like Jensen, Bryant, is on an NBA staff, currently serving as the associate head coach of the New York Knicks.
Jensen emerged as a primary target of the search almost immediately upon Krystkowiak getting fired. In his 10 seasons, Krystkowiak amassed a 183-139 record. Utah’s two NCAA Tournament appearances under Krystkowiak’s watch came in 2015 (Sweet 16) and 2016 (second round). Since those two March Madness trips, Utah has been to the NIT twice, including the 2018 championship game, but hasn’t made a postseason appearance since.
Krystkowiak had two years and roughly $7 million of total compensation left on his contract. In 2015, coming off the Sweet 16 season and with the program’s trajectory up, Krystkowiak signed an extension to keep him in Salt Lake City through the 2022-23 season. Krystkowiak will now receive the balance of what he is owed.
In announcing Krystkowiak’s firing on March 16, Harlan said in a statement that “the costs associated with this termination and the hiring of a new head coach and staff will be fully funded from athletically generated resources.”
Harlan said during Saturday’s press conference that he’s had his eye on Smith for some time as he’s noticed how the Aggies program turned around in the last three years. Harlan said that in his coaching search, he wanted someone passionate about “mentoring and teaching young men” who could communicate “at the very highest of levels” and form “deep, deep relationships.” Basketball came after those.
“Boy, does this gentleman have all those qualities and more,” Harlan said.
Details of Smith’s contract were not immediately available, but his buyout at Utah State is manageable, falling just under $1.1 million.
Hartwell said he was appreciative of Smith’s accomplishments at USU, and says he will waste no time in search of a successor.
“I would like to thank Craig and his family for their significant contributions to Utah State University,” Hartwell said in a news release. “Craig and his staff did an outstanding job making Aggie men’s basketball a nationally recognized program. We have a tremendous nucleus of student-athletes returning to our program that have helped create a culture of winning and we want to make sure we keep them our priority as we continue to strengthen that culture moving forward.
“This is an extremely attractive job and we have already had tremendous interest from some very good coaches,” he added. “We will move as quickly and efficiently as we can with this search, but we want to make sure we have the right person to build upon our success of qualifying for each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and winning two of the last three Mountain West tournament championships.”
With Smith on board, attention will turn to what his coaching staff will look like, and how much of Utah’s roster he can retain.
There are four Utes currently in the NCAA Transfer Portal, none bigger than All-Pac-12 junior forward Timmy Allen, whose intentions to enter the transfer portal were revealed on Friday evening. Allen, Utah’s leader in scoring (17.2 PPG), rebounding (6.4 RPG) and assists (3.9), is leaving the option to return to Salt Lake City open, his godfather told The Tribune on Friday evening.
Allen is joined in the transfer portal by Lahat Thioune, Jordan Kellier and Riley Battin. Like Allen, Battin is leaving the option to return open, a source told The Tribune on Friday.
Smith said he watched film on Utah late Friday night and early Saturday morning. He is excited about Utah’s current roster and has already met with the team as a whole, and added that he will meet with his players on an individual basis in the coming days.
“I think we have a great nucleus,” Smith said.
Smith said trying to bring USU center Neemias Queta to the Utes is “not something we’re going to do.” Queta is an NBA prospect and was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year by media this season.
Smith said he will meet with all of Krystkowiak’s former assistants about the potential of joining his staff. He will also do the same with his assistants at Utah State.