New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith ‘made a lot of sense’ to Utah AD Mark Harlan

Smith marks Harlan’s first major coaching hire since arriving at Utah in 2018

New University of Utah men's basketball coach Craig Smith tours the Huntsman Basketball Facility on March 27, 2021

As Mark Harlan introduced his new men’s basketball late Saturday morning on a Zoom call with the media, the University of Utah athletic director said he had his eye on Craig Smith for a while, noting the level of success Smith had attained in three seasons at Utah State.

Frankly, what Smith did in three seasons in Logan is hard to ignore, including a .755 winning percentage, two Mountain West Tournament crowns, and what would have been three trips to the NCAA Tournament, had the infancy of the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled last season’s Big Dance.

When Harlan’s 12-day search to find Larry Krystkowiak’s successor moved away from Alex Jensen and Johnnie Bryant and made its way to Smith late last week, it started making sense that it would end right there.

“On the list of possibilities, I thought he was really high up there,” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune Monday morning, roughly 48 hours after the athletic department announced Smith’s hiring as the 16th head coach in program history. “His basketball acumen, the success of his teams were hard to question, especially the last three years at Utah State.”

Smith was introduced on Saturday, but things began ramping up the day before.

On a conference call with reporters on Monday, Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said he spoke with Smith at 2:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. During that conversation, Hartwell asked Smith if there was anything going on at the University of Utah, to which Smith there wasn’t.

At the beginning of last week, the assumption was that the Stephen, Minn. native would be in the mix for the head coach job at the University of Minnesota, empty after Richard Pitino was fired March 15 following his eighth season. That opening lasted a week before, to the surprise of many, Xavier assistant Ben Johnson was hired, leaving Smith still the head coach at Utah State.

“After my conversation with Craig, I felt like we had somewhat weathered the storm in terms of the Minnesota opening had come and gone and I knew that the University of Utah was looking at some other candidates,” Hartwell said. “But you always have to be prepared in this business.”

In hindsight, Minnesota not even interviewing Smith for the job left him free for Utah, should its own job search reach him, which it obviously did.

“I knew I wasn’t the only one thinking about what he could bring to the table, and with any coaching search, you’re going to see some type of competition because everyone is looking for the qualities that Craig possesses,” Harlan said. “It worked out in our favor and we were fortunate to get him.

“I heard from people I care about and trust in this business, people that know him, and that all said in different ways that he is a great person and a communicator, while commending the passion he has. Combining all of that with the ability to coach made a lot of sense.”

A whirlwind Saturday morning included a face-to-face meeting with Utah players at the Huntsman Practice Facility. There were 10 minutes allotted for that meeting, but Harlan noted it wound up going 45. Smith toured the facility, took a look around the venerable 15,000-seat Huntsman Center, and eventually, that Harlan-led introductory Zoom call, which lasted roughly 30 minutes.

Now, the work starts, and these first days are critical.

Smith has to put together a coaching staff. He will vet the staff Krystkowiak left behind, but that search is expected to mostly go in a different direction. Smith needs to start recruiting, which is likely to include the roster he just inherited as five Utes are currently in the NCAA Transfer Portal, including leading scorer, rebounder and assist man Timmy Allen, an All-Pac-12 first-team selection as a junior last season.

In terms of a staff, Hartwell said Monday that one Utah State assistant is expected to follow Smith to Salt Lake City, but did not elaborate. The logical option there is Eric Peterson, who was with Smith for all three seasons in Logan, plus the previous four at South Dakota. Peterson is credited with helping to bring Mountain West Player and Defensive Player of the Year Neemias Queta to Utah State three seasons ago.

“A lot of this has to do with people and developing relationships right from the get-go,” Harlan said. “Meeting with the players, developing a staff, those are critical elements moving forward.

“He’s going to dig in and really get to work on a lot of things, there’s no doubt about that.”

Smith and Utah agreed to a six-year contract, worth a guaranteed $12.6 million. The contract, obtained Monday afternoon by The Salt Lake Tribune, will begin the 2021-22 season at $1.85 million in guaranteed compensation, with $100.000 in escalators for each successive year.

The contract does not offer much in the way of surprises or anything out of the ordinary, but one thing to note is that Utah is picking up $400,000 of Smith’s Utah State buyout, which is just shy of $1.1 million.

If Smith is fired by the University of Utah, he is owed 100% of his base salary. If Smith leaves on his own, that buyout figure starts at $11 million in the first year of the deal, then lessens with each passing year.

Reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this story.