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New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith talks about support from former Utes, roster volatility, scheduling up, and more

Smith was hired as Utah’s 16th men’s basketball coach a week ago. He hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped yet.

New University of Utah head coach Craig Smith tours the Huntsman Center on March 27, 2021.

Thursday marked Craig Smith’s sixth day as the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Utah. Predictably, those six days have been busy.

Smith has to finalize his coaching staff, get to know the players he inherited, start recruiting for next season, re-recruit any Utes in the NCAA Transfer Portal, and generally ingratiate himself into the community, not only at the school, but in Salt Lake City.

It has been a whirlwind week after Smith was hired as the program’s 16th head coach last Saturday, agreeing to a six-year deal worth a guaranteed $12.6 million. This, after he won 76% of his games in three seasons up the road at Utah State, including two Mountain West Tournament crowns and a share of the league’s regular-season crown in 2019.

In the middle of the craziness, Smith took 30 minutes on Thursday morning to speak with The Salt Lake Tribune on a number of topics as his first week on the job comes to a close.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You were hired a week ago, and things immediately started moving. As your tenure starts to unfold, what has to happen immediately in these first few days?

Smith: “There’s a lot of things we’ve been able to do in five days. There’s not enough time in the day right now, but you maximize it, and that’s a great problem to have.

“We have to hire a great staff, we have to build relationships with the current guys that are in the program. We’re out recruiting for next year’s team, and then connectivity within the community, meeting as many people as we can in the community and reaching out to players, that led the way for the current guys. We’re working diligently to knock all that stuff out. We’ve had our guys on the floor, we’ve had two individual workouts in the last two days, another one coming today.

“It’s all encompassing building relations, as many relationships as we can. It’s been exhilarating, it’s been almost any kind of emotion you can imagine. I love the start, but it’s just the start, and we’ve got a long way to go, but we’re up for the challenge.”

Is any of this made easier by the fact that you are in-state and that you didn’t have to move yourself and your family across the country?

Smith: “In the short term, no, because I would just be here anyway, but I think over the long term, it will. There is certainly a great comfort zone. We love this state, we love living in Utah, and we met so many amazing people, certainly up in Cache Valley and already in a short amount of time in Salt Lake City.

“There’s definitely a comfort zone for my family, for my wife, for my four children. When this all took place, and our whole family came here on Saturday, the smiles on my kids’ faces, my wife’s face were priceless and as a father, as a husband, that’s a huge thing. Not to get too deep, but we’ve been married 25 years and that’s always been our priority for our family, no matter what we do. This certainly is an ideal fit in every way shape and form.”

In the few days that you’ve been on the job, have any ex-Utah players reached out and if so, how supportive have they been?

Smith: “It’s been great. I’ve played phone tag with some, I’m still in the process of reaching out to as many as I want to. I’ve had a few good talks with some guys.

“Johnnie Bryant, I had a great talk with him, but I’m still in the process of reaching out to as many as I can without getting into all the specifics. It’s been dynamite, and change always can be difficult for some and it can be exhilarating for others. At the end of the day, the common theme that I’ve received is that we’re all Utes, we’re all in this together, and there’s there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of pride in our program, certainly with former players, but also just the boosters and the fan base.”

Utah State's head coach Craig Smith cuts off the net following an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State for the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

When you met with the team for the first time last Saturday, how receptive was everybody to your message? Were they receptive as you went through individual meetings this week?

Smith: “It seemed very receptive, and like I told the guys, I have a lot of empathy for them, This happened real quick for me, but I’m sure it felt like 10 months for those guys. The last coach, Coach K, he’s a fantastic person, he has always been first class with me in our relationship over the years. I’ve known him since before Utah State. Andy Hill, Tommy Connor, I’ve known those guys a long time. Those guys laid the groundwork, those guys have relationships here, those guys recruited these players here.

“I have empathy. I understand. I was in the exact same spot three years ago. Of course, you have some guys that will look at you distant, others will look at you super-engaged, so they all come from a different place depending on their experience in the last year, two years, three years, four years, depending on the individual. I just have tremendous empathy for them. You talk about your vision for the program and what you’re about. In the individual meetings, you get a little more specific and dialed in with what you’re trying to do.

“I’m a big relationship guy, I’m big into connectivity. How do you have good relationships? You build trust. It’s hard to build trust in one meeting. It’s hard to build trust in two meetings. It takes time. In today’s day and age with the transfer portal, the transfer piece has been a big piece in all of college athletics. Certainly, men’s basketball probably takes the cake. I get it, and at the end of the day, when you’re talking about your vision and going over all that, if guys are all-in, they’re in. If guys aren’t sure, they don’t believe in it, and they want to search and go elsewhere, then I wish them the best of luck.

“We have so much that at University of Utah in terms of tools of leadership from academic support, athletic training, training people, obviously the Pac-12, our facility, it’s incredible what we have. I want to coach guys that are dying to be here. I think that’s how you have success and really want to be a part of it. Some guys will go, some guys will stay and we’ll move forward.”

There seems to be a belief among fans that if you want to retain Ian Martinez, you’re going to have to retain his father, Henry, who was on Larry’s staff as an assistant. Are you able to delve into that line of thinking?

Smith: “We’re obviously building relationships with their family, and with Ian, and just working through everything that way. I can’t speak for Ian or his family because I don’t know exactly what they’re thinking, but we’re going to do our due diligence to develop a relationship, like we have with all of the guys. We’re not really approaching things from that respect. We just look at Ian like we look at any other guy that’s in our program and we’re going to help make him the best that he can be. Nothing’s been determined in that respect. I’ve heard that scuttlebutt, so to speak, but haven’t felt that up to this point.”

Are you able to confirm that DeMarlo Slocum and Eric Peterson will be on staff?”

Smith: “They just cleared their background checks last night, so I can confirm that, yes. Eric Peterson and DeMarlo Slocum will be assistant coaches for the Utes.”

Is there a timeline, at least in your mind, to figure out who the third assistant is, the director of basketball operations, and anyone else who might be part of your inner circle?”

Smith: “With the one vacant assistant spot, we’re going to take our time with it. We’re going to be very diligent with what’s going on. We’re going to look at our staff from Utah State, I’m talking to staff members that were at Utah last year, and the amount of people that have reached out is tremendous. It’s a great job in a great city, and it speaks for itself. I’m really just really going to do my due diligence, take my time and just make sure we get it right

“I would anticipate some of that happening, in terms of a timeline, next week I would anticipate us bringing in a few more guys. I would say not everybody, but definitely filling in some positions by next week.”

Utah State head coach Craig Smith yells toward the court against Saint Mary's during the second half of a NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Going from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, does your recruiting philosophy, whatever it was, have to change?

Smith: “I’ve always had a similar recruiting philosophy in terms of the nuts and bolts of it, no matter if I’ve been at the NAIA level, D2 level, Mountain West level, Summit League, or Pac-12 in terms of how to build a roster.

“With that, certainly, your talent level has to go up. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of building a team and the attributes that you look for, it doesn’t change. Are they a gym rat? What’s their character like? What’s their work ethic like, how do they treat people, what is their skill level like? Those kinds of things, the intangibles we’re going to look at are the same. Obviously it’s a different level, it’s a higher level, and our expectations everywhere we’ve been is to get to the NCAA Tournament and to win when we get there.

“This is big-boy basketball, and the Pac-12 is proving it in the NCAA Tournament this year and that is a huge thing that attracted me to this job. It is such a great league with a great brand of basketball and every night out, you got to be ready to roll or it’s going to be a long, long night.”

In the past at South Dakota and Utah State, you were willing to beef up the non-conference schedule, which obviously helps with your NET rating and your resume once you get to Selection Sunday. How willing will you be to do the same at Utah?

Smith: “We’re open to everything. I truly believe in bringing on the competition, I truly believe in scheduling up, per se. As you alluded to, when we were at South Dakota we played Duke, UCLA, TCU, but that stuff didn’t matter because you couldn’t get an at-large bid. I always vowed that we’re always going to schedule to put ourselves in a position to earn an at-large bid.

“You always want to win the automatic bid and win the conference tournament, but if we don’t do that, you have to be able to get an at-large bid. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win a national title, but in order to do that, you’ve got to get the tournament.”

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