Utah basketball coach Craig Smith had no obvious Utes ties, but a weekend at the ’98 Final Four helped fuel coaching career

Smith was hired as the 16th head coach in Utah history on March 27

Before being introduced as its 16th men’s basketball coach on March 27, Craig Smith had no obvious ties to the University of Utah.

A native of Stephen, Minn., a small town in the northern part of the state encompassing less than a full square mile, Smith is a 1996 graduate of the University of North Dakota. His 25-year coaching career has taken him to NAIA Mayville State (N.D.), Division II programs Northern State (S.D.) and Minot State (S.D.), Colorado State, Nebraska, South Dakota and, before coming to Salt Lake City, Utah State.

On the surface, there is no connection to the Utes, but a deeper look at Smith’s coaching life tells a different story.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) annually offers its members the opportunity to purchase Final Four tickets, so in 1998, Smith, then a 26-year-old graduate assistant at Northern State, was fortunate enough to be in San Antonio to attend his second Final Four. That particular Final Four included late, legendary head coach Rick Majerus and the University of Utah.

The Alamodome configuration for that Final Four allowed for roughly 40,000 seats, but given Smith’s standing in his profession at the time, he was merely happy to be in the building.

“Of course, I was a GA, so my seat was a nosebleed,” Smith half-jokingly told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent interview. “I was on the baseline and way up. A terrible angle to watch the game, but I could kind of see it.”

Smith took in Kentucky outlasting Stanford in overtime in one national semifinal, then watched Utah build a 13-point halftime lead on North Carolina before winning, 65-59. Two nights later, Smith went back to the Alamodome as the Utes took a 10-point halftime lead in the national championship against the Wildcats, but ultimately succumbed to Kentucky’s superior depth in losing, 78-69.

As the title game ended and the Wildcats began celebrating, the Alamodome started to empty out, but Smith made his way from his nosebleed seat down as far as he could before his progress was stopped by a metal railing. Smith’s vantage point was good enough to watch the Utah players walk off the floor. He saw dejection, and heads down, and some of them with arms around each others’ shoulders. In the immediate postgame aftermath, Smith felt something.

“There are moments in your life that are defining moments and that was a defining moment, it was a powerful moment for me,” Smith said. “That’s what I want. That’s my goal, my dreams, my aspirations, how are we going to make this a reality? It’s just always stuck in my mind, and just telling this story, I have to pinch myself because I’m now the head coach at the University of Utah and I understand my responsibility with this prestigious program.”

That ’98 Utah team was not in a BCS — now Power Five — conference at the time, but rather the WAC, which got Smith to thinking how that team got to Monday night and the national championship game.

In those days as a young graduate assistant at a Division II school, Smith made a habit of walking around with a pen and a folded up sheet of paper in his pocket to take notes. Smith’s notes likely included that that particular Utah team had a ton of size with Hanno Mottola, Britton Johnson and Michael Doleac. It had a legitimate floor general in Andre Miller, and collectively, those Utes defended at a high level, holding opponents to 57.6 points per game on 38.6% shooting.

All of this leads back to a tangent Smith went on in the middle of describing his experience at that ’98 Final Four.

Smith has always had a fascination with building teams. He loves the NBA Draft and the team-building functions that go into it, but he has what he calls a “really weird fascination” with the NFL draft. To that point, as a college basketball head coach, Smith believes there is a general manager element to his job, specifically in trying to build out a roster.

At the ’98 Final Four, Smith took good care to try to understand how Majerus built that roster, and he has taken good care in building his own rosters, which has spearheaded winning at all three head coaching jobs he has taken on.

Smith went to the NAIA Division II Tournament three times in as many seasons at Mayville State from 2005-07, losing in the 2007 national championship game. South Dakota has been a Division I program since 2009. Both of its postseason appearances since then, the 2017 NIT and the 2018 CBI, came under Smith’s watch. Utah State would have gone to three NCAA Tournaments under Smith in as many seasons, had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled the 2020 Big Dance.

With lessons learned 20-plus years ago, and with that San Antonio-based anecdote clearly fresh in his mind in the two weeks since taking over at Utah, Smith now embarks on a coaching journey he seemingly always hoped would be a possibility.

“We, myself, our coaching staff, our players are going to work our hands to the bone to get us back on top,” Smith said.