When news of DeMarlo Slocum’s hire to Craig Smith’s first University of Utah staff broke less than a week after Smith was hired on March 27, the development was met with a great deal of optimism, not to mention fanfare.
Smith did not retain anyone from Larry Krystkowiak’s final coaching staff, but hiring Slocum meant Smith was bringing back a former Krystkowiak assistant, a largely popular figure with recruiting ties in key strongholds on this side of the country. Slocum is a native of Las Vegas, which offers an underrated selection of Division I-caliber recruits. Being from southern Nevada, plus having worked as the director of basketball operations at USC early in his coaching career, means Southern California is on the table as a recruiting option.
“The success we had here, relationships are everything and people know the level we got it to at one point here at Utah,” Slocum told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “When you’re good to people, people are good to you. My phone calls have been more than receptive, more than exciting; guys know the landscape. There were guys from Nevada, guys from California, we were able to bring them on campus, show them the landscape, the environment. The culture piece will be different with a new staff, but the championship-level aspirations don’t change.”
At a minimum, Slocum is a link back to some of the headiest of times the program has enjoyed since Rick Majerus left in 2004, after 323 wins, 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and nine regular-season conference titles in 15 seasons.
With Slocum on staff in 2015, Utah spent most of the season ranked inside the top 20, peaked at No. 8 just after New Year’s, and gave eventual national champion Duke all it could handle before falling in the Sweet 16. The next season, the Utes peaked with a No. 12 ranking, got to the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament, and advanced back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Slocum is credited with recruiting Kyle Kuzma and Delon Wright to Salt Lake City. Kuzma was an All-Pac-12 first-team honoree and a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017. Wright was twice an All-Pac-12 first-team selection, the Bob Cousy Award winner in 2015 as the nation’s top point guard, and a first-round pick of the Toronto Raptors.
“This fan base is very knowledgeable, they pay attention to your every move and some people can say that’s a negative, but to me, every young man who signs up for college basketball deserves the attention,” Slocum said. “They make the game, we just coach it. The product we put on the floor is what the fan base loves.”
Slocum never wanted to leave the University of Utah after the 2018-19 season, but his reasoning for doing so was sound.
After 15 seasons at five different coaching stops to that point, including eight seasons in Salt Lake City under Krystkowiak, the pull of going home to Las Vegas, being around his family, and coaching at UNLV was too much to resist.
“I love this place, I love this university, I think it stands for all the right things,” Slocum said of Utah.
Slocum went home and spent the last two seasons as a Runnin’ Rebels assistant under head coach T.J. Otzelberger. Last season ended and, just like it does after every season ends, the coaching carousel began spinning. Slocum wound up right in the middle of it, not getting off the ride until he wound up back where he never wanted to leave.
On March 15, Iowa State fired head coach Steve Prohm, with Otzelberger, a former Cyclones assistant, immediately emerging as the primary candidate. The next day, Utah fired Krystkowiak after 10 seasons. Otzelberger was officially introduced as Iowa State’s head coach on March 18, leaving the UNLV job up for grabs.
Enter Smith, who was, at that time, still the head coach at Utah State. Smith and Slocum have a relationship dating back over a decade to when they were assistants together at Colorado State under Tim Miles. The two remained in touch as they wound up in the same state in 2018, Smith taking over in Logan, and Slocum on Krystkowiak’s staff.
“When Craig first took the job there, we were in a pretty good place here,” said Slocum, referencing the fact Utah went to the NCAA Tournament twice and the NIT three times in a five-season span from 2014-18. “He obviously kept his eye on it, and when things turned here at Utah, Craig reached out and just wanted to know about the dynamics of the job in general. He hadn��t been contacted by Utah, but he said, ‘Hey, I’m at a place now where we’ve won here, and if that job comes available, you’ve always spoken highly of it, so tell me more.’”
As March began to wind down and coaching carousel kept spinning, it became clear that Slocum was not going to be elevated to head coach at UNLV, a job that eventually went to another Otzelberger assistant, Kevin Kruger, the son of highly successful former UNLV head coach Lon Kruger.
In the wake of Krystkowiak’s firing, Smith had expressed his excitement to Slocum about the Utah job being open, but Smith had yet to be contacted, at least in any official capacity, by athletic department decision-makers.
“We spoke pretty consistently over three or four days after my situation happened at UNLV, but at one point, he went kind of silent on me for a day, so you figured some stuff was happening,” Slocum said, stifling his laughter in the process. I just sent him a text like ‘Hey, any thoughts? Has anyone contacted you?’ The next morning, he sends me a text saying let’s speak that afternoon.
“Being 17 years in the business, I know what that means.”
On March 31, The Tribune confirmed a Las Vegas Review-Journal report that Slocum would be returning to Utah as a member of Smith’s staff. In a wide-ranging interview with The Tribune the following day, Smith said Slocum, as well as Utah State assistant Eric Peterson, would be on staff. The athletic department announced Slocum’s hiring on April 7.
“I’m just super, super happy to be back,” Slocum said. “It’s pretty cool to see the fans are supporting and I’m very thankful to be back and be a part of it.”