SALT LAKE CITY — Two words immediately came to mind when news began to break that Larry Krystkowiak was out as the Utah basketball coach.
No knock against Krystkowiak, but replacing him after 10 seasons was the obvious move from the perspective of both sides. The coach and his boss, athletic director Mark Harlan, each knew without doubt this was the right decision.
The only issue involved negotiating a buyout, which was upwards of $7 million. But multiple donors stepped up to pay off Krystkowiak and send him on his way.
In a press release issued late Tuesday afternoon, Harlan said he informed Krystkowiak earlier in the day on his decision to make a change. Harlan came to the conclusion after a thorough evaluation of the program on and off the court.
"Ultimately, our program needs a new voice, a new vision and a new leader who can build upon Larry's foundation and lead us to greater heights in the years ahead," Harlan's statement said.
Truth is, Harlan's belief is overdue. The program has been stagnant going on three years, starting when Utah's win total slipped from 23 in 2017-18 to the season that ended last week with a record of 12-13.
But the timing was bad to make a move three years ago, not with Utah on the hook for a larger buyout on a fat contract then-athletic director Chris Hill gave Krystkowiak in 2015 on the heels of a second-place finish in the Pac-12 and an appearance in the Sweet 16. Krystkowiak followed up his best season with another Pac-12 runner-up finish and an NCAA Tournament win.
Succeeding Hill in June 2018, although he had no problem making significant behind-the-scenes changes in the athletic department, Harlan likely would have faced a backlash for replacing Krystkowiak after Utah finished 17-14 in 2018-19.
Even doing so last season, when the Utes plummeted to 16-15, would have been problematic given the contract buyout. This time around, considering the apathy in and around the program, Harlan had no choice.
Change of Direction
In retrospect, Hill made a hasty decision to dole out huge amounts of cash. Granted, the extremely likeable Krystkowiak was a hot commodity in coaching circles when he got the extension, but his success was not built on a solid foundation.
The remarkable turnaround that started with Utah going 6-25 in Krystkowiak's first season in 2011-12 and culminated with the Sweet 16 four years later had no staying power. Utah got there on the strength of a foreign player, center Jakob Poeltl, and junior college transfer Delon Wright, both of whom are still playing in the NBA.
To maintain success, Krystkowiak and his staff needed to go the traditional recruiting route of signing and developing high school talent. The problem is, Krystkowiak didn't get enough talent and the constant stream of players transferring out of the program prohibited much internal development.
Now Harlan is charged with finding a coach able to restore a program that has ranked among the West's best for decades. This is his first decision that will attract significant public scrutiny and help determine his legacy at Utah.
Clamoring a return to the 1990s, when coach Rick Majerus routinely won conference championships and made the accompanying NCAA Tournament, many of the Utah faithful want to tap into the program's heritage for the new coach. The obvious choice is Alex Jensen, who meets the criteria on multiple levels.
Jensen played for Majerus, starting on the 1997-98 team that reached the national championship game. He also was an assistant on his staff after Majerus came out of his several retirements to coach at St. Louis.
Now a highly regarded assistant for Quin Snyder on the Utah Jazz, Jensen has aspirations and is in line to become an NBA head coach. At the same time, Harlan could throw a huge payday at Jensen to get him to come home.
But don't bet on it. Jensen can bide his time until an NBA position becomes available and avoid all the groveling required to recruit high school teenagers.
The guess here is Harlan hires an outside search firm to land an attractive big-name coach. That same search firm then could remember Harlan, who had no ties to Utah until taking the job, when a high-profile athletic director position becomes available.