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Head coach Craig Smith of the Utah State Aggies  directs his team against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Division I MenÕs Basketball Tournament held at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on March 19, 2021 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Grant Halverson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Grant Halverson, NCAA Photo via Getty Images

Utes ink deal with Utah State's Craig Smith to make him next men's basketball coach

By Josh Furlong, KSL.com | Updated - Mar. 27, 2021 at 10:59 a.m. | Posted - Mar. 27, 2021 at 8:14 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Smith will now call the University of Utah home.

The former Utah State head coach who got the Aggies to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (one was in name only due to the 2020 cancellation) in his three seasons with the program, has signed a contract to be Utah's newest men's basketball coach.

The university made the hiring official Saturday morning, a little over a week after Larry Krystkowiak was let go as the team's coach after a decade at the helm.

"Craig Smith brings incredible energy and passion, and a proven record of success," Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement. "I'm thrilled to have him lead our men's basketball program, and look forward to our student-athletes experiencing his incredible work ethic, dedication to being a teacher of the game, and his ability to relate with his players and help them achieve their greatest potential."

Smith is only the second coach to lead Utah since the program joined the Pac-12 and is the first coach hired by Harlan since he took over for former athletic director Chris Hill in 2018.

"My family and I are thrilled to join the University of Utah and the community of Salt Lake City," Smith said in a statement. "The Utah men's basketball program has fantastic leadership at the top in Director of Athletics Mark Harlan and his executive team.

"After visiting with Mark, it became clear that our visions for Utah Basketball were aligned. This program has a rich tradition of excellence in the history of college basketball. Our facilities are state-of-the-art and first-class in every way. Our fan base has tremendous energy, knowledge and passion. We can't wait to pack the Huntsman Center, feed off the energy of The MUSS and bring a consistent winner back to the U!"

The Stephen, Minnesota, native graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1996 and immediately got into the coaching ranks that same season as an assistant at Mayville State. Smith bounced around as a graduate assistant or assistant at Northern State, Minot State and North Dakota State before being named the head coach of Mayville State in 2004.

In his first season, Smith turned a down program that had only one win the season before into a program that made an appearance in the NAIA Division II Tournament. His second season he led Mayville State to a 28-6 record, which was a program record, and was eventually named the NAIA Division II coach of the year. He then made a jump to Division I in 2007 as the director of operations at Colorado State.

Prior to joining Utah State, where he turned the Aggies into an instant contender in the Mountain West Conference, Smith was named head coach of his second program at South Dakota from 2014-18. At South Dakota, Smith went 79-55 in his four seasons and led the team to an NIT and CBI appearance.

The former Aggies coach was also rumored to have been linked to the Minnesota head coach vacancy this offseason, but on March 22, Minnesota hired Xavier assistant Ben Johnson as its next head coach.

At the end of 2020, Smith finalized a contract extension that could have kept him at Utah State through the 2025-26 season, which added two years to his original contract with the school.

The extension, which was signed on Dec. 22 and obtained by KSL.com, was worth $6.4 million over the life of the eight-year deal. Although Smith's contract with Utah has not been released yet, Krystkowiak made more than $3.6 million in his last season at Utah.

According to Smith's previous contract, he (or the University of Utah) owes Utah State 25% of the prorated contract for the remainder of his deal; though no details were released on the details of his exit.

"I would like to thank Craig and his family for their significant contributions to Utah State University," Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said in a statement. "Craig and his staff did an outstanding job making Aggie men's basketball a nationally recognized program. We have a tremendous nucleus of student-athletes returning to our program that have helped create a culture of winning and we want to make sure we keep them our priority as we continue to strengthen that culture moving forward."

Utah had a roller-coaster season in 2020-21 and finished the year with a second-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament to USC, a team who recently advanced to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. And despite some successes over the years, Utah struggled to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year mark midway through Krystkowiak's tenure, which led to Harlan making a change.

"The decision comes after a thorough evaluation of the program — both on and off of the court — as I do with every head coach at the conclusion of their seasons," Harlan said at the time. "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."

Krystkowiak certainly didn't leave the cupboards bare as Smith now inherits a roster of several young and talented players on the cusp of making a mark in the conference. The roster has the makings for Smith to immediately make an impact in the Pac-12.

Former Ute Alex Jensen was reportedly the top target for the job before he turned the university down after a formal interview. Instead, he chose to stay as an assistant coach with the Utah Jazz. Jensen has long been considered as a potential head-coaching target in the NBA and has been a "valuable" asset to the Jazz over the years.

"I can say again how valuable Alex is and what a talented coach he is, and how he'll be successful as a head coach sometime here in the future," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said prior to Jensen's interview with his alma mater.

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