SALT LAKE CITY — Just over a week ago, Craig Smith took his team to the NCAA Tournament for third time in three seasons with Utah State.
On Saturday, the 48-year-old head coach donned a red jacket with the University of Utah's logo emblazoned upon the left chest as he was introduced as the newest men's basketball coach for the university. From Aggie blue to crimson red, Smith was the sought-after candidate to fill the head coaching seat left vacant for only 11 days after Larry Krystkowiak was let go following a decade with the program.
"I've had my eye on Craig Smith for a while," Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said as he introduced his first major coaching hire since taking the position at Utah in 2018. "It's hard not to see the unbelievable success that has gone on in Logan, Utah, over these last few years. Seeing them in the tournament these last three years has been an incredible achievement by coach and everybody up there.
"When I went out looking for coach, what I wanted, first and foremost, was someone that has passion for mentoring and teaching young men, the ability to communicate at the very highest of levels, and to develop deep, deep relationships," he added. "Then we would talk about ball — that was really the whole process for me. And, boy, does this gentleman have all those qualities and more."
It's easy to see that Smith brings a culture of winning wherever he goes. From Mayville State to his most recent stop at Utah State, Smith creates a winning culture — and instantly. So when Smith addressed the media Saturday morning over a Zoom call, his words had a little more weight than the traditional coach-speak or oversimplified platitudes given at an introductory press conference.
Platitudes, after all, have little bearing on whether a coach is successful or not following his introduction, but it's safe to say Smith said exactly what he needed to engage a recently apathetic fan base.
"I'm a history guy so — where we were, where we are and where we're going," Smith said. "And, of course, this basketball program has one of the steepest traditions in all of college basketball, and our expectation is to win and win at the highest level, and do it a certain way."
Smith doesn't have his eyes set on squeaking past the .500 mark or stealing a few unsuspecting victories away from better teams, it's doing whatever it takes to get Utah back to the NCAA Tournament. That means creating a schedule that's difficult but meets the program's needs to show the NCAA selection committee that Utah is a lock for the Big Dance.
"I've always believed to be the best you've got to play the best. Our motto is bring on the competition. And the last three years, our net ranking was 42 or lower at Utah State," Smith said. "My mentality is let's be a part of this program to make it the best possible program you can, and to do that you've got to play and schedule up.
"We want to play in marquee events, we want to play marquee teams — of course the Pac-12 is one of the marquee conferences in the country and so we're going to get that on a nightly basis in conference play. But I think it's incredibly important to play a very strong nonconference schedule; we'll be creative in that, whether it's a home or home, neutral-court games, obviously (multiple-team events) — we'll look at everything and anything that way."
In short, Smith wants as many Quad 1 games as the team can possibly handle while still being competitive and winning games. It worked for him at Utah State and he's hoping it can work at a Power Five program, too.
So how is Smith planning to do that, especially with three Utah players entering the transfer portal and the team's leading scorer in Timmy Allen considering his options? It starts with finding the players that want to be at Utah and tapping into their potential as dynamic playmakers with diverse skill sets. It'll take players and coaches dialed in and ready to win basketball games in any way they possibly can, he said.
"People ask 'What's your style of play?' And I like to say it's the winning style," Smith said. "I think the best teams know how to win in any way. You can win a game 64-57 in the conference tournament championship, but in the semifinal it might be 95-90, and you've got to be built to win in every way. ... We want guys that bring different things to the table."
He added that he wants to recruit "winners" or the guys he calls "gym rats," the athletes that want nothing more than basketball in their life. "If they took basketball away from them, they might be miserable, right? Like, it's that important to them."
"We're gonna have integrity, we're gonna have guys that are hard-working and selfless but yet they want to just get better and better — that 1% better every day. We love guys that can pass, can shoot — I love guys that can pass and make decisions," he said. "So you better be able to pass, make decisions, dribble and shoot — and we want a high premium on shooting. You've got to be able to stretch out the defense, got to be able to make 3s.
"We've got to find a match with our scheme and how that translates to winning. So we're not just gonna be X, Y and Z; we've got to look at who we have in our program, what are their strengths and put those guys in a position to succeed," he added. "We're going to play with tremendous poise and tremendous confidence, where guys are not going to be looking over their shoulder; they're going to be playing in attack mode for 40 minutes."
Smith has already talked to the players currently on the roster and plans to meet with them individually in the coming days, potentially even the guys that have shown their intent to transfer. He's already watched film on them and plans to do even more in the coming days. But for Smith, it's about making sure his players that are committed to the program are locked in and surrounded by a culture of winning.
His next big step will be finding a coaching staff to complement a roster that will likely undergo some change in the coming days, weeks and months. Who he brings in to surround him will ultimately be the biggest factor into whether the statements he made on March 27 will make a difference in March 2022. That may include coaches from Krystkowiak's staff or those from Utah State (or outside the two).
"We're going to have a staff that holds people accountable, that embraces what Utah basketball is all about, and that's having a great culture built on relationships and trust and integrity, and these guys are gonna have to have all three," he said.
"We have, I think, a great nucleus here that we can build upon. I think our style of play really fits a lot of these guys that are currently in the program and I think they have a chance to really shine in a way that maybe they don't even realize at this point — we had that same conversation almost three years ago to the day — and they better have high expectations. We have incredible expectations for this program."
For the time being, everyone interested in the Utah basketball program will have to take Smith at his word, which hasn't been a bad option so far. But now it comes at a higher level and with a larger magnifying glass on the program. It's a situation neither Smith or Utah can afford to miss on.
"Every year our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there, and that'll be our goal next year," Smith said. "We're not going to settle for anything less than that. It takes courage, it takes a strong backbone, it takes an incredible amount of belief in your coaches and yourself and your teammates to do that. We had an unbelievable group of young men at Utah State for the last three years — it was incredible, the growth that they made — and we're gonna do the same thing at the University of Utah."