SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Smith has the magic touch.
Every program he's been a part of he's significantly improved its status, and occasionally those programs reached the NCAA Tournament or claimed a conference title. Most recently, Smith made Utah State a tournament team in three consecutive seasons — all three years of his short tenure up north — and won two conference titles.
So is Smith lucky? Does he have some special basketball magic where the gods are forced to obey his every word? It's doubtful his industry secrets will be divulged anytime soon — if there really are any — but those close to him say it's noticeably different being around him.
"I mean, you can tell. You can pretty much see it on the court," said senior Both Gach, who returned to Utah after a one-year stint with Minnesota. "It's just something you see when you first see him and things like that. ... For him, you can just walk in the gym and you can just feel it."
So what's Smith's secret? And can it work at Utah — a program that has been void of a winning season for the past two years and has missed the NCAA Tournament since the 2015-16 season when the team exited in the second round in a blowout loss to a Domantas Sabonis-led Gonzaga?
His success may not actually be that much of a secret.
"Man, I'll just say his energy," Gach said. "His energy is contagious throughout the whole court whenever we have practice and things like that. So when you've got a head coach who's a high-energy guy, it spreads throughout the whole gym during practice and things like that — guys are always working hard and this is someone you want to play for."
His wide-toothed smile isn't just for TV; it's not a front to some underbelly of something mischievous.
Really, Smith just brings a lot of fun to a high-pressure environment. He's energetic, he's happy, he's relentless — a good relentless in that he hits the ground running and doesn't stop until he's reached his destination. All of that is infectious and it makes his assistant coaches, staff and players ready to buy into whatever he's selling.
He's selling a bill of goods that Utah can turn the ship around and be a desirable destination in a competitive Pac-12 Conference. After all, it's what his boss, Athletic Director Mark Harlan, hired him to do, but his resume backs it up — even in June, when the team began offseason conditioning and practices.
"I was telling my teammates this week, I said: I haven't been a part of a team where we've meshed this early, and I think it's a really good sign," UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. said two weeks into practices with his new team. "These coaches establish a positive culture here from the jump. As soon as I stepped on campus I felt how positive it was — from the weight room, from the court, off the court, from studying, whatever it is they've built a really positive culture here."
Jenkins said all of the positivity around the program shows that each person cares "genuinely" for each other.
"I think it really just makes somebody feel good; and that transitions onto the court, because overall it makes you really want to play hard for that next person right next to you," he added. "It makes you want to run through a brick wall for that person, so I just feel like overall it's going good, because of the positive coaching that's been established from Day 1."
Culture is that buzzword that gets thrown around often at the start of a new regime. Every coach wants a new culture — and why shouldn't they? Even Larry Krystkowiak started off his tenure at Utah throwing the word around — and he meant it and his players bought it, too. So how is this time any different?
It may not be. For now, Smith's players have bought in early and believe in what he's selling, which is half the battle.
"I think coach is just a really genuine guy and he really cares about you as a person," Jenkins said. "I think that he does his best to not only make it seem like that he cares about you as a player on the court — he really does. He establishes his relationship with you off the court, he comes and talks to you — asks about how your family's doing. He asks certain things like that, so it's really in your head; you're like, OK this man really cares about me on and off the court.
"I just feel like when you've got a coach that believes in you and got the ultimate confidence in you, I mean there's nothing more than you can ask than that is a coach that believes in you — your game — and believes in you as a person. I just think that's something that's really good about this culture."
His energy is contagious throughout the whole court whenever we have practice and things like that. So when you've got a head coach who's a high-energy guy, it spreads throughout the whole gym during practice and things like that — guys are always working hard and this is someone you want to play for.
That's not to say Smith is the embodiment of Ted Lasso asking his players to "believe," it's that he creates an environment where everyone feels part of the same team. That may sound like overly simplistic optimism months before the regular season tips off, but it's a change to an otherwise past culture that failed to stay engrained in the program.
It's an opportunity for Utah to "surprise a lot of people," Gach said.
"Every player needs different approaches," Jenkins added. "Some players need to be yelled at, some players need a little bit of catering. I think he really knows how to get to each and every player, which is exactly why I wanted to play under him because he, out of any coach I've ever seen in my life, he gets every single player to maximize their potential and he gets every single player to play as hard as they can. That's something I wanted to be part of."
Smith, for his part, will be judged once the games are actually played — once he is forced to back up that winning resume in an arguably tougher conference and the culture he's established for a Utah program that has a history of winning at a high level. Few will be giving Smith the benefit of the doubt; in fact, Utah will likely fall near the bottom of preseason conference predictions, despite his resume.
But his goals remain the same, and his players stand in tow with him.
"I mean, at the end of the day, our goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament," Jenkins said. "That's what we're saying from Day 1. I know coach Smith, and I know on each and every interview when someone asks him, I know he's saying he wants to go to the tournament, and I know he said we're gonna get there. I'm backing that up, and that's our goal.
"Yes, we're not going to be the favorite ones; we're going to be the underdogs, but we want it that way because then they're not going to see it coming. They probably have us listed at the bottom or whatever it is, but that just gives us more motivation to go out even harder, to practice each and every day and get better overall."