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SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah men's basketball coach Craig Smith got to his hotel room on New Year's Day after an early-morning shootaround session, he turned his attention to the television that featured the Rose Bowl playing in the background.
Smith is all in on basketball, so football isn't necessarily a thing he's tuned into on a regular basis. But with it being Utah's first Rose Bowl appearance, how could he not at least check in on the game?
What he saw was entertaining chaos unfold as five touchdowns were scored in less than three minutes between Utah and Ohio State. Even through the TV, the electric atmosphere of a Rose Bowl Stadium with more than 87,000 fans in attendance was palpable through the screen.
"You could feel the energy, the 60,000 plus (Utah fans) through the TV screen," Smith said. "Some of you guys were there, but you could feel that. I get goosebumps just talking about it. I'm a newbie here, but there was a source of great pride in watching that."
The athletes on his team "were talking about it non stop" and watched as much of the game as they could before tipoff against Oregon later that night. Smith said the electric feel from a game where 16.6 million people tuned in to watch the Rose Bowl was something he wants his team to know and become familiar with under his tenure as coach.
"I was so excited that our guys were watching it because you feel that juice and the competitive spirit — and that's what it's about," Smith said.
That electric feel of the game transcends the sport and is not reserved for just a New Year's Six bowl game.
From the day Smith signed his contract to be the head coach at Utah, the immediate expectation was to turn Utah into an NCAA Tournament caliber team — it's the same for any team hoping to contend. And for better or worse, Smith's last three seasons at Utah State where he took the Aggies to the Big Dance and won two conference championships only raised the expectations.
But Smith said Tuesday that it's a much harder task to do than people outside a program may think. It took Utah football 11 years to reach their first Rose Bowl since joining the Pac-12 in 2010 but even longer to be in a position to get there. For Utah basketball, getting to the NCAA Tournament and being in those big-energy games is what drives Smith to make his team better.
"Not everybody in this program has felt — they haven't felt being in the Rose Bowl, of course — but being in the NCAA Tournament, cutting down the nets winning a regular season championship or a postseason," Smith said. "Everybody talks about it, but it's hard; it's so hard to do that.
"You better have talent, you better have good coaching, you better have selflessness, you better have toughness, you've got to have all the superlatives that people — there's a lot of sacrifice that goes along with that, that people don't always totally understand until you do it. And it's all worth it when you go through and do it. But there's a lot of student-athletes and a lot of coaches that go through this whole thing for their whole career and never experience a moment like that."
Getting better every day 🙌 pic.twitter.com/F6vBlhLFW4— Utah Basketball (@UtahMBB) January 5, 2022
That transition of the program won't happen overnight, and Smith knows his "margin for error is slimmer than some other teams."
Having a winning pedigree takes time and the pieces all have to exist at the right time. And in Smith's first season at Utah, putting all that together has been a tougher challenge than expected.
In many ways, the cards dealt to Utah have not been favorable, especially with an early string of injuries to the team that left Smith and the coaching staff scrambling to create working lineups, even putting five guards on the court out of necessity in the ultimate small-ball unit. The injuries and then the team's leading scorer out for nearly two weeks due to health and safety protocols only compounded the issue.
That has led to a lack of consistency among the team and losing games that on paper Utah should have won. It's led Smith to say "everything's on the table" in terms of starting lineups the types of schemes he puts his players in as conference play will only test Utah further.
"It's about production and what lineups are our best to give ourselves the best chance to succeed."
For a brief stretch, Utah looked like a program that could flirt with an NCAA Tournament bid — brief being the key word — but adversity hasn't been kind to the Utes and Smith is looking for players on the team with an "elite competitive spirit" to lead out and "eliminating losing" — don't get complacent with losing.
"You don't need to be perfect, but we've got to control the controllables on a consistent basis," Smith said.
Will it suddenly lead to winning more games or those electric game environments? Probably not in the immediate future, but Smith hopes it can create a standard of what the Runnin' Utes will be under his leadership. It just happens to be more of a working prototype at the present with the hope of a larger pay day — large crowds, key matchups and winning big games — soon.
First up, Utah welcomes Washington to the Huntsman Center Thursday at 7:30 p.m. MST.