Utah basketball: AD Mark Harlan ‘energized’ by direction of Runnin’ Utes

About 15 months ago, University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan met with 10-year Runnin’ Utes basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak and released the former NBA player and coach who had compiled a 183-139 record at the U.

Eleven days later, Harlan lured Craig Smith away from Utah State, hiring the Aggies’ head man who had been widely viewed as a rising star in the profession. Having inherited very little talent, because many of the Utes’ best players headed elsewhere before and after Krystkowiak was let go, Smith’s first season was as rocky as almost everyone imagined it would be.

The Utes went 11-20, lost a school-record 10 straight games, and were bounced from the Pac-12 tournament in the first round.

People want to work with Craig. People also want to play for Craig. And I think that is going to bode well for the future. … He just fits right in. He is the guy that is going to get us back to where we need to be.” — Utah athletic director Mark Harlan on second-year basketball coach Craig Smith

Does Harlan regret making the move? No, he said succinctly in a recent lengthy interview with the Deseret News. Quite the opposite.

“I am really energized about men’s basketball right now, and hiring Craig,” Harlan said. “He is in his (15th month) now, and it seems like he’s been here longer. The kind of energy he is bringing to the program, the kind of students he is bringing in here (is encouraging).”

Why is Harlan so sure about Smith?

“That’s a fair question,” Harlan said. “Well, I saw it from afar when he was coaching at Utah State. I got to know him during the interview process. I mean, five hours felt like five minutes in the interview.”

In fairness, Smith guided a team riddled by injuries and illnesses to key players his first year on the Hill. Harlan recognizes that.

“And now that I have been working with him, partnering with him, it is apparent that his vision is so clear,” Harlan said. “I love the way he approaches the guys on his team. It is a positive reinforcement program. The values ​​are in the right spot.”

It is going to take some patience, Harlan acknowledged. It is tough to win in the Pac-12, which had an outstanding showing in the 2021 NCAA Tournament before dropping in the Big Dance this past season.

“In my experiences being around successful programs, when you have a head coach who is about the whole person, you have a chance to build something special,” Harlan said. “We are not interested in (just one) season. We want the program to continue to get better. We know we want to live in the postseason in all of our sports, men’s basketball included.”

The AD said the way Smith has established the culture he wants in the program “has been about as impressive as anything I’ve seen,” while also praising the work done by women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts, who signed a contract extension in April that will pay her roughly $700,000 per year through 2027.

Smith makes approximately $1.9 million a year. Recently, he replaced assistant coach Eric Peterson, South Dakota’s new coach, with former BYU assistant Chris Burgess in what was lauded as an outstanding hire.

“I love his staff. He has had a couple transitions, because he has a good staff and they are going to get calls, obviously. And he goes out and gets great people, too. People want to work with Craig,” Harlan said. “People also want to play for Craig. And I think that is going to bode well for the future. … He just fits right in. He is the guy that is going to get us back to where we need to be.”

Smith has seemingly upgraded the talent in the offseason, bringing in Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders Jr., Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson and former BYU forward Gavin Baxter as a walk-on graduate transfer. He has also signed high schoolers Wilguens Exacte Jr. and Keba Keita and international player Luka Tarlac from Belgrade, Serbia.

Harlan said it was “hard” to release Krystkowiak, but declined to say whether that was the toughest personnel decision he had to make in his four years as Utah’s athletic director.

“Great person, great man, great teacher,” Harlan said of Krystkowiak. “He did a lot of really good stuff for Utah basketball. And I continue to wish him nothing but the best. … I don’t think I necessarily rank (decisions), but certainly that was a hard one.”

Harlan said a good start in getting the program back to its winning ways would be to get more people in the Huntsman Center for Utes’ home games. Utah averaged 7,669 fans per game in 2021-22. Dwindling attendance and the desire to create a more intimate, home-team friendly atmosphere a few years ago prompted officials to curtain off the upper bowl.

“Nothing would give me more happiness than to push the magic button to lift the curtain up,” Harlan said. “We want every seat sold. But we also know in the interim period of us proving that we are a team you want to come and see on a nightly basis, we need to create the best environment, and that is for those who have purchased tickets and have them as close to the court as possible and have them help us create home-court advantage.”

Harlan said home advantage is big in all sports, “but I have always argued in basketball it makes the biggest difference. We are doing that to help our team, and nothing would make me more happy than to raise those curtains.”

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan presents a ball to head coach Lynne Roberts commemorating her 300th win before the game against the UCLA Bruins at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020.

Spencer Heaps, Deseret News

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