Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

March 18, 2021
It was time for Utah’s Coach K to go

The news came down earlier this week that the University of Utah and longtime men’s basketball head coach Larry Krystkowiak are parting ways.

My question is: what took so long?

Sure, the Utes’ own “Coach K” era got off to a promising start, with NCAA tournament berths as Krystkowiak carried over the success he had at mid-major Montana. But, since those early years, Utah has fallen on hard times.

It isn’t the program that was a perennial contender coming out of the mid-major Western Athletic Conference under legendary coach Rick Majerus. Krystkowiak’s Utes were better than what Jim Boylen and Ray Giacoletti produced before him, but that wasn’t exactly a high bar to clear. With the Utes now a member of the Pac-12 Conference, more is expected of them.

They never reached those levels under Krystkowiak. Recruiting classes that were supposed to put the Utes among the nation’s elite on paper were mediocre on the floor. Sure, there was talent — Kyle Kuzma and Jakob Poeltl are in the NBA, and Timmy Allen and Alfonso Plummer have been a joy to watch the past couple years — but, for whatever reason, Utah couldn’t translate that talent into wins.

Whoever takes over for Krystkowiak has some lofty expectations to meet. At present, it sounds like the Utes are likely to hire a current mid-major coach. Jumping from the Mountain West Conference, as would be the case under top candidates Niko Medved of Colorado State and Craig Smith of Utah State, to the Pac-12 isn’t nearly as big as the jump from the Big Sky Conference that Krystkowiak made. 

In Smith’s case, Utah State is a perennial conference title contender and is in the NCAA tournament seemingly every year. That’s the kind of tradition the Utes need to bring back to the Huntsman Center. The Utah faithful demands something better than hovering around .500 and maybe getting to host an NIT game. 

The Utes have shown flashes of what they can become with a little more consistency. They took USC to double overtime in the Pac-12 tournament, which proves they’re not far off. But someone needs to give them that final push to get them over the top.

The younger generation of Utes fans remembers how it used to be. They long for the days of Majerus, when Andre Miller, Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac packed the Huntsman Center every night. They’d even settle for Giacoletti’s first year, when Andrew Bogut dominated opponents on his way to becoming the top pick in the NBA draft and the Utes reached the Sweet 16.

Now? If they’d allowed fans at Utes games this year, the Huntsman Center’s upper sections were set to be curtained off. Not even the students, who get free tickets, could be bothered to show up to watch Krystkowiak’s frustratingly inconsistent squads over the past few years. Utah officials said it was to create a more intimate atmosphere in the Huntsman Center, or something to that effect. More likely, those officials realized that a lot of empty red plastic seats don’t really look very good on television.

Now that Krystkowiak is no longer patrolling the Utes’ sideline, Utah has to get this hire right. A once-proud program is looking to reach those heights yet again. This season was a disaster, as Utah fell so far behind that it might have been the fifth- or sixth-best program in its own state — definitely behind archrival Brigham Young and Utah State; likely behind Southern Utah and Weber State; and maybe even Utah Valley.

That’s not what Rick Majerus built. But with the right hire, better days can still be ahead.

Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He could barely stand to watch the Utes this season, not knowing which version would show up on any given night. Email him at dvaughan@tooeletranscript.com.

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