Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Now that the other Jimmer is gone, the natural question for Utah fans is: What would happen if the Utes got their first choice for a basketball coach?
Jim Boylen was fired Saturday on the heels of a second straight losing season. It was no surprise. For weeks, maybe months, he has been a dead man walking. It's not a complicated formula. He had three years left on his contract, but if a school wants a coach gone, it finds a way.
"I was given the 'different direction' release, which is pretty standard,'" Boylen said.
He can now take his $2 million buyout and open a fast food franchise, or sell pencils if he wants. He's not the person with the problem; that would be Chris Hill. It's the Ute athletics director's job to hire a coach who will recruit and retain local and national talent, regain fan loyalty and win championships. That hasn't happened consistently since (before) Rick Majerus left in 2004.
It's been at least that long since they hired a basketball coach that was first on their shopping list.
Whether Boylen or predecessor Ray Giacoletti were bad coaches is debatable, but their results were similar.
"I think sometimes it's always difficult to start off and get exactly where we need to be," Hill said of the hiring process. "It's an inaccurate science. It's my responsibility to get the right person, and we need to do that."
The best seasons for both Giacoletti and Boylen were largely the product of their predecessors. Giacoletti had a conference title season (2005) with Andrew Bogut, a Majerus recruit. Boylen arrived full of passion and promises. He won a conference co-title in 2009 by nurturing Luke Nevill, one of Giacoletti's players.
But neither coach could stop the flow of defections. Giacoletti's handling of "Run DMC" (Tim Drisdom, Bryant Markson and Richard Chaney) dead-ended. Chaney left after becoming upset over his role, Drisdom gained weight and battled injuries, and Markson stuck around long enough to watch the collapse. Giacoletti also lost athletic forward Justin Hawkins, who transferred out.
Meanwhile, five players (Marshall Henderson, Jace Tavita, Carlon Brown, Matt Read and Jordan Cyphers) left Boylen's team.
Majerus lost players, too, but those were usually by his choice and seldom key components.
Neither Giacoletti nor Boylen could attract NBA talent. There wasn't a Keith Van Horn, Andrew Bogut or Andre Miller in the bunch. In addition, Boylen was just 1-7 against BYU. He finished his career at Utah with a 69-60 record, but just 32-32 in conference games.
His winning rate (53 percent) was the worst since Lynn Archibald (1983-89) and only a percentage point from being the worst since Ike Armstrong in 1925-27.
In prior searches, Trent Johnson (now at LSU), Mark Few (Gonzaga), Larry Krystkowiak (now an assistant with the New Jersey Nets), Dana Altman (then at Creighton), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and other names arose at Utah, but none was convinced. Sometimes even Utah's second or third choices got away.
What makes this year's situation different is the Utes have a bigger stage. They'll be selling the Pac-12. In the past, coaches such as Altman, Kruger and Few considered Utah a lateral move at best.
"I think (now) it's a great job," Hill said. "I think the move to the Pac-12 will make a difference in the job description, if you will."
According to Hill, that's a big change. "I think that was a challenge, being in a non-BCS conference, and many times people could see the job in the Mountain West as a stepping-stone job. I think that's what you don't see now."
The list of possible replacements includes the usual suspects: Tommy Connor (Westminster), Stew Morrill (USU), Alex Jensen (assistant, Saint Louis), Dick Hunsaker (UVU), Kerry Rupp (Louisiana Tech), Donny Daniels (assistant, Gonzaga), Jeff Judkins (BYU women) and perhaps BYU assistant Dave Rice.
Then there are edgier possibilities such as BYU's Dave Rose, UNLV's Kruger or Colorado State's Tim Miles.
It's unlikely either Rose or Morrill would jump to Utah; they're too content where they are.
More likely Hill will shoot for a recognizable coach from a more distant program, someone who can rapidly put people in the seats.
Hill might hire a star from a smaller conference, such as, say, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall or Xavier coach Chris Mack, or even convince a coach like Kruger or Few this time around. In any case, the Utes can't afford to be an embarrassment to the Pac-12 or lose more fans. Attendance is the worst in Huntsman Center history, making it one of the most alarming problems in Hill's career.
"We see this as an opportunity; we have high expectations and we shouldn't be afraid of them," Hill said.
Now more than ever, the Utes need to land their top choice. Yet with their new credentials, they have their best chance ever of doing just that.
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