SALT LAKE CITY — If you're a Ute basketball fan, at least there's this bit of encouraging news: They're finally turning down somebody.
Following Utah's worst season ever, coach Larry Krystkowiak made headlines this week for a reason besides prodigious losing. The Los Angeles Times reported that Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) High School forward Josh Hearlihy had been asked by the Utes to opt out of a letter of intent he signed in November.
In basketball terms, it was a turnover by the Utes. They made an offer, then reneged. The move could arouse suspicion among other recruits. At the same time, Krystkowiak emphatically showed he intends to attract better players to his program than last year's. Also, there were health concerns about Hearlihy, who missed 14 games last season due to a medical condition related to rapid growth.
The decision wasn't great in terms of raw public relations. Here was a player that had an invitation to the party, all set to go. Then came the news Utah had downshifted. Still, you have to wonder: How much worse could it make the Utes look? They won just six games last season.
In a way, Krystkowiak might have done Hearlihy a favor by backing out. Odds are good that even if he came to Utah, he wouldn't have been offered a scholarship the following year. Athletic scholarships aren't four- or six-year commitments; they're renewed on an annual basis. Seeing that Utah is seeking better talent, and that Hearlihy missed much of his senior year, he may have been a one-and-done, anyway.
This is a program that has seen 19 players transfer in the last three years, quite a few of them by invitation.
In a statement, Hearlihy said he turned down other scholarship offers to sign with Utah. He went on to say he was wary of "putting myself in an environment where I'm not wanted," so he took the opt-out Krystkowiak presented.
Krystkowiak said the decision to drop Hearlihy wasn't popped on the family at the last minute. He discussed the situation with the Hearlihy family in early February. On Wednesday he told ESPN-700's Bill Riley, "I think first and foremost, Josh had some medical issues that have been rough for him. I was really thinking when we decided to bring him here we could get by some of that stuff."
Then Hearlihy started missing games.
Later in the interview, Krystkowiak said Hearlihy's mother told him she understood the business side of the decision.
"If I put myself in that position, and I had a son that I thought was going somewhere, there would be a lot of sting to it," Krystkowiak continued. "But at the same time, if my son wasn't right health-wise, and needed some time to sort things out, I would understand both sides of the equation."
This isn't the first time a team from the Beehive State got in a recruiting mess. It has been happening off and on since the early signing date was instituted in 1982. In 1983, BYU signed Newhall, Calif., center Mitch McMullen. But instead of starring for Hart High School, the 6-10 player ended up skipping most of his senior year.
He started the first five games of the year, but when Hart's football season ended, another player switched over to basketball and the coach began using him at center, rather than McMullen.
McMullen quit the team after 14 games, leaving BYU in the odd position of having signed a player it deemed good enough to play in college, yet couldn't crack his high school lineup. McMullen eventually backed down on his commitment to play at BYU and finished his career at San Diego State.
Logically, Utah made a prudent decision to cut Hearlihy. The last thing it needs is another mid-sized player, this one with lurking health issues. At the same time, the program took a hit on the publicity front. It might not have been wrong, but it looked bad.
Either way, both recruits and fans will forget the story if Utah starts winning. Because sometimes there's a big difference between looking good and looking smart.