Former Utes head coach Ray Giacoletti holds no ill will toward Utah

Published: Friday, March 22 2013 6:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Ray Giacoletti had a point. In 2007 he had just finished his third season as Utah’s basketball coach. The first year he went 29-6 and made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The next season he went 14-15 with a preponderance of young players.

Third year, the barn burned down. He went 11-19.

“I’ll take responsibility for that,” Giacoletti said on Friday.

Still, he thought he deserved another season.

“It didn’t happen that way,” he shrugged.

Six years after being fired by the Utes, he is back in Salt Lake, now as an assistant for Gonzaga, the top-ranked team in the country.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Giacoletti said.

If not unbelievable, it has at least been fortuitous. Utah fired him in 2007 after going 54-40. At the same time, he is now coaching Kelly Olynyk, a potential lottery pick if he enters the NBA draft. But before then Olynyk has Saturday’s West Regional game against Wichita State to address.

It’s not like the NBA scouts are impervious to March Madness. They too get starry-eyed when the postseason comes on. How else can Adam Morrison be explained? He was Gonzaga’s star in 2006 and picked No. 3 that year in the NBA draft. Five years later he was playing overseas.

Still, Olynyk is an intriguing 7-footer that won’t dominate in the NBA but could thrive. Yet he’s not the first high-profile big man Giacoletti has coached. In Giacoletti’s first year at Utah, he had Andrew Bogut, the NBA’s No. 1 pick in 2005.

You might say Giacoletti has already had two once-in-a-career big men — and his career isn’t over.

“I think the similarities were the belief they have in themselves,” he said of his successful centers. “That’s the thing that shocked me about Bogut, was the belief he had. Kelly (Olynyk) is the same.”

Olynyk is more versatile on the perimeter, according to Giacoletti, but Bogut had the edge in passing.

“When you have guys like that,” he continued, “that makes you look a lot smarter.”

And your career goes a lot smoother.

Speaking of careers, it’s hard not to mention Giacoletti’s without including that awkward ending at Utah. For various reasons, players started leaving the program after his first season. After the third, athletics director Chris Hill made a quick and decisive choice. He axed Giacoletti with four years left on his contract.

While it’s hard to justify those two bad years, the era should be put into perspective. Giacoletti had been chosen to replace Rick Majerus, the man who had made Utah basketball a national brand. One losing year was bad, but two? The Utes hadn’t done that since 1983-85.

Utah wasn’t ready for that.

In spite of Giacoletti’s great first year with Bogut, the Utes went 25-34 thereafter. A case could be made that he deserved one more season. In 2005 he was Playboy magazine’s national coach of the year.

Still, Giacoletti was shown the door. (A confidentiality agreement kept Giacoletti from discussing details.) He immediately signed on with Gonzaga after his longtime friend, Mark Few, offered him an assistant’s position. When Giacoletti was head coach at Eastern Washington, Few was at Gonzaga.

“So it was like coming home, in a way,” Giacoletti said.

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