SALT LAKE CITY — These are dangerous times for athletic directors at big universities. No longer is the toughest part of their job hiring and firing coaches. It’s keeping the raiders away.
But as Utah’s Chris Hill likes to say, it’s better to have a coach that everybody wants than one nobody wants.
Basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak hasn’t made enough noise to be on everyone’s wish list, though he could be next season. In that light, Hill is making up a five-year contract for the coach.
For one whose team hasn’t made the NCAA tournament, and has a 42-55 record, that’s phenomenal news. For the Utes, though, it’s equally good. If Krystkowiak has proven anything, it’s that he knows how to resurrect a college program. He did it at Montana, where he took over a team that had gone 23-35 in two previous years and made it into a back-to-back NCAA invitee. Six Pac-12 schools got NCAA invitations this year, and Utah was just one conference win behind four of them.
Utah’s 21-11 record was its best since 2008-09, the last time the Utes played in the NCAA tournment.
It’s true Utah played one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country this year. But Krystkowiak faithfully followed his plan. By the end of the season his team had won on the road and was downright belligerent at home, where it beat tournament teams UCLA, Arizona State and Colorado.
Krystkowiak said in a Thursday statement he is “very excited about the commitment from the University of Utah and I love the situation here. We are on the cusp of doing some special things, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
This is where things get risky. Contract optimism can give way to reality in a hurry. Five years is a long time. Players live out their careers in that much time. Disney kids turn into Miley Cyrus. Five years ago, the Utes were still just dreaming of the Pac-12.
The last time Utah tore up the basketball coach’s contract and wrote a new one, it was rewarding Jim Boylen for getting Utah to the NCAA tournament in 2009. Two seasons later he was history.
The difference is that Boylen’s teams had a short uptick and then a rapid fall. Ray Giacoletti inherited Andrew Bogut and Boylen inherited Luke Nevill. Krystkowiak inherited one of the fastest-dying programs in America. His first team went 6-25, which coincided with Utah’s inclusion in the Pac-12. The next year the Utes were 15-18. Considering the talent, they shouldn’t have been that good.
But recruiting players such as All-Pac-12 wing Delon Wright and starter Jordan Loveridge, and incorporating capable assistants, has made Utah downright respectable. It beat NCAA-bound BYU 81-64 in December.
Talk about a resume-builder.
Utah still struggles to win on the road, where it was 2-8 in the Pac-12. At the same time, only Arizona won more than half of its away games. The Utes beat USC and Cal on the road and lost five others by a total of 14 points. At home they took Arizona and Oregon into overtime.
Krystkowiak’s team was erratic down the stretch in close games, this season, but also feisty. Nobody marked down Utah as an automatic win. Unlike Giacoletti and Boylen, Krystkowiak has been keeping top players from leaving — the most prominent being Wright, who would have been a 2014 draft choice.
Players often call Krystkowiak “Coach K,” same as that other guy back East. Whatever. In college he was known as “Special K,” just like the breakfast cereal. In that sense, he really has given Utah fans a reason to get up in the morning.
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