Towards the end here, I always knew it would take a special situation for me to leave the University of South Dakota, and I’ve certainly found it here at Utah State, where we have the leadership, like I’ve talked about it, and we have the resources in place to be a major, major force in a great conference in the Mountain West. —Utah State basketball head coach Craig Smith
LOGAN — Utah State shooting guard Sam Merrill met new Aggie head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith for the first time Sunday night.
Merrill admitted that he and his teammates approached the situation cautiously, sizing up the new leader of the USU program like they would an opposing defense.
“It’s hard. There’s all that uncertainty of who your coach is going to be, and then what type of coach he’s going to be. You’ve got people in your ear, left and right,” Merrill said. “But fortunately, I think we got the right guy, and moving forward we’re excited to see how things go.”
Smith was introduced to Utah State basketball fans by USU President Noelle Cockett and Aggie athletic director John Hartwell Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Wayne Estes Center.
In a statement released on Monday announcing Smith’s hire, Hartwell spoke of his new coach’s “high energy,” and he continued with that theme on Tuesday.
“I’m really, really excited, and it won’t take you all very long to see the juice and energy that coach Craig Smith is going to infuse, not just into our men’s basketball program, not just into our athletic department, but into our university and into Cache Valley,” Hartwell declared.
The 45-year-old Smith comes to Cache Valley after spending the past four seasons as the head coach at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota. The Coyotes went 26-9 in 2017-18 — the best record in USD’s 10 years of playing at the Division I level — and finished second in the Summit League at 11-3.
South Dakota’s season ended on March 14 with a 90-77 loss to North Texas in the first round of the CBI tournament.
The Coyotes finished first in the Summit League in 2016-17 with a 12-4 record, finishing 22-12 overall and playing in the NIT. During Smith’s first two seasons at USD, his teams went 17-16 and 14-18.
”Towards the end here, I always knew it would take a special situation for me to leave the University of South Dakota,” Smith said, “and I’ve certainly found it here at Utah State, where we have the leadership, like I’ve talked about it, and we have the resources in place to be a major, major force in a great conference in the Mountain West.
“That’s my expectation. I don’t do well with excuses. Obviously, you heard John talk about winning, and he’s made that crystal clear to me. That’s what you want.”
Smith takes over the reins of the USU basketball program from Tim Duryea, who was fired by Hartwell on March 11 after taking the Aggies to the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament for the first time in school history.
An assistant on Stew Morrill’s staff for 14 seasons, Duryea was hired as Morrill’s replacement by former USU athletic director Scott Barnes on March 30, 2015. The Aggies went 16-15, 14-17 and 17-17 during Duryea’s tenure, never finishing higher than seventh in the Mountain West standings.
“I want to thank coach Duryea,” said Smith, an acquaintance of Duryea’s from the recruiting trail. “His effort and all the years he’s put in here is more appreciated than he could possibly imagine. He’s a tremendous person, and I can’t thank him enough for his support.
Born in Minnesota, Smith graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1996, and promptly started his coaching career on the coaching staff of Tim Miles at Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota. Following brief stints at Northern State and Minot State, Smith rejoined Miles at North Dakota for three seasons beginning in 2001.
"Craig Smith has been a colleague and friend of mine for 23 years, and he is a terrific hire for Utah State,” Miles said. “Craig is an exceptional coach and a better man, and I believe he will take Utah State basketball to the top of the Mountain West and keep them there. Craig's energy and enthusiasm will connect with the campus, the community and the state of Utah in a way that will make Aggie basketball electric."
Smith returned to Mayville State in 2004 as the head coach, going 17-14, 28-6 and 27-9, picking up coach of the year honors in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Smith’s first experience at the Division I level came when he was hired by Miles in 2007 to serve as the director of basketball operations at Colorado State. Smith was elevated to a full-time assistant position the following year and helped coach the Rams until Miles left in 2012 for the head coaching position at Nebraska.
During Smith’s tenure in Fort Collins, the Rams went to the CBI tournament in 2010, the NIT in 2011 and the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Longtime foes, Colorado State and Utah State never played each other during Smith’s stint, as the Rams were in the old Mountain West Conference that included BYU, Utah and TCU, while the Aggies were still in the WAC until 2013.
Smith joined Miles in Lincoln for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, with the Cornhuskers going 15-18 and 19-13. Nebraska finished fourth in the Big Ten during his second year, earning an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 1998.
“Coach Smith is always full of energy and brings high intensity to practice every day,” former Nebraska guard Benny Parker said. “You never catch him with low energy. He pushes you in workouts and practices to get the best out of you. He is just a great all-around coach."
Merrill said he has a similar assessment of Smith already.
“Obviously, you can see the passion that he has for the game and the passion he has for winning and the excitement that he wants to bring to this program,” noted Merrill, who said Smith told him he “wants to play in attack mode at all times.”
“It’s a free-flowing offense, kind of similar to what we’ve been running,” Merrill added. He likes to play with aggression, both offensively and defensively, and likes to get to the foul line.”
South Dakota led the Summit League and ranked 12th in the nation in scoring margin (+12.2 points per game) during the 2017-18 season, while also ranking first in the conference and 32nd nationally in field goal percentage defense (.409), and first in the conference and 36th in the nation in field goal percentage offense (.476).
“We’re going to be the toughest dudes out there,” Smith said. “We’re going to be high fiving, diving on the floor, playing aggressive man-to-man defense. We’re going to push the pace, but we are going to play on attack.
“ We’re going to be the aggressors all the time. I think it’s a fun style to play and for you to watch.”
Smith, who was joined by his wife, Darcy, and their four children, said he hasn’t put together a coaching staff yet, but at this time, it seems unlikely that any of his assistant coaches at USD (Gameli Ahelegbe, Austin Hansen and Eric Peterson) will be seriously considered for the head coaching position he just vacated.
Former Aggie great Spencer Nelson, a member of Duryea’s staff the past two seasons, has remained at Utah State, running the program the past two weeks, and would likely stay if there was an opportunity on Smith’s staff. Keeping Nelson around could make it easier to retain current Aggies like standout point guard Koby McEwen, who had a close, personal relationship with former USU assistant Louis Wilson.
“Going forward, if we feel like there’s anyone who doesn’t want to be here, we’ll talk with them and meet with coach and do our best to keep them here,” Merrill said. “Because I think we have the right guys, with a couple of pieces added, to take a huge step forward.”