SALT LAKE CITY — On the highway rolling west, in an SUV packed like a collapsing zone, Craig Smith worries he might lose his cell reception. But the signal remains strong.
Weak signals really aren’t his thing.
So when the Utah State basketball coach is asked if he “could settle in and stay a long time,” he doesn’t hesitate.
“I don’t see why not,” he says.
His point is that he loves the Cache Valley, as does his wife Darcy. Smith is on speakerphone, driving back to Logan following a visit this week to family in Minnesota.
Darcy, their kids and a friend are listening in on the conversation.
“We always say when mama’s happy, everybody’s happy. She’s smiling at me right now,” Smith says. “We’re like the Griswolds. We got seven people in the Suburban and we’re starting an 18-hour journey. Hopefully we don’t forget the dog in the back.”
College basketball isn’t what it used to be, but when you arrive in Logan, as Smith did just over a year ago, and titles are up for grabs, and the Hurd is doing its thing, and the Aggies are winning 17 of 18 games in one stretch, there aren’t many better places to be.
His son graduated this year from Green Canyon High in North Logan and is enrolling at Utah State.
“I told him he better be front and center in the Hurd, giving the officials the business, nonstop,” Smith says.
After a 28-7 season that included Mountain West regular season and conference tournament titles, the Aggies lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Good seasons aren’t unusual at USU. But after Stew Morrill retired, the program slipped. In the next three years, under Tim Duryea, they won fewer than half their games.
Smith is a rapid fire, upbeat coach. He was once the NAIA Coach of the Year. At Mayville State and South Dakota, he won conference regular-season titles. It didn’t take long to charm the Aggie faithful. Nor did it take long for Old Main and Sardine Canyon and the boisterous student section to win him over.
“What an amazing place,” he says. “It’s a fantastic college town.”
Smith didn’t just fall off the hay wagon, although he’ll play along with that angle if you want. It’s true he has roamed the Dakotas like nobody since Crazy Horse. He has coached in Mayville, Aberdeen, Minot, Fargo, and Vermillion. Inquire about the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, or Wild Bill Days in Deadwood, and he’ll educate you. But he also coached at Colorado State and Nebraska as an assistant.
Smith swept into Logan like a wind off the plains, generating more first-year wins than any coach in USU history and the best winning percentage of any first-year coach in the country. His team finished the season ranked No. 25.
Andy Katz of NCAA.com has the Aggies ranked No. 19 in his Power 36 this week. CBS.com puts them at No. 23 and NBC Sports No. 14.
“All that stuff is fine and dandy, and it’s great, but I tell the guys from Day One, you’ve got to earn everything in life. So now what changes? Nothing changes. Maybe expectations change on the outside, but it doesn’t change who we are and doesn’t change our mindset.”
He goes on to say when success comes, a team has to guard against selfishness, aka “the disease of me.”
News was good for USU throughout last week, as Neemias Queta, the MWC’s Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, announced he will be returning. He joins three other returning starters, including conference Player of the Year Sam Merrill. Smith won Coach-of-the-Year honors.
Queta worked out with NBA teams and attended the Chicago pre-draft combine before deciding to return to college. Smith says Queta has an ability to “look at things and self-correct.”
“He’s very good with self-awareness,” Smith says.12 comments on this story
When Queta first walked into Smith’s office, after announcing his return, he said, “Coach, it just feels so good to be home.”
Smith sounds fired up as he drives westward toward the Rockies. An excellent year is in the bank. All those key players are returning. Great preseason reviews. Could the Aggies become a perennially ranked team?
“I don’t see why not,” he says. “I know where this program has been and its rich tradition. The sky’s the limit.”
His 19-year-old center is right. It’s good to be heading home.