Finding a replacement for the recently departed head men’s basketball coach at Utah State will not happen as fast as his departure.
Last Friday afternoon Aggie Athletics Director John Hartwell saw then head coach Craig Smith and the two chatted before Smith departed to watch his sons play in an AAU basketball game in Salt Lake City. By Friday evening, Hartwell was in need of a new coach.
Hartwell took some time Monday to talk to the media through a conference call and explain how the departure of Smith happened so quickly and what he will be doing going forward to find a replacement. He hopes to name a new coach by April 9, or sooner.
“It seems a little like Groundhog Day here as we have gone through a few of these searches the past two or three years,” Hartwell said. “... I want to spend some time vetting some of the candidates. I assured our team on Saturday that I would act as efficiently and as quickly as possible, but I’m not going sacrifice hiring the right person for the speed of getting the search done.”
Smith was at the USU helm for three years and one day. He was introduced as the University of Utah head coach Saturday morning.
“I asked him (Smith) specifically on Friday afternoon, ‘anything with the U?’ and he said ‘no,’” Hartwell said. “Obviously some things transpired late Friday afternoon into Friday evening. It came about very quickly. ... After my conversation with Craig, I thought we had somewhat weathered the storm in terms of the Minnesota opening had come and gone, and I knew the University of Utah was looking at some other candidates. You always have to be prepared in this business.
“The irony is I had just finished watching the fourth quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks game and seen Sam Merrill have a really strong performance. About 15 minutes later my phone rings.”
And the Aggie AD was without a men’s basketball coach. Hartwell is not bitter and expressed gratitude for “everything coach Smith has done for our basketball program.”
“He and I have a pretty unique relationship both as an athletic director and a head coach relationship, but also a strong friendship,” Hartwell said. “That will continue forever. I wish him nothing but success other than the times — and hopefully we can get this done — where the Utes come to the Spectrum to play hoops or we go to the Huntsman Center to play them.”
After the call Friday evening, Hartwell began working to find Smith’s successor. He has not decided on whether a search firm will be used, but will in the next 24 hours.
“This was a very attractive opening three years ago,” Hartwell said. “From our level of success the last three years, it is an even more attractive job.”
He said a “plethora” of coaches, agents and representatives have reached out. He called the group interested in the vacancy so far is “very strong.”
Hartwell plans to start interviews soon at a neutral site. If he decides to use a search firm, one positive is the confidentiality involved as many candidates are sitting head coaches.
“This is an opportunity for us to get even better,” Hartwell said. “The bar has been raised high, three straight NCAA tournament qualifications. I feel we have a good nucleus here to build on.”
There is no interim coach. Hartwell said at least one assistant coach will be following Smith to Utah, but declined to say who it was.
“I looked earlier today and there is 984 student athletes in the transfer portal and we’ve asked our guys to hold tight,” Hartwell said. “We will have a new leader of Utah State men’s basketball in 10 days to two weeks on board.”
He is counting on veterans like Justin Bean and Brock Miller to keep the team together. They both went through the last coaching change.
“They (Bean and Miller) have been a really strong voice to the younger guys on our team, telling them they need to trust the process, trust John,” Hartwell said. “Any time you have a coaching change, there is anxiety there with the athletes. Obviously, these guys have dealt with a lot over the last year with the ups and downs of COVID. I appreciate the leadership of Justin and Brock. Sam Merrill has also shared the same message with the team as he has stayed in touch.”
The Aggie athletes found out about Smith’s departure through a group text.
“One of the difficult things in a coaching change is social media and people putting out assumptions or educated guesses or anything else that may not be fact yet,” Hartwell said. “In a perfect world, it would be ideal for a coach to be able to tell the team that he is departing, then later be introduced at a new team. With social media today, it’s nearly impossible to do that. I told the team Saturday morning that Craig felt really bad about that. He had to notify them all at the same time via group text. It’s not ideal, but kind of the world we live in with social media.”