USU Athletics Director would rather do coaching searches than settle for mediocrity

11 MAR 2021: Marco Anthony #44 of the Utah State Aggies celebrates a play against the UNLV Rebels during the 2021 Mountain West Men's and Women's Basketball Championship held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV. Morgan Engel/Clarkson Creative Photography

LOGAN – Utah State University Director of Athletics John Hartwell met with members of the media Monday, just days after former head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith announced he would be leaving Logan for Salt Lake City. Hartwell said as of Friday afternoon, Smith had told him there was nothing to worry about with the University of Utah job opening.

“About 2:30 on Friday afternoon Craig and I had a conversation. He was going to see his sons play in an AAU (game) down in Salt Lake,” Hartwell recounted. “I had asked him specifically, ‘anything with the U?’ He said, ‘no.’ Obviously, some things transpired late Friday afternoon and into Friday evening. It came about very quickly.”

Hartwell said he has had several conversations with coaching agents over the last few days to verify how quickly the Utah hiring process transpired with Smith.

“That story all got verified from others who were involved in the University of Utah process,” Hartwell explained. “I know with one of those individuals there was conversation back and forth that cut off at about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon. After my conversation with Craig, I felt like we had somewhat weathered the storm. The Minnesota opening had come and gone, I knew that the University of Utah was looking at some other candidates. You have to always be prepared in this business.”

Hartwell said he had just finished watching the 4th quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks vs Boston Celtics game on Friday night – in which Sam Merrill scored 15 points in 20 minutes of game action – when he received a call about Smith’s departure.

There hasn’t been a lot of consistency at USU since Stew Morrill retired after being USU’s head men’s basketball coach for 17 seasons. After Morrill, Tim Duryea coached for three seasons before he was fired. Three seasons later, Craig Smith moved on to a bigger opportunity. But Hartwell doesn’t seem to mind.

“If we did a survey amongst our fan base and said, ‘If you could have three more consecutive years of going to the NCAA tournament, but with the caveat that if you did that you may be in a search all over again three years from now, would you do that?’ I think the overwhelming majority would say, ‘Absolutely, we would take that!’ I am of that same exact opinion.

“The level of success that we have, I would rather have high levels of success and have to repeat this process maybe every three to four years, than have mediocrity or less than mediocrity and have the same person in place for 10 years. Success outweighs having to do searches because you hired high achievers who moved on to a higher level.”

He said the athletic department also needs to continue to do what it can to raise the amount of resources available to coaches and their assistants.

Hartwell was appreciative of everything Smith has done for the Aggie basketball program and wished him success at the University of Utah, while also holding out hope the Aggies and Utes may be able to re-ignite a basketball rivalry.

“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!”

Hartwell said there has been a high level of interest in the USU opening already, from current college coaches, assistant coaches in college basketball and even alluded to some interest from assistant coaches at the professional level.

“This was a very attractive opening three years ago and from our level of success the last three years it is an even more attractive job now. I have had a plethora of coaches, agents and representatives reach out for a variety of coaches and we do have a strong field of candidates and potential candidates to select from.”

Hartwell said he met with the USU men’s basketball team Saturday morning via Zoom. He praised the veterans who were part of the team the last time Hartwell went through the hiring process. He also lamented our current day-and-age of social media and how difficult it is for coaches to communicate their intentions, personally, with their former team before accepting a new job.

“In a perfect world, it would be ideal for a coach to be able to tell the team that he is departing, ‘thank you, I’m taking this opportunity,’ then fast forward to the new team…but with social media today it’s nearly impossible to do that. I told the team on Saturday morning that Craig felt really bad about that. From a timing perspective, he had to notify them all at the same time via group text. It’s not ideal but it’s kind of the world we live in with social media.”

While admitting there was a high level of interest in USU’s opening, Hartwell did not want to be tied down with any specific list of qualifications that the next head coach should have, not even having already been a head coach or even having had ties with the state of Utah. But he does have personality traits and coaching styles that he will be strongly considering.

“I think high energy is really important for us, especially following Craig. That was one of his trademarks. I want to see that. In terms of style of play, I would love to see us be up-tempo some but being able to adjust to the talent level. With Neemi (Queta) announcing that he is going to the NBA today, we may not have dominant inside person. I want somebody who’s had a variety of experience so that they can adjust the game plan offensively or defensively to give the personnel the most opportunity for success.”

Hartwell said there has been a high level of interest in the USU opening already, and he hopes to have the position filled by the end of next week.

To hear John Hartwell’s entire interview with the media, click here:

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