Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Larry Krystkowiak's latest stop: Utah
By Diamond Leung
Larry Krystkowiak’s résumé is one befitting a basketball vagabond.
After starring at Montana, he played for six NBA teams in nine seasons and overseas in France. He served as an NBA head coach and assistant, a college head coach and assistant, and even as a head coach in the Continental Basketball Association -- all while never staying on at any position for more than two seasons.
The latest undertaking for Krystkowiak involves ushering Utah into the Pac-12 and leading a program that desires the sustained success it hasn’t seen since the Rick Majerus era.
Although his zip code has often changed, his determination level and principles for getting the job done have not.
“For me, what’s made me have some success and get to the next level has been consistent,” said Krystkowiak, who turns 47 next month. “It’s being prepared and trying to outwork the other person. If you get beat, you get beat. You’re not going to be part of it to where you’re lending a hand to your loss. Somebody’s going to have to beat you.”
Utah fans might have wanted a splashier hire after the back-to-back losing seasons that led to the firing of Jim Boylen. Krystkowiak hasn’t been a head coach since 2008, when he was let go by the Milwaukee Bucks after going 31-69 in a little more than one season.
But in two seasons as a college head coach before leaving for the pros, Krystkowiak twice led his alma mater, Montana, to the NCAA tournament. His last college victory came in the 2006 tourney, when his gritty 12th-seeded Grizzlies upended Nevada in the first round.
Current Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, then an assistant under Krystkowiak, doesn’t recall much of a celebration after the team’s upset win. Krystkowiak had instilled a sense of confidence that made it seem like just another victory.
“We expected to beat Nevada,” Tinkle said. “People that watched that game said, ‘Why weren’t you doing cartwheels?’”
That wouldn’t exactly be Krystkowiak’s style. He was once a hard-nosed 6-foot-9 NBA power forward playing alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal despite a banged-up, surgically repaired knee.
Tinkle traced Krystkowiak’s competitiveness to when the two former teammates at Montana went up against each other in workouts. He recalled one day when he got the better of his friend and for that was wrestled to the ground, causing then-coach Mike Montgomery to kick the eventual three-time conference MVP out of practice.
“There were some real heated battles,” Tinkle said. “It helped make us tougher. He went through those strides. Those dog days way back when helped.”
After several years in the NBA, Larry Krystkowiak returned to the college game for the first time since coaching Montana in 2006.
Krystkowiak, who remains Montana’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, was selected in the second round of the 1986 NBA draft. That wouldn’t be the last time he would jump from the Big Sky to the NBA, as after the Nevada win he was hired by the Bucks as an assistant coach.
Utah officials actually first got a chance to get to know Krystkowiak in 2007, interviewing him after Ray Giacoletti resigned. But Krystkowiak was soon promoted to Milwaukee’s head coach, and that was that.
“I think I’m a better coach than back in 2007,” Krystkowiak said. “This is a better situation than it was back in 2007. Everything happens for a reason.”
Krystkowiak, who was a candidate last year for the Boise State job when he was an assistant for the New Jersey Nets, said there were two main reasons for making a return to college basketball. Coaching at Utah afforded him the ability to spend more time at home with his wife and five children rather than going through the grind of an 82-game NBA schedule. He also wanted to get back to building relationships and teaching young players.
“Watching [college players] grow up, that was as rewarding as anything for me, getting wedding invitations … those things are hard to find in the NBA,” Krystkowiak said.
“I’ve had an opportunity to experience all of it. This is the path that makes the most sense. I’ve been more of a gut-feeling kind of guy. This is the move to make.”
At Utah, Krystkowiak will begin a rebuilding project with only four returning players, including starting point guard Josh Watkins and a shot-blocking presence in 7-3 David Foster. Eight players transferred, leaving the team without top player Will Clyburn, second-leading rebounder and rising sophomore J.J. O’Brien and returning missionary Josh Sharp, who did the unthinkable (for Utah fans) and went to archrival BYU.
Krystkowiak awarded the open scholarships to high school recruits, junior college transfers and Division I transfers Aaron Dotson (from LSU) and Glen Dean (from Eastern Washington).
“It was important for us from the beginning that we found people who wanted to be here. University of Utah guys and not a Coach Boylen guy,” Krystkowiak said. “If someone thought they were a Coach Boylen guy, it was probably in everyone’s best interest they moved on.”
And move on they did. Make no mistake about it: This is a major rebuilding job in Salt Lake City.
With just one tourney appearance in the past six seasons, it's easy to forget that this is a program with a proud past that includes 27 NCAA tournaments and even the 1944 national championship. But in attendance, the Huntsman Center has lagged since Boylen led the Utes to a share of the Mountain West Conference title in 2009, and now they head into another season with uncertainty after their top scorer transferred for a second straight offseason.
The move to the Pac-12 should at least energize a program with a Final Four legacy to uphold, but now it’s up to Krystkowiak to help put a winning product on the floor.
“It’s a matter of doing things better and doing things the right way,” he said.
Chances are his team will take on the workmanlike personality from when he played. As he promised at his introductory news conference, “We’re going to get some floor burns and bloody noses while we’re playing defense.”
“I know that if they don’t succeed, it’s not because of lack of effort and lack of coaching ability,” Tinkle said. “It’s a tough transition to get those kind of guys there, but I’m very confident a couple years down the road they’re going to restore the proud tradition they've had.”