The Positively Depressing Alleged Downfall of the Utah Hoops Program

I think it's impossible to pinpoint the exact reason why Utah basketball is in a looping slump - if there is only one reason to begin with. 

This is a process that has been pretty much building for the last decade. Utah basketball didn't die with Ray Giacoletti. He was part of the problem, but we need to admit he wasn't the sole problem. Likewise, Jim Boylen is only one factor in many that has brought us to the current abysmal state of Utah hoops. 

So where did it begin? How did the Runnin' Utes go from being a half away from winning the national championship to irrelevancy in less than ten years? It's a very complex answer due to the fact we have to assume things would have ended differently had the program made various other moves. It's all assumption because, like I said, there is no obvious reason for the decline in hoops. Instead, there are smaller, less obvious problems that mounted over the last decade that has led us down this path. 

April 2nd, 1998

This was a celebrated moment in Utah basketball history. The Utes were only a few days removed from losing to Kentucky in the 1998 national championship game and the basketball program was on the verge of potentially losing its superstar head coach to Arizona State.

Ultimately, on the 2nd of April, Rick Majerus rejected the Sun Devils' offer and decided to remain with Utah. 

At the time, there was a great sigh of relief because Majerus had established the Runnin' Utes as one of the elite college basketball programs in the country. From 1995 to 1998, there were only a handful of programs that had more tournament wins than Utah. The program was at its peak. Losing Majerus might've meant losing all that he had created. 

Ironically, keeping Majerus eventually did just that - as after 1998, the Utes would not produce another deep tournament run under his leadership. 

Something changed at the end of the 1998 season. Maybe it was the fact Majerus could never accept how close he came to winning it all - maybe it was just the fact he burned himself out trying to get Utah to the top. Whatever reason, Rick Majerus and Utah basketball were never the same after that '98 season. 

Sure, they won the WAC and then eventually the Mountain West and contended for the postseason every year he coached - but they were rarely a national fixture. Outside of a stunning upset of then number one Alabama in the Huntsman Center, Utah rarely made any headlines nationally. 

That was far removed from where the program had established itself in the early Majerus days. This was a coach who, in his first full season, utilizing the great Josh Grant, rolled through the WAC and advanced to the school's first Sweet Sixteen since the Jerry Pimm days. 

Early on, leading up to 1998, Utah basketball, outside 1994's rebuilding year, was as close to a western institution as you could get in the college game. Only Arizona was producing better on the national stage than the Runnin' Utes - so it isn't like Majerus' career here is only defined by a small window between 1996 and 1998. It was deeper than that. Utah basketball, for much of the 90s, was a consistent force in the Western Athletic Conference. After 1998, however, it was a slow decline that led to less inspired performances, NIT losses at home and minimal success in the Big Dance. 

For fans who were conditioned on competing at the highest level, it was hard to accept their newly minted lot in life. Utah basketball from 2000 to 2004 was good and that was it. They were rarely ever better than good and though there wasn't an entire collapse, there was an obvious downward trajectory. 

There are many reasons for this decline in hoops - here are a few:

Jeff Judkins left the basketball program in 1999. I don't think it's a coincidence the program began its decline under Majerus the second he lost his best assistant. Judkins was an important factor in Utah's run from 1990-1999. He knew the quirks of Utah recruiting, had strong ties to the state and really acted as a buffer between the often abrasive non-Mormon Majerus and the LDS talent that flowed through the Utah program throughout that run. 

When he left, I think Majerus strained the programs' ties with local high schools and the Utes started losing out on Utah talent to other local programs. 

Judkins leaving really was the first sign that things weren't right in the program. From that point on, Majerus had essentially a revolving door of assistants until he eventually up and quit in 2004. Not all left because of a souring relationship, but many did. 

Donny Daniels, who spent ten years at Utah, left in 1999. Jeff Strohm, who came aboard in 1997, left in 2002. So did Dick Hunsaker, who actually coached for a season during one of Majerus' sabbaticals. Jason Shelton was only here two years before leaving in 2001. Silvey Dominguez was an assistant for only one year before bolting to take a similar position with the Wyoming Cowboys in 2003. 

That is a ridiculous amount of turnover in such a short time. The lack of any stability in the coaching ranks had to have played a role in the slippage we saw in the final years of Majerus' career here. You can't sustain a program with that many coaches leaving it over the course of, in some instances, three years. 

Worse, as this was all going on, Majerus was in and out of coaching for personal reasons. I'm not condemning him for his choices, but he took off essentially an entire season in 2000-'01 and that had to have hurt recruiting. That had to have hurt player development. That had to have hurt the program as a whole.

That inconsistency was really taxing on the program. His troubles with Lance Allred and the NCAA sanctions certainly didn't help. He was Utah's head coach, but you could tell that behind the scenes the administration approved of him less and less. This ongoing feud between Chris Hill and Majerus eventually led to his abrupt and surprising resignation. 

The ultimate outcome was what so many of us dreaded when it appeared Majerus might be on his way to Tempe in '98. We feared a floundering program and mediocrity and, though it wasn't as bad as we've seen lately, we pretty much received that even with Majerus at the helm. 

So what if Majerus had taken that Arizona State job? He leaves at pretty much the top and yet gives his successor a great foundation to build a consistent national power. 

Maybe it's Judkins who steps in and takes over Utah basketball in the post-Majerus era. Knowing what we know about Judkins and his impact on Utah in the 90s, it isn't impossible to foresee a scenario where the Runnin' Utes are a sustainable success. 

But because Majerus returned and flirted with other jobs like UNLV and Minnesota and spent a whole year off and forced his assistants out the door, the program deteriorated - even if, on its face, it still appeared healthy.

Instead of replacing a legend at a moment where the team could build on its unprecedented success, Utah was forced to replace a legend that quit midseason and left a program that was far removed from the era of dominance that defined his legacy. 

March 31st, 2004

The move to hire Ray Giacoletti seemed underwhelming by many fans at the time. Giacoletti came from a small school that was located in a small town and played in a small conference.

Utah fans expected a bigger name because expectations had inflated their view of the program. Unfortunately, bigger names spurned Chris Hill's advances. Trent Johnson, who was an assistant at Utah in the late 80s, was the Utes' first choice and he opted to take the Stanford job instead. Mark Few at Gonzaga was Hill's other choice and he too declined the job. 

This is where Giacoletti enters the picture. Few, who had decided to stay at Gonzaga, told Hill to give Giacoletti a hard look. They were friends and Giacoletti had performed fairly well as head coach at Eastern Washington. 

I don't know if Hill was convinced on the spot by that endorsement, but a few days later, Giacoletti was officially named Utah's head coach. 

On resume alone, there were red flags. Giacoletti didn't inherit a bad program at Eastern Washington. He took over from Steve Aggers, who had established some success in Cheney and parlayed that success into a job with Loyola Marymount in the West Coast Conference. That was pretty telling in and of itself because the coach prior to Giacoletti had received a promotion - except it was to coach a far less prestigious program than what Utah had established itself in the 90s and early 00s. 

Even today, Loyola Marymount basketball is not on the level of Utah and yet, both tapped the same well for their failed hires (Aggers would only last five years there before being fired). 

But Aggers was the one who really turned around Eastern Washington. Prior to him, the program was a doormat and in his final season there, they tied Montana for the conference regular season championship - finishing with a 12-4 record. 

That is what Giacoletti inherited and to his credit, he kept it humming nicely for four years before he finally found a better gig. I don't fault Giacoletti for taking the Utah job. It was a huge upgrade and I'm sure he thought he could keep the Runnin' Utes competing at a high level.

He couldn't, though.

But why? 

Well for starters, there is a huge difference between winning at Eastern Washington and winning at Utah. Expectations just aren't the same and that's where Giacoletti faltered. He couldn't live up to the expectations and pressure of a program with Utah's stature. 

That killed him with two rebuilding projects after initial success and he could never recover from those struggles. 

Now you could reason Giacoletti failed so badly in rebuilding because he didn't face such prospects at Eastern Washington. As I mentioned, he inherited a fairly stable and growing program and kept it at a competitive level in the context of what they generally expected in Cheney, Washington. 

However, he was only there for four years and his final team, which did just enough to warrant a hiring by Utah, had three senior starters - including its best player, Alvin Snow. 

When those players left the program and the man who replaced Giacoletti had to replace those players, the Eagles faltered badly - finishing 8-20. 

So there was no foundation left for the next coach and, after three seasons, he was fired. 

This was one of those red flags. Giacoletti didn't have to build anything. He was handed an up and coming program that had stockpiled some good talent and rode that talent to a fairly decent overall record. He then got out before his fifth season that would have been his first true rebuild. 

Yet in his four at Eastern Washington, Giacoletti didn't do anything spectacular. He certainly didn't turn heads like Trent Johnson at Nevada or Mark Few at Gonzaga. There were no tournament wins or 20-win seasons or gaudy records. It was a ho-hum production that, while not bad, didn't inspire hope that this guy was capable of returning Utah to its past glories. 

Even Majerus managed 29-wins at Ball State and took them to the second round the year he was hired as Utah's head coach. 

But that was something lacking on Giacoletti's resume.

In retrospect, it probably gives us an indication why he wasn't prepared for a job like Utah. 

Giacoletti also had some questionable recruiting tactics. The talent he was bringing into the program wasn't at the level needed to sustain success and the way he set up that talent left Jim Boylen a disastrous rebuilding year in his third season and we've yet to recover from that dip in wins. 

The worst, though, might be how haphazardly Giacoletti ran this program. There was no direction and no discipline and no indication that things were improving. Players were skipping classes, the Utes were getting abused in games against bad opponents and Giacoletti had absolutely no answers. 

He was in way over his head and it showed those final two seasons. 

Knowing what we know now, it was an awful hire by Hill. It set the program back years and though what Giacoletti inherited was far from perfect, the Runnin' Utes were at least competitive and fairly consistent. Under his leadership, the only thing they were consistent at was losing. 

So he was rightfully terminated.

March 26th, 2007

When Jim Boylen was announced as Utah's head coach, I was initially impressed by the hire - even more so after his press conference. Boylen was the opposite of Giacoletti. He was exciting, charismatic, tough and extremely personable. Giacoletti was a reserved coach with hermit-like qualities.  Unless he was coaching a game, you rarely saw or heard him. 

But Boylen stepped in and said all the right things. He talked about toughness and bringing Utah hoops back to its past glory. He had many fans willing to run through walls for him and, to some extent, that is still the case today. 

Unfortunately, like Giacoletti, there were resume issues. He had proven a worthy assistant, coaching under greats like Rudy Tomjanovich, Tom Izzo and Jud Heathcote. But he had yet to run his own program, so it was unclear how well he would make the transition. 

At first, things went well. Boylen's teams were clearly more tough and competent than Giacoletti's and they were winning. At one point, the Runnin' Utes were 7-3 and coming off a huge win on the road against Cal. Then there was the success seen in Boylen's second year - which resulted in a conference regular season championship and a conference tournament championship. 

Then he was faced with the prospects of rebuilding after losing a great deal of talent he didn't recruit. This is where Boylen has struggled. 

He's struggled because, like the last coaching staff, he has failed at bringing in the talent needed to balance out the talent lost. You can't efficiently rebuild without at least some stability and Utah has lost so many players over the last two seasons that there isn't any. 

Jim Boylen's second recruiting class, the class that was supposed to bridge the gap between the tournament team and the rebuilding one, included Jordan Cyphers, Chris Hines, Josh Sharp, Jace Tavita and Jason Washburn. Of those players, only Hines and Washburn remain.

Washburn was a four-star recruit out of Michigan and though still a sophomore, he's not producing nearly at the level many Ute fans thought he would when Boylen inked him back in 2008. That was an impressive get and it certainly gave Utah and Boylen credibility that they would be able to recruit with the best of the non-Power teams. 

But that recruiting class has fizzled. Because it fizzled, the Utes were left with consecutive rebuilds. We're not talking about two down seasons. We're talking about two seasons where you're replacing almost all the scoring talent. 

That is not how you build a program. If you are overhauling your entire foundation four years into your stint as a head coach, you've failed in year's 1-3. Boylen might have established a winning attitude early with Giacoletti's recruits, but with his own players, they've only known losing. 

That is troubling. It's led us to the position where the program couldn't build on its momentum from the NCAA Tournament season in 2009. So instead of progressing as a program from year's two to three and then three to four, we've actually regressed. 

And it's led us to this current situation. 

Most damning of all, though, has been Boylen's neglect of the local talent. I talked about this with Majerus and I think it's important to bring up with Boylen. Even though he has two assistants with local ties, Stan Johnson and Barret Peery, the last two recruiting classes have been devoid of Utah talent. 

Utah is losing out on local talent to Utah State, BYU and, to a lesser extent, Weber State. Now I'm not sure why that is when Boylen has two coaches that are very familiar with the quirks of the state and its talent - but it appears he's not utilizing those coaches locally. 

Maybe he feels the path to success is through the midwest. Unfortunately, we're in the west and there is talent here. Some of the greatest players to ever come through this program grew up in Utah. Josh Grant, Al Jensen and the Johnsen brothers were all imperative to our run throughout the 90s.

Cutting off that local pipeline has hurt this program.

Not having assistant coaches that are capable of going into a Mormon household and recruiting LDS kids has hurt this program. 

All this adds up and collectively has made Utah basketball an irrelevant mess. 

I guess now it's up to the next coach to fix all of this. 

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