Why Father’s Day is always special for Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith
More than once, University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith’s four kids and wife, Darcy, have referred to him as “Clark Griswold,” the fictional father played by comedian and actor Chevy Chase in the five films in the “Vacation” franchise.
They also say the adventurous 49-year-old is the best husband and father around, a man who loves and adores his family so much that he was recently willing to make the 16-hour drive in their Suburban with all six family members aboard to visit family in Minnesota.
Now that’s a patient man.
“Craig has a lot of great qualities, but first and foremost, his No. 1 priority is to be a husband and a father,” Darcy said. “More than anything, he is a family person.”
“Craig has a lot of great qualities, but first and foremost, his No. 1 priority is to be a husband and a father. More than anything, he is a family person.” — Darcy Smith, wife of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
Father’s Day festivities at the Smith home in North Salt Lake on Sunday will involve the couple’s three sons and daughter: Landon, 21; Brady, 19; Carson, 16; and Lauren, 12. Any recognition that comes Smith’s way will be well-deserved, Landon said.
“For how busy he is, he’s a terrific dad,” Landon said. “We understand his job, and why he’s gone so much. But all things considered, with what he has achieved in his coaching career, I think he has done an even better job as a father.”
Landon is a student at Utah State (Smith’s previous coaching stop). Brady recently graduated from Green Canyon High in North Logan and has a scholarship to play basketball at Salt Lake Community College this fall. Also a solid basketball player, Carson will be a junior at Bountiful High this fall. Lauren is starting to shine as a soccer and basketball player in her own right.
Landon said his dad made the recent trip memorable, as seven people were packed into a vehicle that seats eight.
“Clark (Griswold) is always driving, first off. My dad will not let anyone else drive. For some reason, he is very proud to drive the family places,” Landon said, laughing. “And he also loves to blast the music. My dad loves to belt out the songs that he is playing.”
Craig Smith’s favorite song of late is Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night.” Landon said he’s going through a country music phase, after loving early 2000s rap music by artists such as Eminem years ago. Every Saturday night, dad sends a link to it via text to every person in the family.
When they aren’t together, that is.
“It is a great time to recalibrate,” Smith said of the recent trip. “That’s what I like about it. You are going through the middle of mountains, and no cell service, and all six of us are in the Suburban, and it is a great time to really get connected again and tell stories and talk about memories. People are like, ‘Why would you do that?’ I just think it is great family time together.”
Building a beautiful family
High school sweethearts, Craig and Darcy got married when they were 22 and 21, respectively, a year before they graduated from college at the same time.
“Took me five years, her four,” Smith said. “Just par for the course.”
They began having children about five years later, knowing they wanted a larger family because Smith was the oldest of five boys in his family and Darcy the second youngest of 10 children, eight girls and two boys.
“We 100% wanted a good-sized family,” Smith said. “By Utah standards, it is an average-size family, or maybe slightly below. But in terms of a college coach’s family, I would say it is very large.”
For his part, Smith defers praise for his parenting skills to his wife of almost 27 years, saying Darcy is the “rock of our family” and the reason he has been able to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
“I have been so blessed with her. We got married young. I had a different path than most people that are in this position as a head coach in a (Power Six) league,” Smith said. “She grew up a Pell Grant kid. I grew up a Pell Grant kid. We just had to figure it out together.”
Besides, Smith is used to having children around. His mother operated a day care in her home for more than 30 years.
“The way he acts as a coach is similar to the way he acts as a father. More than anything, he is very loving toward our family, and you can see that when he is coaching, too,” Landon said. “He is really determined.”
The first 15 years: From wedding bells to Taco Bell
A few minutes after a lengthy telephone interview with the Deseret News for this special Father’s Day article, Smith called back to relay a couple of stories about Darcy’s sacrifices that he had forgotten to tell in the first conversation on the topic.
He said he was an assistant coach at Colorado State when they celebrated their 15th anniversary, and he had made a reservation at one of the nicest restaurants in Fort Collins, but hadn’t told her. After a movie, he asked where she wanted to go eat, thinking she would do what she normally does and defer to him.
“My whole point is she has never flinched. She’s been 100% supportive. When you have somebody who backs you the way she backs me, in every way, shape and form without flinching, it is just incredible.” — Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith
“Instead, she wants to go to Taco Bell,” Smith said. “I said, really, for our 15th anniversary? And she says, ‘Yeah, that has always been our deal.’ Growing up, we had to drive an hour to the nearest theater, and then we’d go to Taco Bell. I told her I had a reservation at a really nice place, and she says, ‘Nah, screw that, we are going to Taco Bell.’”
Earlier in his coaching career, after Smith had taken a pay cut from his assistant’s job at North Dakota State to become the head coach at Mayville State, and money was even tighter, legendary coach Don Meyer invited Smith to fly with him to Southern California for a coaching clinic that Meyer, who died in 2014, was putting on. Because flights were around $550, Smith didn’t think they could afford it, but Darcy insisted that he go.
“So I bought the flight and went and the next thing I know we are in a residential area. We park the car, ring the doorbell, and out walks John Wooden,” Smith said. “Coach Meyer never told me. We spent the whole day with John Wooden, learning from John Wooden. So that was really cool, but it never would have happened without Darcy’s sacrifice.”
Smith said when he broke into the coaching business as an assistant at Mayville State in 1996-97, he was paid $1,000 a season.
“Darcy worked three jobs to keep us afloat,” he said.
His second year, he was a graduate assistant at Northern State and got a stipend of $3,600, so she “only” had to work two jobs. Then he went to Minot State as an assistant, where he made $10,000 a year.
“My whole point is she has never flinched. She’s been 100% supportive,” Smith said. “When you have somebody who backs you the way she backs me, in every way, shape and form without flinching, it is just incredible.”
A man of faith
Landon said one of his first memories of his father was kneeling beside a bed when he was 6 and praying together, a ritual that continued for years and years.
“He is also very faith-driven. He instilled that in us as kids from a young age,” Landon said. “After the prayer, we would say together: “Do your best, be kind, do the right thing, and treat others the way you want to be treated.”
“That is something I have used ever since and that is something my dad has taught me and still teaches his players today,” said Landon, a USU student who stopped playing high school basketball before his senior year when the family moved to Logan.
A few years after that, Landon and Craig drove eight hours to Colorado’s Longs Peak and then made the 16-mile hike to the top in what is called the most deadly hike in the state, and fourth-most deadly in the country. They started at 2 a.m. and didn’t reach the top until 2 p.m.
“When we got back, dad drove eight hours back to Logan, because I was too zonked out,” Landon said. “He is willing to sacrifice and do things like that all the time. He likes to put family first.”
Persistence pays off
Smith took another pay cut, with Darcy’s blessing, when he left an assistant’s job at the Big Ten’s Nebraska for the head coaching job at the University of South Dakota. After turning around that program, he became head coach at Utah State in 2018 and got the Aggies back on track.
He was hired to replace the fired Larry Krystkowiak in March 2021, and began the arduous process of restoring the Utes to their former glory. He’s been steadfast in saying it will be done.
Smith’s starting salary at the U., not counting perks and bonuses, was $1.85 million per year and escalates $100,000 a year until March 2027. Utah paid a $400,000 buyout to USU to get Smith from Logan to Salt Lake City.
Which begs the question: What do you give a man for Father’s Day who makes that kind of money?
Darcy said in their younger days Smith was the unusual father who liked to get socks.
“He loves colored socks, different kinds of designs, all that,” she said.
But now, all he wants is to be together as a family and enjoy each other’s company.
“Craig never expects any gifts. His favorite Father’s Day present is a card with a message from each kid, which we do every year,” Darcy said. “He just loves the written messages and cards.”
Smith also likes his toys — snowmobiles, boats and Razor Dirt Quads, which he often uses to take the kids on adventures and explorations in the mountains above Logan and, now, Salt Lake City.
“I would also say that he is a man of faith,” Darcy said. “Every Sunday we try to go to church with the family.”
Annual trips to the Final Four are always a highlight for the Smiths, especially Landon, a college basketball junkie whom Craig says watches three or four games a night during the season.
“We have done Disneyland a lot,” Darcy said. “One year we were the first people in the park, and the last to leave. He just loves to do a lot of family events.”
Of course there will be dad jokes
Anyone who knows Smith knows he is as energetic and talkative as anyone out there. Ask him a question and get a lengthy, detailed, thoughtful answer. The man loves to talk, especially about his two favorite subjects — his family and basketball.
He also loves to tell jokes, is self-deprecating — especially when it comes to his lack of hair — and can “hold court” with the best of them.
“He just loves to embarrass the kids,” Darcy said. “He is always trying to find ways to make the kids laugh with dad jokes, or just being very humorous.”
Family card and board games are especially fun, until a certain family member loses.
“He is really competitive,” Darcy said. “But he is a sore loser. Our rule is that losers clean up, but he never really does. He hates to lose.”
Speaking of which, Smith didn’t inherit much last year in his first season on the Hill, and the Utes finished 11-20. It was only the second time in his head coaching career that his team finished with a losing record.
Smith said one of the most difficult aspects of the job is not taking those losses home with him.
“Being a father is an incredibly important responsibility and there are a lot of things that go into it. With my profession, which is a lifestyle job, it does require balance. It is a 24/7, 365 day-a-year job. It never leaves,” he said. “And so even though we were on family vacation last week, we had this fire to put out, and that fire to put out, and you are trying to balance the whole thing.”
Family vs. basketball: Striking the right balance
Darcy and Craig Smith both said the family always tries to have dinner together and have meaningful conversations that include everybody. It isn’t always easy when the kids are busy with school and their athletic pursuits and hobbies and are sometimes away as much as dad is.
When Smith is on the road recruiting or at games, they wear out FaceTime and the like.
“It is difficult at times, but I am always going to put my best foot forward in that respect, but at the same time put our best foot forward as the University of Utah men’s basketball coach and team,” Smith said.
The coach said that he tries to never walk into the house while on his cellphone. Often, he will pull over to the side of the road to complete a phone call, or sit in his car in his driveway and finish it up.
“I don’t ever want to hear the kids say, ‘Oh, dad is walking in again on his phone,’” he said. “So just being engaged with the family the second you walk in the door is important, I believe.”
Darcy says Smith was there for the births of all four of his children, due to his own willingness and “perfect timing” because none of them came during a practice or a game.
“Before Craig proposed more than 27 years ago, he told me he wanted to be a college coach, and asked me if I knew what that entailed as a coach’s wife. I understood after he explained everything, and I was in from day one,” Darcy said. “Our journey is a lot different than most. When we were at the NAIA level, he would drive his own car to watch games, drive back that same night. Not a lot of (major college coaches) had to do that.”
The family has learned to be patient and understanding with Smith’s job. Sure, there have been phone calls during date night, interruptions from well-wishing fans at family dinners, the urge to suddenly draw up plays on napkins at a restaurant, and lots of other distractions. But nobody is complaining.
“When I was pregnant with our third child, Carson, I was going into labor, and he was in a film session,” Darcy recalled. “I called him and told him I think it is time to go in to the hospital, and his response was, ‘Well, can you wait 10 minutes?’ I think he handles pressure and adversity very well.”
Having heard the divorce rate among men’s college basketball coaches is 80%, Smith said making family and fatherhood will always be a priority for him.
“First and foremost, I try to be the very best husband I can be,” he said. “I think it starts there. You are the example for your children. We have had quite a journey together, made a lot of memories together.”
On Father’s Day, they will make one more. Without the colorful socks.