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Utah basketball: Why Craig Smith hired Chris Burgess away from BYU

University of Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith joked Thursday afternoon that he didn’t hire new Runnin’ Utes assistant coach Chris Burgess away from BYU last month because of Burgess’ looks.

“Certainly not,” Smith said, laughing.

However, when he got a little more serious in his first public comments since news of Burgess’ pending hiring broke last month, the Utes’ second-year head coach did reveal that the men talked at length three times “that were almost like interviews each time” before the deal was finalized.

Smith spoke to reporters for more than 30 minutes via Zoom Thursday to recap the 2021-22 season and address a variety of other questions facing the program that has been fairly successful so far in the transfer portal and high school market. Not surprisingly, his well-publicized hiring of Burgess, a former Duke and Utah player who spent the last three seasons on Mark Pope’s staff at BYU, was the first item of business.

“He is not transactional. He is a relationship person. And that matters.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on Chris Burgess

“We have always hired guys who are not just recruiters, not just coaches, but are the total package. And certainly Chris fits that bill in every way, shape and form,” Smith said.

Asked specifically about what makes the 43-year-old Burgess an outstanding recruiterSmith said that trait “was a big topic of discussion” during the interview process.

“Because he is well-rounded,” Smith said. “He is a relationship guy, and a guy who understands people and can relate to them and is genuine. And when you are a genuine person, (people) can feel that.”

Burgess replaced assistant Eric Petersonwho was hired to be South Dakota’s head coach in March. DeMarlo Slocum and Tim Morris remain on the staff.

Smith called Burgess a “connector” who can relate to all walks of life. He said he made an “instant connection” with Burgess shortly after he was hired at Utah State four years ago, and the two crossed paths often on the recruiting trail because they watched a lot of the same AAU and traveling circuit teams.

He said it was apparent that Burgess and his wife, Lisa, a former Utah soccer player, still had warm feelings for the U.

“They have a lot of pride in the University of Utah,” Smith said. “Chris has already shared some really cool stories about his time here. That certainly helps. But at the end of the day, he is a very good coach, a very good recruiter and a phenomenal person.”

Smith said Burgess’ name gets brought up everywhere he goes in the state, even in Logan.

“He is not transactional. He is a relationship person,” Smith said. “And that matters.”

Since arriving a couple weeks ago, Burgess has worked a lot with 7-footer Branden Carlson, the fellow big man who was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season.

“He is already having a positive impact on our program,” Smith said.

At least one former BYU player, center Gavin Baxter, is following Burgess to Utah. A graduate transfer, Baxter will be a walk-on and therefore can’t be discussed by Smith or any Utah coaches until he has enrolled at the school.

Utah also has two other commitments that have not been announced by the school: Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson and Serbian forward Luka Tarlac.

Burgess pays attention to detail, asks great questions and brings credibility because he played at Duke, Utah, for the Idaho Stampede of the NBA G League (now the Salt Lake City Stars) and professionally overseas for more than 10 years.

“Returning to the University of Utah is exciting,” Burgess said in a school news release. “I love this university and am proud to be part of its basketball history. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn from coach Smith, and help the student-athletes find success on and off the court.”

Burgess served as a student assistant under Larry Krystkowiak in 2013-14, then became an assistant coach at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa for a year before Pope hired him at Utah Valley.

“I love the fact that he has had to work his way up, so to speak,” Smith said. “… I am a small-school guy who has had to work my way up and do those sorts of things (like drive nine hours to see a recruit play).”

Smith said Burgess played in so many different countries around the globe that it delayed his hiring because of all the various background checks that had to be done.

“And, he has a good eye for talent. Like, let’s be real. You can have all that stuff, but if you don’t have a good eye for talent, and understand your system and style of play and being able to judge (things like): Can this guy thrive in our style of play? Can he thrive living in Salt Lake City? Can he thrive in this environment? I think Chris will have a great feel for that.”

tuesday, the Deseret News reported that Burgess will be paid $265,000 annually to join Smith’s staff at the U. not including a $600 monthly stipend for an automobile, team performance bonuses and funds for working youth basketball camps.

Burgess wasn’t the only topic discussed at length on Thursday. Talking about last year’s 11-win campaign, Smith said the team did not have enough athleticism and lacked the physicality needed to win consistently in the Pac-12.

He said waves of transfers in and out of programs is here to stay and the U. will adjust accordingly, while working to build a program, and not just a team.

The coach said the 2022-23 schedule is almost complete. It lacks just one game — most likely to be played at the Huntsman Center — and includes a multiteam event in Fort Myers, Florida, that has been previously announced.

An in-depth article on all those topics and more will be published next week.

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