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Portland, Ore. • In his hands, he clutched a rope. Beneath his feet, there was a cable stretching across an expanse that felt like a mile, and beneath the cable was 100 feet of sky.
Larry Krystkowiak was harnessed in, so he knew if he slipped, if his hands or feet failed him, he wouldn't plummet to the ground. But heights why did it have to be heights?
He was attempting to traverse a rope obstacle course with the Runnin' Utes, and fear was clenching his gut, making him sweat, making it harder to take steps than it already was. But there was no way the fear would conquer him not with his team watching, not with everything resting on that single line.
"It was really one of the hardest things I ever did," he said, eyes closed, transported back to the moment. "I don't know if the players knew how hard it was for me. But part of that whole thing was facing some fears, so it was real important."
To understand why Utah is in Portland this week, a 5 seed about to play in the program's first NCAA Tournament in six years, you have to understand the culture Krystkowiak and his staff have attempted to build.
It's one of accountability. Of respect. Of working through panic and anxiety, and eventually toeing your way across a great divide, even if it feels like you can fall every step of the way.
The players saw their coach was afraid, and they saw him cross the gap anyway. That example left a lasting impression that has, in part, helped guide Utah to a 24-8 season this year.
"When we step on that floor in between the lines and guys want to quit, I think they look back to it," assistant DeMarlo Slocum said. "I think they've really taken to it."
Krystkowiak, 50, has been described to varying degrees as the following: intelligent, folksy, powerful, impressive. Utah basketball star and close friend Danny Vranes refers to Larry's "aura" as a magnetic force that draws people and compels them to follow him. Whatever mood he's in, he radiates it. Around friends, his warmth is as cozy as a sweater, but step afoul of him officials in particular and you'll feel his fire.
But Utah's success hasn't been as much about the man as his consistency. Even when Utah was slogging through Krystkowiak's first season which athletic director Chris Hill generously says "doesn't count" there were early signs a foundation was being set.
"By the end of February, when basketball teams can be very selfish and we still weren't winning, the kids were playing hard, they were listening, they were well-behaved all of that," Hill said. "If you were here, you could see it: Hey, this is going to work."
Throughout his life, Krystkowiak has been identified as a "natural leader." Former Montana coach Mike Montgomery calls to mind Krystkowiak's years as a Grizzly, when his energy and pure ferocity set the tone at practice. Vranes remembers how Krystkowiak organized huge Fourth of July affairs at his house in Flathead, Mont. with more than 100 people camped out on his lawn and delegated tasks like a general.
His natural style worked at Montana, where he went to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. But it didn't carry him in the NBA, where he had a 31-69 record before being fired by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Ask friends and confidantes about Krystkowiak's NBA tenure, and an array of defenses come up: The front office had its own agenda; players didn't pay heed to his coaching; Krystkowiak never got a fair shake. But instead of casting blame, Krystkowiak looked inward.
"When I lost my job as Bucks coach, I felt a little bit helpless in that environment," Krystkowiak said. "It was the furthest thing from culture. You reflect, you do research and you try to get a feel for what is this that I'm trying to do, and how can I control it."
At Utah, Krystkowiak worked with Travis Anderson, a "culture builder" with Strategic Leadership Coaching. He also works with business executives, the Denver Broncos and the Utes football team. Krystkowiak and his staff went on a retreat with Anderson, then the whole team went the next year. The goal was to design a lasting culture, a way of doing things that transcends team-building, or simply wins and losses.
They focused on certain principles: compassion, team togetherness, unity, pride, perseverance, discipline and hard work. The coaching staff made sure to ingrain it in themselves before asking players to buy in. As Krystkowiak is fond of saying, "Culture isn't something you paint on a wall."
Many close to Krystkowiak identify a lack of ego as perhaps his most important asset as a coach. If he thinks he needs to dangle on a rope 100 feet above the ground to earn the respect of his team, he'll do it.
At Utah's Wednesday afternoon practice, Krystkowiak was getting hands-on again: He dropped to center court and knocked out a handful of pushups after his players had nailed a string of consecutive free throws.
"Larry and really his whole coaching staff realize that they have roles, that they have to push themselves as well, not just their players," Anderson said. "They're not going to ask their players to do something they won't do themselves."
The resulting trust between coaches and players have been an important component of the season. The Utes' discipline and adherence to their game plans helped them roll up a national best 15 wins by 20 or more points.
Throughout the years, Krystkowiak has added other activities that build on the program's core culture, having the Utes spar in the boxing ring or take Navy SEAL training. The message from each activity is consistent: Push your limits. Face challenges. Overcome. The hope is that the lessons take root on the court.
"It was tough," Jordan Loveridge said of the training. "We slept together at the gym with no cellphones. We got in the water, in the sand. We were doing all types of things to make us closer."
All the winning has led to another pressing question: Is Krystkowiak staying in Salt Lake City?
Hill said he was naturally concerned about Krystkowiak's stability, given his job history: Every few years, Krystkowiak was moving around. But the Utes extended their coach through 2019, netting him about $1.6 million per season, and Hill said talks about Krystkowiak's continued future at Utah are infrequent but ongoing and "positive."
But what might keep Krystkowiak rooted is culture as well: Friends say Krystkowiak is at home in the West, and he likes the idea of coaching a program with a strong tradition but a chip on its shoulder. The Utes plan to open a state-of-the-art facility this fall that will include a corner office with a dazzling view of the Wasatch Front for Krystkowiak.
And then there's his family. With five children, he and his wife, Jan Krystkowiak, are compelled to keep them in one place.
"I don't go there with him in terms of asking him about leaving, but things are going so well," said John Bates, a Krystkowiak college teammate and close friend. "My impression is they love the stability and staying put. They were all over the map, but I think that the Salt Lake is the perfect place for their family."
Going into Thursday's game, the Utes haven't been playing their best basketball. They're looking to break away from a 3-4 stretch that includes a Pac-12 semifinal loss.
It's just another length of cable to walk across. They think about crossing that divide and finding postseason success on the other side.
"Culture is the way we do things around here," Krystkowiak said. "You try to live it. Instead of talking the talk, you're trying to walk the walk."
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
P Moda Center, Portland, Ore.
Tipoff • 5:27 p.m. MDT
TV • TruTV
Radio • ESPN 700 AM
Records • Utah (24-8, 13-5); SFA (29-4, 17-1)
Series history • First meeting
About the Utes • Delon Wright is 11 points, seven assists and two steals away from becoming the second Ute (Josh Grant was first) to score 1,000 points, notch 375 rebounds, dish 350 assists and poke out 150 steals in his career. … The Utes are 35-30 in the NCAA Tournament with 28 appearances, last winning a game in 2005. … Larry Krystkowiak is 1-2 in NCAA Tournament games, reaching the Big Dance twice with Montana and beating 5-seed Nevada in 2006 in the round of 64.
About the Lumberjacks • With a 61-7 record, Brad Underwood is the winningest second-year coach in Division I history, and he also boasts the best winning percentage (.897). … The Lumberjacks are making their third appearance in the tournament with a 1-2 record, the lone win coming last year over 5-seed VCU. … SFA boasts the distinction of having two Southland Conference players of the year on the roster: Jacob Parker won in 2014, and Thomas Walkup won this season.