From Stephen, Minn., to the Big Dance, Craig Smith is a small-town success story
Before he was dancing into the NCAA Tournament and before national men's basketball pundits were pushing his name for Coach of the Year, Utah State head coach Craig Smith was learning the game in little Stephen, Minn.
The first of five boys for Vern and Bev Smith, Craig was resourceful in the Northwest Minnesota town of 658.
"We didn't have an over-the-door hoop, as so many have now, so he improvised," Bev said. "I had a daycare in my home so we had assorted toys in ice cream pails. He would empty the pails, set them on our dining room chairs and shoot ... not with a basketball but with a little ball his grandma had made for him."
Craig's 'small town boy makes it big' story will reach new heights at 5:45 p.m. Friday when No. 8 Utah State plays No. 9 Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
Now one of the hottest names in Division I coaching circles, Craig's teammates with the Stephen Tigers recall a competitive, determined and heady teen of the 1980s.
"If you've ever been to Stephen, you know there's the south side and the rest," said teammate Mark Kuznia, who now lives in Kindred. "He was south side. I was always competing against him. There were a number of times it was down to pushing and shoving, but we always came back to play the next day. Nobody liked to lose. He was a super-sharp and super-competitive player."
Scott Field, who now lives in Grand Forks, was a teammate and fellow 1991 graduate of Stephen.
"Craig growing up, it was almost from Day 1, coaching is what he wanted to do," Field said. "He wanted to be a basketball coach, and it showed."
Craig, who was a starting guard but not a star in basketball, might have been more of a standout in track and cross country in Stephen. He qualified for the Minnesota state cross country meet in 1988 and 1989. He made the Minnesota state track and field meet by qualifying in the 3,200-meter run in 1988, 1989 and 1991.
"He was a skinny, little runt of a kid," said Garry Kotts, who has been coaching track in the Stephen area for 35 years. "But he stuck his nose in there and did whatever we asked of him. When he was in high school, he was a likable, energetic kid.
"He had fun in the sports and fun coming to practice. He had fun working hard. You watch it now on those postgame interviews, and he's the same way. I was thinking about that the other day; he's never changed."
Craig's wife, Darcy (Kuznia) Smith, is also from Stephen and, according to Kotts, probably a better athlete than Craig.
"Hardworking people," Kotts said of the Smith family. "Vern owned a body shop and Bev had the daycare. They're retired, but she still works at the school sometimes. Salt of the Earth people. They were always the kind of parents that let coaches coach, you know what I mean?"
After high school, Craig's athletic playing days were over. He went to UND for teaching and coaching, graduating in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in secondary education.
His rise in the college coaching ranks started in an unlikely place—Mayville State of the NAIA. In 1996, Smith was an assistant at Mayville under head coach Tim Miles—the first of many partnerships with Miles.
Smith then took coaching jobs at Northern State, Minot State and North Dakota State.
His first head coaching opportunity came in 2004 when Smith returned to Mayville, where he stayed until 2007 when he was named NAIA Division II Coach of the Year.
From Mayville, Smith became director of operations at Miles-led Colorado State in 2007. He was then promoted to full-time assistant at Colorado State.
In 2012, Smith followed Miles to Nebraska after Miles took the head job there.
Smith's next move was to become head coach again—this time at South Dakota, where he led the Coyotes from 2014-18.
On March 26, 2018, Smith was announced as Utah State's head coach.
No step along the way has been too big for Smith.
Utah State will be entering the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, having won both the Mountain West regular season and tournament championships after being picked ninth by the coaches in the preseason poll.
The Aggies earned a No. 8 seed, the highest in school history. Utah State has also broken into the Top 25 in both The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches poll, marking the first time the Aggies have been ranked since the 2010-11 season.
As the regular season ended, the individual accolades began to roll in for Smith, as he was named the Mountain West Coach of the Year and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's District VIII Coach of the Year. Smith is also one of 25 head coaches in the nation named as a finalist for the Jim Phelan Coach of the Year award.
Earlier this week, Vern and Bev flew to Las Vegas and drove 500-plus miles to Logan, Utah, to join the team en route to Columbus.
"This is really exciting for us as parents," Vern said. "It's kind of unbelievable, actually. This is something even in the wildest dreams you don't think will happen. For him to come out here and do this in his first year? What's next? I have no idea."
Vern and Bev won't be the only ones from Stephen rooting for the Aggies.
Field said he texted Smith after Utah State beat Nevada to kickstart a thrilling March stretch.
"I told him I had goosebumps at the end of that game because I was so proud and excited for him," Field said. "Craig is such a true story of a small-town kid with a dream. And he did it. He's making it big. He and his wife are so easy to root for."
"Watching games, when they bring up Stephen, it gives me goosebumps," Kuznia said. "I go around the office bragging. I'm telling everyone I played basketball with him growing up."