Cover Story: Calhoun Keen To Raise The Standards At Utah State
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Cover Story: Calhoun Keen To Raise The Standards At Utah State

I've got a free cover story here (consider it a welcoming gift to those of you who are new to Utah State), on Jerrod Calhoun and Utah State's aspirations to be more:
Cover Story: Calhoun Keen To Raise The Standards At Utah State

LOGAN – Danny Sprinkle upped the ante at Utah State. Jerrod Calhoun wants to go all in.

It's a high bar to clear in Logan after Sprinkle's lone season at the helm, which netted Utah State its first outright Mountain West title and its first NCAA tournament victory since 2001, but Calhoun did not mince words as he took center stage for the first time as the new leader of the Aggies at an introductory press conference on April 2. The 42-year-old head coach sees more than a perennial tournament team and Mountain West contender when he looks at Utah State. He sees the bones of a champion.

"I was involved in a couple of searches, and both (director of basketball operations Paul Molinari) and my wife can attest to this," Calhoun said. "I told our players this. Back on the East Coast, the conference games here are much later. The Aggies became my favorite team last year. I told coach Sprinkle this two nights ago – we talked for an hour and a half. I fell in love with this group of players, and I told these guys that if they run it back, we can win a national championship. I truly believe that. I got hooked on these guys and the fan base."

That's not a phrase uttered often here. When Sprinkle gave his first public address at Utah State less than a year ago, he focused on competing atop the Mountain West and snapping that NCAA tournament losing streak. Ryan Odom struck a similar chord, keying in on making Utah State a staple in the top 25 and advancing in March. Craig Smith, who inherited the program at a relatively low point, centered his early statements just on climbing to the top of the Mountain West.

For the most part, those three delivered on the goals they set. Utah State has been to four of the last five NCAA tournaments (and would have made it five of six if not for the event's cancellation in 2020). Smith won a pair of Mountain West tournament titles and shared the 2018-19 regular season crown with Nevada. Odom came up just five points short of San Diego State in the 2023 league title game. Sprinkle added another MWC championship into the equation last season.

The Aggies are 146-56 overall since Smith took to that podium in 2018, with a 75-32 mark in conference play. In that same span, only San Diego State (155-47, 81-25) has fared better in either category among Utah State's conference mates. Save for Boise State (125-70, 73-37), no other program is especially close to the two atop the league. Nothing is a constant in college basketball, and the MWC is improving seemingly every season, but the Aggies have accomplished their mission to compete atop this league. They're right there with the Aztecs, annually antagonizing their counterparts.

Calhoun understands the expectations inherent to this job – even going as far as to cite them directly among the reasons he left Youngstown State, a program he elevated from afterthought to perennial Horizon League contender over seven seasons, for Logan. He's done his homework on both the roster Sprinkle crafted and those that came before it. He knows exactly what he's getting himself into, hitting on some of the traditional staples for events like these with mentions of Utah State's fan support and the environment in the Spectrum.

"So, why Utah State? This is not a rebuild," Calhoun said. "This is a reload. We want to reload our talent, we want to develop that talent, and we want to play a style that fans gravitate to when they're coming into the Spectrum. I know the expectation level around here, and I welcome that. I want to take that head-on. I understand the expectations of this program – (set by) all the coaches and all the former players (who have been here).

"I had the chance to reach out to a lot of those guys. One thing they constantly said was how special Logan is, and how special the Spectrum is. You get goosebumps as you go in there. I cannot wait to meet the HURD. Whatever you need from me, I'm here for you. That's how we do it."

Unlike some of his predecessors, though, Calhoun's focus was not primarily on Utah State's famous home-court advantage. That's not for a lack of appreciation. Sprinkle speculated that the Spectrum is worth at least four wins a season, which is still probably undershooting it, and Calhoun has certainly come to the same conclusion. Rather, it was another part of the message he looked to send, that Utah State is more than the plucky underdog with a ferocious venue. Calhoun's keynote was about ambition – to move the Aggies beyond a comfort zone they've pretty well mastered; to make a national brand of a program that wins more than enough to justify the jump.

"It's been my whole life's journey to put myself in the position to be at a place where my family is really happy – we'll be so happy here, this fits us – and to be at a place that really cares about basketball," Calhoun said in a radio interview with KSL Sports Zone. "I wanted an athletic director who could keep up with me. I like to go from the time I wake up until the time I put my head down, whether that's fundraising or different things. You can win a national championship here. There's no reason you can't. We saw San Diego State in the Final Four, we saw Florida Atlantic in the Final Four. Why can't it be us?"

That aforementioned athletic director is Diana Sabau, who centered the same idea to open the event. Utah State wants to grow, and growth requires change.

Some of that is a matter of mindset, which falls into Calhoun's extensive list of tasks as he takes the helm of the flagship program in Logan. That's not an easy thing to instill, especially with a team that for decades had to reckon with the reality of operating in a one-bid league, which places a hard ceiling on how big one can reasonably dream.

Utah State's best-case scenario was, for the vast majority of its existence on the hardwood, limited to aspiring for conference contention and postseason berths. It's hard to overcome the fears and habits that come with that. It won't happen overnight. The history of this program is among its greatest strengths, but it's also a constant reminder of where the Aggies once were, accompanied by an ever-lingering sense that they could one day slip up and fall right back down.

"I think Danny called it a pressure cooker," Calhoun said in his radio interview with KSL Sports Zone. "He said, 'It can be a pressure cooker, coach, it's real and you'll feel it.' But, everywhere we've gone, we have figured it out. We've averaged over 20 wins a year for 12 years, and even before that, at my first job in coaching – an NAIA school – we won a national championship.

"At West Virginia, we walked into that situation where John Beilein had been the coach and we had a good roster back but not great, and we went to the Sweet 16 and beat Arizona and Duke. In the third year, we went to the Final Four. This place is certainly a basketball coach's dream. You have to want that. You have to want the pressure cooking coming your way."

For over half of the last decade, Utah State has been one of the two best programs in a conference that sent six teams to the NCAA tournament last month. It has done so with three different coaches, and it just won 28 games with a roster that was built almost entirely in one month. San Diego State, Utah State's only true counterpart in the MWC, played in the national championship game less than 365 days before Calhoun took to the podium.

His challenge now is to prove it. Change is uncomfortable, but it's made a whole lot easier by the success it produces. That's the other half of this equation – the tangible stuff. Utah State needs to continue putting talented rosters out on the floor, and it needs those talented rosters to keep winning basketball games. Calhoun's plan to do that is not radical, because it doesn't need to be.

He played for the legendary Rollie Massimino, coached under Bob Huggins as he built West Virginia into a powerhouse, spent time with a national title winner in Walsh's Jeff Young, and worked for seven years with Youngstown State president Jim Tressel, a five-time national champion as a football coach. When he took control of his own program, landing at Fairmont State in 2012, he needed only five years to guide it to a DII national title berth. Youngstown State isn't built to reach those heights, but it also wasn't built to win anywhere near the level he eventually elevated it to. To say that he knows what this takes would be an understatement.

"Coach (Massimino) was a family guy, and I model a lot of what I do after him as far as on the court and off the court," Calhoun said on KSL Sports Zone. "I thought he was tremendous at switching up his defenses and making other coaches coach a little bit. And then, just the amount of time he spent with us – the staff and the players.

"I played for a Hall of Fame coach. He's not in yet, but he should be, I don't know what the hold-up is. And then coach Huggins is in the Hall of Fame. My high school coach has five state championships and the most NBA players in the state of Ohio. It started with him. I lived with him in high school. And then Jeff Young at Walsh, he won a national championship. I've been around a lot of winners. (YSU) president (Jim) Tressel, some people call him coach Tressel, he has five national championships. Winners know how to win, and that's what we have to figure out right away."

The formula changes according to the program, but it's always been pretty similar, even as college basketball experiences an unprecedented amount of change. Programs with resources and people who know how to use them are programs that win. While he works to craft his basketball team, he'll also spend significant time on building Utah State's resources – and project that has been underway for some time now and will garner a significant boost through his presence.

"The way we do things here, and I think you'll learn this really fast, is that we pour into the community," Calhoun said. "One of the things that Diana was looking for in this search was somebody who will be out in the community at different events, sporting events, and anything you guys have that you want our basketball program to do. I'm here to tell you, we're going to jump all in. The impact you can have on people is tremendous.

"As we went through this process, one thing that drew me to this place was Diana. Her leadership and her vision. My wife said, 'You finally met your match.' I think you'll realize, coach Calhoun goes 100 miles an hour whether it's fundraising or being in this community."

Before he embarks fully on any of this, there's the matter of the roster that Sprinkle left behind. Calhoun spoke glowingly of the MWC champs, saying that he sees them as, among other things, a tremendously talented bunch well-suited for his style of play. If he has it his way, a large chunk of that core will still be in Logan leading the Aggies into the 2024-25 campaign.

"With the portal, obviously the college landscape has changed," Calhoun said. "We'll have meetings tomorrow with every single guy. My sole focus is on our current players. So many coaches come in and talk about the next recruit. The best recruits are those guys sitting right over there. This team is really, really talented and they're connected. We want to retain all of those guys and the high school commits. We've had great conversations with all of them.

"The crazy part is, as I told these players, a lot of them fit how we want to play. They averaged 80 points per game and only gave up 71. Their biggest strength was their passing. We do need to a better from three, it's amazing that they scored 80 points a game and I think there's room to shoot the ball better. We'll work on that."

Talent retention is much easier said than done in an age of free transfers and NIL funds. Utah State has one commitment, from rising junior center Isaac Johnson, but the rest of the roster remains in flux. Mason Falslev, Dallin Grant, Javon Jackson, Ian Martinez and Great Osobor are in the transfer portal.

That doesn't preclude an eventual return from any of them, but it does speak to the challenge at hand. It's hard to keep a roster together, no matter how strong it is, when a coach leaves. Calhoun will put everything he has into pulling that off over the coming days and weeks.

Regardless of the outcome, though, the philosophy that earned him the job – and that has led him to so many wins over the years – does not change. The Aggies are ready to be more than overachievers. And he's ready to take them there.

"I don't sit up there today and say, 'Hey, we want to win a national championship, that's the goal,' if I don't believe that," Calhoun said on KSL Sports Zone. "That's the mindset. The mind is a powerful thing. I was taught that years ago by a very good coach, and I want our guys to believe in that. I want our guys to understand that we won 28 games last year, we won the Mountain West regular season title, we beat TCU, we lost to Purdue, and we want more. That's the philosophy I have here. I want to attack this thing with a vengeance."