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Minot State roots influence Utah State men’s basketball coaching staff

Submitted Photo Utah State men's basketball head coach Craig Smith celebrates after winning the 2019 Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. The Aggies earned a No. 8 seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Photo provided by Kyle Cottam of Utah State athletics.

During the 2018-19 Division I men’s college basketball season, Utah State emerged as one of the country’s most intriguing surprises.

Inside the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum arena in Logan, Utah, nobody was too surprised. Head coach Craig Smith took the head coaching job in March 2018 and guided the Aggies to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.

Smith, who served as an assistant coach at Minot State from 1998-2001, secured an NCAA Tournament No. 8 seed and Mountain West Coach of the Year honors last season. The Aggies started this season off with a bang — with Smith and several other coaches with Minot ties leading the way.

Justin Johnson joined the USU crew as a volunteer coach in May 2018. Six months later he earned the title of special assistand to the head coach.

Johnson provides another set of eyes and hands for Smith both on and off the court.

“It’s watching a whole lot of basketball and cutting a whole lot of film,” Johnson said of his position. “Last year was a magical year. It felt like we were in a movie.”

After graduating from Des Lacs-Burlington High School in 1997, Johnson walked onto the Minot State men’s basketball team and also served as a student assistant. Johnson fondly recalled his first meeting with Smith in MSU’s Swain Hall.

Johnson and Smith hit it off immediately, and their player-coach bond still manifests itself today. Nowadays, both coaches frequently meet with the rest of USU’s coaching staff and their families for dinners and other gatherings.

“It’s a really, really good group of people,” Johnson said. “You would be pretty hard-pressed to find a group of coaches that spend as much time together as we do. Family reunions happen all the time.”

The Aggies’ off-court camaraderie has translated into on-court success. The reigning Mountain West champions have started this year’s campaign 9-1 (2-0 Mountain West).

The Aggies were ranked as high as No. 15 in the AP Top 25 poll earlier this season and won the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic tournament. The Aggies’ 80-78 win over LSU in Montego Bay marked an interesting tidbit in the schools’ history.

Minot legend Dale Brown coached at USU from 1966-1971 before taking the Tigers’ head coaching position in 1972. Brown coached at LSU for the next 25 years, made two Final Fours and won SEC Coach of the Year four times.

After dropping an 81-73 decision to St. Mary’s (Calif.) on Nov. 29, the Aggies rebounded with consecutive Mountain West victories over San Jose State and Fresno State. USU received votes in this week’s AP Top 25 poll.

“Everybody looks at you,” Johnson said. “They’re trying to beat the crap out of you every single night.”

Smith called upon another Minot product for additional help this past June. Minot High School and Minot State graduate Steve Grabowski became USU’s director of basketball operations after serving as an assistant coach with the Beavers and the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

Grabowski came to Logan with a strong coaching pedigree. He helped MSU advance to two NAIA Division II National Tournament appearances (2005, 2008) and assisted UND in its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in the 2016-17 season.

Before enjoying his coaching success, Grabowski played under Smith at Minot State.

“I got to know him there,” Grabowski said of Smith. “Over the years, I just stayed in touch and continued to build a relationship.”

Grabowski attended graduate school at Minot State with Eric Peterson, another USU assistant coach. Peterson previously coached at Williston State and South Dakota before joining the Aggies’ staff in April 2018.

“There’s just a lot of connections here,” Grabowski said. “It’s been a great opportunity. Also, it’s a great coaching staff and it’s a great university here that loves basketball. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of something special.”

The Aggies’ stellar play has made waves across the national college basketball scene, but the coaches can trace their humble roots back to the Magic City. One notion is for certain — both Grabowski and Johnson look back on their time in Minot with fond memories.

“I love the people of Minot,” Grabowski said. “It’s always fun to get back to town to see friends and family. There’s a special place in my heart for it. I spent a lot of years there and I really enjoyed my time. I loved it there.”

Jimmy Lafakis covers Minot High School sports and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JJLII30.

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