Craig Smith Recalls Buying Lunch For John Wooden Ahead Of Utah’s Trip To No. 7 UCLA

Jan 12, 2023, 10:56 AM | Updated: 12:32 pm
Head coach Craig Smith (3rd L) of the Utah Utes looks on as his players take on the Washington Huskies during the first round of the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Huskies defeated the Utes 82-70. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Runnin’ Utes head coach Craig Smith once spent an entire day with legendary UCLA head coach John Wooden, buying him lunch for his wisdom.

Ahead of Utah basketball’s trip to No. 7 UCLA, Smith recalled his time with Wooden and how it cemented his “why” for coaching, while also feeding his passion for all things history and basketball.

“I was 32 years old and spent a day in his condo,” Smith reflected. “I could talk three hours about that, but that changed my life to be quite frank. When you’re a young coach, that day I found out I loved to coach and it’s fun and enjoyable. You love people and you love the competition but you just kind of found out your ‘why’.”

Spending The Day With The ‘Wizard Of Westwood’

Smith was originally asked about any experiences he’s had coaching in Pauley Pavilion before, to which he expressed a deep appreciation for the history of UCLA basketball. Part of that appreciation of course, was extended to legendary UCLA coach, John Wooden, affectionately referred to as the “Wizard of Westwood” for his incredible run in college basketball that includes 10 National Championships among many other notable milestones.

“I spent a day with John Wooden a long time ago when I was the head coach at Mayville State. The history, the tradition. You know, they hang National Championship banners there, not Conference Championship banners. You are National Champs. The rich tradition of excellence, as a history guy and a basketball nut- to go back to that place, you just think about the history involved.”

Encouraged by his wife, Smith says he almost didn’t go when the opportunity arose to meet with one of the greatest to ever coach the game. Not only did that day change the trajectory of Smith’s coaching career, but it also led to some incredible stories.

“His phone rang non-stop. You heard every voicemail,” Smith said. “It was the old-school where like Bill Walton called, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called, the late, great Pat Summitt called. It was a who-is-who of people calling all day. I was just looking around like, ‘are you kidding me right now?’ You walk into his condo and have all of these books piled up in the hallway of his house.”

For as much success as Wooden had throughout his career, he was very unassuming. Smith says he met with the legend in about 2005 and Coach was driving a 1996 Ford Taurus at the time that he kept safe with a steering wheel club.

“We drove to this diner, and I felt like I had to protect him,” Smith said. “‘Ok, Coach, you go first because we’re going on the freeway and you’re going 45.’ I was behind, so if anyone was going to rear-end us they are going to hit me and not him.”

Smith says the crew headed to a little diner that Wooden frequented often to meet with other friends in Wooden’s circle that capped off an incredible day for the budding basketball coach.

“We go to the diner and this bill is like $125 but I’m buying lunch,” Smith said. “I can always tell you guys this story, I bought coach Wooden lunch. It was an incredible day, like oh my gosh.”

Craig Smith’s Appreciation For The Runnin’ Utes’ History

John Wooden and UCLA basketball isn’t the only history that holds deep allure for coach Smith. It’s not lost on him the rich history his current job with the Utes holds and it’s something he, along with the marketing and promotions department are trying to celebrate and bring back.

Anyone that has been to Runnin’ Utes games lately or watched their social media may have noticed the attention to details about Utah’s past in an effort to launch them into their future.

From two different “throwback” uniform reveals to intros that celebrate where they have been, Smith has loved the effort to infuse Utah’s basketball history into the new culture he’s trying to build and hopes it continues.

“I’m a history major and a big part of this job for me in coming here was the history of excellence this program has,” Smith said. “That matters and I take a lot of pride in that, and I think our guys take a lot of pride in it. You look up in the rafters, and walk into the Huntsman Center floor, and you walk into our practice facility- it matters. I love that we are doing that, and I hope that we can continue to do those sorts of things in honoring the guys who have paved the way for our guys and this program.”

Another noticeable detail that’s been prevalent for the Runnin’ Utes this year has been the emphasis on bringing in some of the all-time greats. From hiring Chris Burgess, to featuring Danny Vranes, Josh Grant and Byron Wilson in one of their uniform reveals, and having Kyle Kuzma and Delon Wright speak to the team, Smith is adamant on uniting the past with the present.

Who knows, it might eventually lead to someone else’s “John Wooden moment”?

“Connectivity, we talk about that in recruiting,” Smith said. “I love when former players and coaches come around and watch practice and meet with our players. Build the relationship with them. You can’t understate how much that matters to our guys and hopefully it helps the returners. I want them to be a big part of our family.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports





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Craig Smith Recalls Buying Lunch For John Wooden Ahead Of Utah’s Trip To No. 7 UCLA