Big Man on Campus
University of Montana men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak has perfected the comeback, both personally and professionally. Can he lead the Griz back to prominence?
During the last full practice before the start of the current men’s basketball season, UM head coach Larry Krystkowiak implores his team to show some life.
“More energy,” he says evenly, far below a yell.
“Dive on the sumbitch,” he calls to freshman forward Kyle Sharp. “That’s the second time I’ve had to tell you.”
“Not enough,” he says. “Do it again.”
Krystkowiak is hunched over at the waist, whistle dangling from his neck, hands placed just above the damaged knees that plagued him throughout his 10-year NBA career. He watches the drill continue, then casually unfurls his 6-foot-9-inch frame upright, strolls a few steps sideways for a better angle and resumes the hunched, focused position.
“Let’s look like we give a shit,” he says. “Get your hands up on defense.”
“More energy. Do it again until you get it right.”
But the energy isn’t coming. The freshmen on the court are struggling to find their assignments, the veterans are getting frustrated, and no one is providing the consistent effort their coach requires. So Krystkowiak, in what his generally laid-back demeanor qualifies as a burst of action, jogs to the end of the court and sidles up next to his assistant coach and former college teammate Wayne Tinkle.
“You wanna play?” Krystkowiak says to Tinkle with wide eyes and a nod. His inflection makes the question sound like an invitation for Tinkle to join him in running these punks off the court, showing them how it’s done. In that brief moment, Krystkowiak looks and sounds like a 20-year-old again—the Montana native who became the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder in the mid-1980s; the only three-time MVP in Big Sky Conference history; the second-round NBA draft choice who would go on to play alongside Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal and under the guidance of Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan; the biggest celebrity in Missoula athletics during a time when basketball’s local popularity made Griz football look like an intra-mural activity. The gleam in Krystkowiak’s eye is so keen at that one moment with Tinkle that even his friend of 20 years seems surprised.
“You wanna get out there?” Tinkle asks
“What?” Krystkowiak does a double-take before realizing he’s been misunderstood. “Oh, no. I can’t.” He points to his knee, disappointed. “But maybe you can get out there and I’ll talk them through it.”
Talk them through it. What a concept for the former player, now a head coach starting just his second season at the helm for the rebuilding Griz program. There was a time when Krystkowiak would have crashed through the lane himself, all elbows and knees, his hair bigger and his shorts shorter than what’s in style today, showing his team how to fill an assignment.
“All right, let’s try it again,” the coach says as the defensive drill starts up again with Tinkle on the court. “Let’s get it right.” He ticks off commands with each pass of the ball.
Krystkowiak, 41, may not be able to always show his players how to play—the last time he even semi-competed was at a charity 3-on-3 tournament two summers ago—but the former player who always wanted to coach will have to settle for telling. For instance, he can’t show them the 8,000 fans who used to come out for basketball games when he played, but he can tell them about pride in the school’s once-storied hoops tradition. He can’t show them how much he struggled with an unfortunate and highly publicized estrangement from his father in high school, but he can talk about the importance of family, about how some things are bigger than basketball. And he can’t show them how his legendary work ethic overcame multiple knee injuries, but he can speak to preparedness and focus.
“He gets his point across without having to yell,” says senior wing Virgil Matthews. “It’s a respect factor. You know where he’s been…It’s not like you forget that his jersey is hanging right up there.”
Matthews points up to the Grizzly Athletics Hall of Champions, which fills a hallway above the Dahlberg Arena court. Krystkowiak has not one but two jerseys hanging in the hall: one from his days with the Chicago Bulls, the other a classic brown and gold Montana top with the number 42. He’s the only men’s player in school history to have his number retired.
Krystkowiak is Larry Legend, Krysko, Special K, the man Tinkle calls “the favorite son.” He’s the type of coach who commands respect based on résumé alone, and who, despite the accolades, still carries himself like a modest kid from Shelby, population 3,200.
“I think my goal as coach is to get the team to care as much as I do about restoring the pride back into the program,” he says. “I had a coach say to me once, ‘They’ll never care as much as you do. But if they ever do, you’ll know you have a special group of guys.’ I’m looking to create a special group of guys.”
Last season, Krystkowiak’s first leading his alma mater, the Griz went 18-13, won the Big Sky Conference tournament and earned a coveted berth in the NCAA’s March Madness tournament. It was the men’s first regular-season winning record since 1999–00 and first conference championship since 2002. The program walked with renewed swagger, and there were results to support talk of a Griz basketball resurgence.
“I think they got it last year,” Krystkowiak says. “They made a lot of sacrifices, made a lot of progress throughout the year and did everything we asked them to do. With what the team did last year, I can’t ever say they didn’t get it. But that was just one year. This is a new team. We need to build that pride up again and keep it going.”
For Krystkowiak to achieve success on the basketball court, both as a player and as a coach, he first had to overcome the challenges he faced at home growing up in Shelby. It’s a history long-time Griz basketball fans know well—when he gained national recognition at UM starting in 1985, national publications such as Sports Illustrated and USA Today profiled him, emphasizing his family issues—and it still resonates today.
Krystkowiak’s mother, Helen, passed away from cancer when he was 8 years old. Helen had always been close with her youngest son, and she was especially instrumental to his love of sports, regularly driving him to baseball and basketball practices.
“She exposed me to it,” he remembers. “She never force-fed it to me, but she exposed me to it all, and that’s what a parent should do. She was always very supportive.”
It wasn’t long after Helen died that his father, Bernard, got remarried to a woman named Rosalie. She bombarded Larry with rules, set a rigid daily curfew and, perhaps most maddeningly, forbade him from talking to his older brother—and idol—Bernie, who, at nine years Larry’s senior, was old enough to move out on his own and escape the tension in Shelby.
In addition to the barrage of rules, Krystkowiak was consistently sent the message that his high-school accomplishments (he was an honor roll student as well as a basketball standout) were never good enough. His stepmother had become unbearable and his father was resolved to stand by her. By his sophomore year at Shelby High, the situation came to a head when an argument led to his stepmother saying she never wanted to see him again. Larry took the opportunity to escape and, with the assistance and consultation of Shelby High officials, it was agreed that he could move in with Bernie and his wife Maria in Missoula. Bernie became Larry’s official guardian.
“It was basically some stepmom issues,” Krystkowiak says now. “We weren’t able to figure things out and stay under the same roof. It was a little bit beyond what we could all comprehend and the best solution was for me to split out.”
Despite the struggles at home, Krystkowiak thrived on the basketball court. He earned two all-state selections at Missoula’s Big Sky High School and was named most valuable player in Class AA his senior year. That led to his joining the Griz in 1983 under coach Mike Montgomery, who later went on to coach at Stanford University and now heads the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. As a freshman, Krystkowiak was honored as the conference’s top reserve. Then, prior to his sophomore year at UM, Bernie’s wife Maria passed away from leukemia. Krystkowiak dedicated the season to his sister-in-law. It was the first of three straight seasons in which he was named conference MVP.
The deaths of his mother and sister-in-law and his estrangement from his father were the first major challenges of Krystkowiak’s young career, and they’re worth remembering today when he talks, as he often does, about keeping things simple and maintaining focus on the things one can control. At the time, Krystkowiak channeled his effort and his emotion onto the basketball court and into the classroom. There, he figured, his hard work, tenacity and skill could influence the outcome.
Dave Guffey is UM’s assistant athletic director for media relations and has been a member of the athletic department for 28 years. He met Krystkowiak as a freshman and remained in contact with him throughout his career.
“He was forced to grow up fast because of his family background,” Guffey says. “He was very mature for his age, very motivated. When he left small-town Montana and came to Missoula, he became a more competitive basketball player and also an incredibly responsible person…It was hard not to like him—a down-to-earth, great, hard-working guy. And he was from Montana.”
Local fans, national media and the NBA took note. Krystkowiak contended for the John R. Wooden Award, was twice named an Academic All-American with a 3.68 GPA, and was invited to try out for the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team (he made the final 32 before being cut).
“Adversity kind of breeds success,” says Bernie, who now lives in Kalispell. “Larry’s always had quite a bit to prove, always had that determination factor.”
At the height of Krystkowiak’s success UM averaged almost 7,000 fans per home game and over 8,000 for conference games. “It was loud back then,” Guffey says. “It was like Washington-Grizzly Stadium today—deafening, loud, and the students were on the east side of the floor and really came out.”
But to Krystkowiak’s knowledge, his father was never among those in attendance. Reflecting on that period today, Krystkowiak wishes the family story hadn’t played out publicly, and regrets broaching the topic with the Sports Illustrated writer, and admits that he continues to wonder about his father.
“I still haven’t spent any time or had a conversation with my dad since 1980,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s a tough deal. It’s probably getting to be time to bury the hatchet and reevaluate getting back together. But that’s a whole other story.”
At the end of halftime of the Grizzlies’ Nov. 11 exhibition game against St. Martin’s College, the team runs onto the Dahlberg Arena court serenaded by the school’s fight song, behind flag-waving cheerleaders and lined by the pom-pom-shaking dance squad. A few minutes later, Krystkowiak emerges from the tunnel holding the hand of his 2-year-old son, Ben. The two walk across the court, past the media row and around the Griz players warming up for the second half.
“Go get your mom,” says Krystkowiak, patting Ben on the head as he runs toward the stands where Jan, Krystkowiak’s wife, and his two other sons— Cameron, 6, and Luc, 4—are preparing to watch the rest of the game.
To say that Krystkowiak promotes a family atmosphere would be an understatement. The day of the St. Martin’s game, the team followed its regular routine of meeting, eating a team meal, and running through a pre-game shoot-around—but in between Krystkowiak sneaked away to Cameron’s school to catch his son in a Thanksgiving-themed play. Cameron’s role was to hold a sign with the letter “T” and say, “T is for turkey, which we eat on Thanksgiving Day.” That night during the game, his dad received his own “T” for arguing with a referee over a call.
“Yeah, I wasn’t exactly trying to get that for him,” Krystkowiak says.
When talking about coaching, Krystkowiak often uses the experience of raising three boys as a metaphor: “There are a lot of comparisons between raising them and coaching this team. Tough love is big. I don’t enjoy necessarily disciplining them or yelling, but if that’s what you have to do to make them a better player you do it. It’s the same thing at home.”
In addition to Krystkowiak’s three sons, assistant coach Tinkle has two daughters, Joslyn, 13, and Elleson, 11, and an 8-year-old son, Tres. Assistant coach Brad Huse also has three kids: Adam, 8, Drew, 5, and 1-year-old Ty. All are welcome at team functions, including team barbecues hosted by the Krystkowiaks, the annual preseason meal (this year at Outback Steakhouse) and the occasional road trip. The kids even help to recruit players.
Cameron Rundles, a rugged 6-foot-1-inch guard from Minneapolis, Minn., visited UM on an official recruiting trip earlier this fall. He got the standard treatment, including attendance at a Griz football game, a campus tour and time spent hanging out with current players. He also, by choice, spent his last day in town taking in a double-bill of kids soccer games, standing in the rain with Krystkowiak to watch Luc and Cameron compete.
“I was nervous,” said Rundles of his visit to UM during a recent phone interview. “It’s far away from my home, far from where my family and friends are. But I got to spend a lot of time with Coach K, his wife and his kids, and they were all so nice. When I talked to the guys on the team, I got the impression it was like a big family. It reminded me of home.”
Preschool soccer games aren’t typically part of Krystkowiak’s recruiting pitch, but this time it worked. On Nov. 10, Rundles signed a letter of intent to play for Krystkowiak, along with 7-foot Australian center David Vanderjagt, junior college forward Gordon “Gus” Chase and California guard Zach Graves.
“I’m really excited about this group,” says Krystkowiak. “On paper, I think it’s one of the best classes we’ve ever had. It gets you excited about the future, but you know, we have to focus here. We have to worry about this year.”
“I just don’t like what I see.”
Krystkowiak lets the words settle in the room. He looks at each of his assistants in their morning meeting, then leans back in his office chair and pops a fresh piece of gum in his mouth. Nobody says anything.
“I mean, is anything that we’re doing dazzling anybody?” the head coach finally asks.
Krystkowiak isn’t happy with recent practices, and the first game of the season is just a week away. Injuries have depleted the roster, freshmen are struggling, veterans are still adjusting to new roles and the coaches aren’t sure what to try to fix first. Krystkowiak is open to ideas.
The coaches hold meetings like this as often as three times a week, discussing every- thing from what drills to run in practice to the status and progress of each player on the team. This morning every player gets mentioned, along with specifics about issues the coaches want to address. For instance, sophomore starting forward Andrew Strait, a crucial post player this season, needs to remember to go strong to the basket and stop trying to finesse. Sophomore point guard Matt Martin must comprehend the nuances of the team’s triangle offense, distributing the ball to the right players at the most advantageous positions on the floor. And senior guard Kevin Criswell, the team’s leading returning scorer and expected team leader, has to be more positive when assisting teammates through practice. Specific drills are created to address each issue, and in Criswell’s case it’s agreed that Krystkowiak will speak to him quickly and decisively if he notices any hint of negativity on the court.
“We can’t let anything linger,” says Krystkowiak. “These are the sorts of things we need to get straight now.”
Sure enough, at practice later in the day almost everything discussed during the morning meeting surfaces. Strait gets repetition after repetition emphasizing physical work around the basket, and when Martin takes a quick shot during a scrimmage Krystkowiak stops the action to take Martin aside and explain the options he missed. Later in the scrimmage a defensive breakdown leads Criswell to harshly correct a teammate, and Krystkowiak grabs the opportunity.
“Hey,” he says, almost yelling for the first time to get Criswell’s attention. “I’m trying to change the fucking pattern here. Why don’t you take care of the little shit yourself, and then you can be coach. How’s that? Deal?”
It’s a quick, uncomfortable exchange, and the scrimmage picks back up immediately with a renewed vigor.
“Coach K brings a lot of credentials and discipline,” Criswell says a few days later. “With our old coaches, you could get away with things. Not anymore. [Krystkowiak] is going to force you to get better. Anything he says is just trying to improve you as a player and, for me, also as a leader.”
Rebuilding a basketball program is an arduous process. When Krystkowiak was hired in summer 2004, he inherited a team that was not only losing on the court, but disconnected off of it.
Pat Kennedy, a national-profile coach formerly with DePaul and Florida State, was hired amid much fanfare following UM’s surprise championship run in 2002. It was the first time in the history of the basketball program that a coach with no previous connection to the school was chosen to lead the team. Kennedy replaced Don Holst, a popular figure who’d just won a conference championship.
Kennedy boasted that Griz games would be broadcast on ESPN and spoke of raising UM’s level to that of Gonzaga, the perennial Northwest success in Spokane, Wash. But Kennedy turned out to be all talk. His teams were plagued by poor play, poor grades, and the coach’s enormous cell phone bills, which contributed to the athletic department’s almost $1 million debt announced in 2004. The lasting impression is that Kennedy—a coach who earned his reputation at large schools in large cities with large budgets—wasn’t comfortable at UM. He didn’t fit in.
Criswell is one of three players on the roster who played under Kennedy, and he says it was a difficult time.“You know, I really don’t even know why Kennedy came here.”
The Griz went 23–35 during Kennedy’s two seasons and average ticket sales dropped to just over 3,600 per game in an arena that holds 7,400. Even worse, longtime boosters abandoned the program.
“I know a lot of people who left back then because of [Kennedy’s hire],” says Guffey. “I don’t want to mention names, but I know some of the people who weren’t happy with that decision and, thankfully, they are starting to come back again. I’m talking about people who basically wouldn’t even come to the games for a few years.”
Tinkle is another holdover from the transition. He actually began as an assistant coach under Holst, was retained when Kennedy took over, and then was a finalist for the head coaching job, competing against Krystkowiak for the position. All of it, Tinkle says, was awkward, but when his friend and former teammate was offered the job, he decided to stay on to help turn the program around.
“The level of dedication with this staff is incredible,” Tinkle says, carefully wording his answer around criticism of past leadership. “I was disappointed when I didn’t get the [head coach] position, but I knew Larry, and I knew how passionate he was about the team. My number-one goal was to see the program rebuilt, and I knew it was in good hands with Larry.”
Rebuilding is something to which Krystkowiak is accustomed. Before he was 20, he was forced to rebuild his family life and make the adjustment from small-town Shelby to Missoula. When he made it to the NBA, he was challenged yet again.
After he was drafted 28th overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls, his rights were traded twice before he landed with the San Antonio Spurs. He spent his rookie year with the Spurs and started the last 30 games of the season before being traded to Milwaukee in 1987. By 1989, the Bucks were a promising team with Krystkowiak averaging almost 13 points per game starting alongside All-Star forward Terry Cummings and veteran guard Sidney Moncrief. Krystkowiak notched career highs that year with 31 points against the Portland Trail Blazers in January and 18 rebounds against Chicago in February. There was talk that Milwaukee was set to offer him a lucrative contract extension at the end of the season. But, after an upset of the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, Krystkowiak suffered an extensive knee injury in game three of the conference semifinals. He was never necessarily destined to become an NBA superstar, but the solid, tough-nosed pro who had established himself as a role player on a perennial playoff team at age 24 was suddenly in jeopardy of never playing in the NBA again.
“The world was his oyster when his knee went out,” says brother Bernie. “He was really on a meteoric rise, and it all crumbled when his knee exploded.”
Krystkowiak resorted to a strategy that had worked for him in the past—he focused on what he could control—and in this case that meant a relentless rehabilitation schedule. Guffey saw the comeback firsthand.
“I remember one time during the summer,” says Guffey, “and I went out to his place on Finley Point at Flathead Lake, where he’s always had a place, and he was going through a workout routine to rehab his knee. Everyone else was just having fun, going on the lake, and he was working—he did this running exercise where he just jumped into the lake with this apparatus on [to help suspend him in the water]— just worked his butt off right in the middle of summer so he could get back to playing again. That’s just who he is and how he’ll always be.”
It took Krystkowiak almost two years to fully recover—he played only 16 games in 1990 and not at all in 1991—and, says Bernie, “There were a whole lot of surprised people when he made his way back.”
Over the remaining five years of his NBA career Krystkowiak played with the Utah Jazz, the Orlando Magic, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, making the playoffs with both Utah and Orlando, and averaging almost 20 minutes per game. For a player never expected to play again, Krystkowiak worked himself back into a significant contributor in the world’s most competitive basketball league.
In addition to being another benchmark challenge for Krystkowiak to overcome, his injury also proved to be a stepping stone to coaching. When he was stuck watching on
Milwaukee’s bench throughout most of 1990, he started to consider his opportunities in
the sport beyond playing. His first coaching position was as an assistant at UM for two seasons, and then he assisted for one season under former Griz coach Blaine Taylor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. His first stint as a head coach was in the Continental Basketball Association, where he led the Idaho Stampede to the team’s best record in franchise history before losing the 2004 title game.
While some former athletes struggle with the transition to teaching a game they once only played, Krystkowiak welcomed the more cerebral challenges.
“When I was playing it was a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “As a coach, there’s not as much sweat involved, but it’s still a lot of work. It’s more of the mental aspects, the psychology of dealing with players, knowing what buttons to push. Trust me, it’s still a lot of work. As a player, you just played and at the end of the day you passed out. It was always the coach who had to figure stuff out and fix the things that are broken. I’m the one who gets the sleepless nights now.”
The timing of Krystkowiak’s return to UM appears to be fortuitous, both for the school and the coach. The program was in need of facelift, and a spark to reignite local fans. Krystkowiak was looking for stability following his success in the CBA, and an opportunity to continue his head-coaching career. It would seem to be the perfect fit, and last season’s success is promising, but much remains to be done. Ticket sales remain low— averaging just under 3,500 per game in his first season—and efforts such as a “Show for Dough” promotion, where Krystkowiak presents a $100 bill to one student in attendance at every home game, haven’t brought rowdy undergrads back to Dahlberg Arena en masse.
“It’s a process,” says Krystkowiak. “There are probably only four people [he and his assistants] in this [athletic] building right now ready for basketball season. We can’t control how popular football is, or their playoff schedule [which overlaps with basket- ball]. We have to be entertaining and win and put a decent product out there. When folks do come out to our games, we have to capture their attention the first time out. That’s all we can control.”
Krystkowiak is up for the challenge—he’d like nothing more than to see his alma mater inspire the popularity it enjoyed when he competed. But he stops short of calling the opportunity to lead the program back to glory a dream job.
“I’m not really big on making anything the end-all, or the treasure I’ve been searching for,” he says. “I’m a firm believer from having experienced it in my own life that you wake up in the morning and have your own mission statement. You have a goal for that day and try to get a little better and you don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control…I would be perfectly satisfied being here for the next 20 years, and if another job came along that made sense, that’s just something I’ll assess when the time comes.”
Krystkowiak’s office at UM paints an interesting portrait: On his desk is an Apple laptop and an iPod, the latter recently loaded with a bunch of AC/DC songs. An Applause acoustic guitar leans next to the water cooler. In the corner is a bookcase dominated by photos of Jan and his boys, but with one picture of Krystkowiak and His Airness, Michael Jordan, placed prominently front and center. One wall is decorated with remnants of his NBA career—a signed photo of Patrick Ewing, a signed picture of Jordan, and various team photos that include Krystkowiak.
The other three walls are mostly adorned with traditional American Indian art, and one Edward Curtis portrait. The Indian art is a nod to his days growing up in Shelby next to the Blackfeet Reservation—“something I’ve always been interested in”—and the AC/DC is “a blast back to my high school days.” The basketball photos are a reminder of his playing career and the family snap-shots reinforce what’s really important.
All fine and well.
But then there are the candles, seven scented ones scattered throughout the office. There’s the ledge overflowing with well-watered plants and the stone fountain running in the corner. What is that about?
“I am kind of a candle freak, for sure,” Krystkowiak admits. He says he was once issued a citation at Old Dominion for lighting candles in his office. “I got the little water fountain going, the plants, the candles, the art on the walls—I’ve always liked to set the vibe. It warms the place up a bit…We have [candles] in the locker room sometimes, too. I also like to burn sweetgrass.”
On the player whose reputation was built of grit and hustle, this soft side is disarming. Krystkowiak’s supposed to be the determined one or, as Bernie said, the one with “quite a bit to prove.” AC/DC testosterone rock, yes. But “White Cotton” Yankee candles? The feng shuiness of it seems to counter everything on Krystkowiak’s résumé.
“I don’t really know about that,” says brother Bernie of the candles. “That came along after college, when he was doing the pro thing. Life in the NBA is a solitary situation, so far from normal life, and I think it helped ground him.”
Krystkowiak explains the “vibe” another way: “I guess it’s just a part of me wanting to get back to a simpler way of life.”
While Krystkowiak traveled from city to city working in the NBA’s grand arena, he learned to recreate the calming elements of his roots back home. Now, surrounded by the simple life in the relative obscurity of Western Montana, he’s charged with the not-so-simple task of rebuilding a program that can consistently compete at the highest levels of college basketball.
If anyone has shown that he can reconcile the contradictory demands of home and ambition, it’s Krystkowiak. And if anyone is positioned to lead the Griz back to the kind of popularity and promise the team once delivered, it’s the resilient guy with the jerseys hanging in the hall, the one who’s been there.