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Brad Rock: Is Utah's Larry Krystkowiak living up to his salary?

SALT LAKE CITY — The State of Utah’s second highest-paid employee wrapped up his day at around 8 p.m. on Saturday. Big salaries like Larry Krystkowiak’s require weekend attention and late hours. That’s how it goes when you earn more than the combined salaries of all the basketball coaches at state-supported colleges in Utah.

Only football coach Kyle Whittingham earns more.

When Elvis Presley died, he had an estimated $5 million in the bank. That might be less than Krystkowiak, who has never recorded a No. 1 hit or worn a rhinestone cape onstage. But he might do both if he somehow navigates the Utes through this week’s Pac-12 Tournament and into the NCAA’s.

Regardless, his salary will remain at rock star level. USA Today’s ranking of salaries lists Krystkowiak at $3.39 million, eighth-highest in the nation. The report also says he would be entitled the eighth-largest buyout on his contract, at $15,750,000.

The way his team struggled to fight off Colorado on Saturday, after building an 18-point lead, Krystkowiak couldn’t be accused of loafing as the Utes clinched a third seed in the conference tourney. Still, for those who wonder whether Utah’s NCAA Tournament “bubble” status (11-7 conference, 19-10 overall) is enough bang for the buck, it’s a fair question.

Under Krystkowiak, the Utes have been to the Big Dance twice in six seasons, reaching the Sweet 16 once. That’s a decent showing, but not a slam-dunk. Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger has taken the Sooners to the NCAA Tournament in eight of the last 10 years, including the Final Four in 2016, yet makes $200,000 less than Krystkowiak. Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who pulls down roughly $1.5 million less than Krystkowiak, has made the NCAA Tournament 19 years and counting, having reached the national championship game last year.

On the pay scale, Krystkowiak is 33 places ahead of North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who has won three national championships and been in the Final Four nine times.

In fairness, it took Krystkowiak several years just to return a talent-starved program to respectability. His plan was to be competitive in the conference in four years, and he did that. In his fourth and fifth years, the Utes finished second in the Pac-12. This year, he clinched at least a tie for third, along with the accompanying first round bye. That’s a position many coaches would envy. Still, the obvious question is whether taxpayers and/or boosters feel they are getting their money’s worth.

On the upside, the Utes have produced three first-round NBA draft picks in three years. Before that, they hadn’t had a player drafted in a decade. But while Krystkowiak’s salary is “Elite Eight” level, his team isn’t. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Kansas’s Bill Self, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Arizona’s Sean Miller and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins — six of the seven coaches who out-earn Krystkowiak — have advanced further than the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The other coach, Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann, coached Butler to the Sweet 16 last year.

It would be wrong to say that Krystkowiak has done a poor job in any of his seasons. He has taken his team from 11th in the conference during his first season to recent finishes of second, second, fourth, and now tied for third. So his program is in the top one-third or one-fourth of the conference.

“You always want to overachieve,” Krystkowiak said. “Not any I-told-you-so’s or anything like that, but we’ve had a track record around here.”

This year was one of his better coaching jobs, considering none of his current players is likely to play in the NBA, and the Utes have been fighting injuries.

“I don’t think a lot of our guys are healthy, but, if you polled most teams, they probably aren’t healthy,” he said.

Forward David Collette missed all but seven minutes after spraining an ankle Saturday.

Utah was picked seventh in this year’s conference preseason poll. In each of his seasons, Krystkowiak has met or surpassed projections.

“At the very worst, we’ve exceeded some of those expectations,” he said.

Pay raises soon follow.

Krystkowiak is in an enviable position. He has a first-class practice/office facility, an attractive arena and a storied program, yet no one expects his team in the Final Four. It’s a supply-demand thing. He landed a contract extension through 2023, after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2015. The next year, the Utes made it to the second round, but last year’s Utes played in the NIT.

With his ironclad contract, and good results, Krystkowiak isn’t going anywhere soon. Reach the NCAA Tournament, and Ute fans are fairly happy, yet he gets paid like coaches at places such as UCLA, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Syracuse. Of the eight highest-paid coaches, only Miller, Krystkowiak and newly hired Holtmann have missed the Final Four in the last decade.

For that money, should Krystkowiak be battling for the conference title? At some point, yes. The Utes did so 2016, when they finished a game out of first. The publicizing of his salary rank only adds a bit of urgency.

Player turnover hurt his program’s continuity, but the team’s comeback after a four-game losing streak in January was notable. It will be fascinating to see how he earns the remainder of his money. Making the NCAA tourney would go far in building a case that Krystkowiak is as good a coach as his contract indicates.