– Craig Smith graduated No. 2 in his high school class.

“I still couldn’t get in the top 10 percent,” he said. “True story.”

Smith grew up in Stephen, Minn., in the northwestern part of the state, about 40 miles from Canada and 10 miles east of the North Dakota border.

The town’s population at the time was 908 but has declined to about 700 now. Smith had 18 students in his graduating class, including two international exchange students — one from Australia and one from Germany.

“You’d fill out your college application: Did you get top 10 percent?” Smith said. “No, but I was salutatorian.”

The pride of tiny Stephen is making a name for himself in the big world of college basketball. In his first season at Utah State, Smith guided his team to the NCAA tournament after sharing the Mountain West regular-season title and winning the conference tournament.

For context, the Aggies were picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll. And they earned the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region.

That’s pretty remarkable.

“It’s really a Cinderella story,” Smith said.

It’s also a testament to Smith’s coaching chops and his nonstop energy, enthusiasm and positivity. The Aggies won 28 games (third-most in school history) and their No. 8 seed is the highest in program history.

Those accomplishments are even more impressive considering that junior point guard Koby McEwen, who averaged 15.6 points and was third-team all-conference last season, transferred to Marquette during the coaching change.

Smith inherited a roster with six freshmen after spending the previous four seasons as head coach at South Dakota. He told his players to set outrageously big goals.

“Why would you ever put limitations on yourself?” he said.

Smith scheduled his first meeting with his players last March at 6 a.m. His energy jolted his players awake. And excited them.

“Coach Smith was the perfect hire,” senior forward Quinn Taylor said. “He instills confidence in each one of us. Basketball becomes a lot easier when you know your coach believes in you.”

Smith began preparing for his coaching career when he was still in high school. He played basketball and also qualified for the state track meet in the 3,200, but he was a coach at heart.

At Stephen High, seniors coach the fifth- and sixth-grade in-house teams. Smith started coaching them when he was a sophomore.

“I would sit at home at night, saying, ‘OK, how am I going to do my substitution patterns? What plays are we going to run for this kid?’ ” he said. “They were fifth-graders.”

Smith was the oldest of five kids. His wife, Darcy, is from Stephen, too. She’s the second youngest of 10 kids. They made coaching a team endeavor.

Smith’s first job was as a volunteer assistant at NAIA school Mayville (N.D.) State in 1997. He got paid $1,000 at the end of the season. Darcy worked three part-time jobs to support them.

“I grew up incredibly blue-collar,” he said. “So getting a $1,000 at the end of the year was amazing.”

Smith more than paid his dues as a young coach. He had other assistant jobs at Northern (S.D.) State and Minot (N.D.) State before returning to Mayville State as head coach in 2005.

The Comets won one game the season before he arrived, finishing 1-25. They won 17 games in Smith’s first season and reached the NAIA national tournament. They won 28 games the next season and reached the Elite Eight. They lost in the national championship game his third season.

Smith left after that season to become an assistant coach under Tim Miles at Colorado State. He followed Miles to Nebraska in 2013, then became head coach at South Dakota in 2015.

He has reinvigorated Utah State’s program in short order. The Aggies are 28-6 and rank among the top 20 nationally in 10 statistical categories.

Winning the Mountain West might have seemed far-fetched but not inside the program. The players started a group chat this season that junior guard Sam Merrill, their best player, named “Mountain West champs.”

“It’s always impossible until you make it possible,” Smith said.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com