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It has been a winding, successful road for BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins

SHARE It has been a winding, successful road for BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins
I really have enjoyed this,” he says, looking around. “Everything about it. The players, the administration, the facilities, the support. – Jeff Judkins

PROVO — Jeff Judkins — the former star athlete at Highland High and the University of Utah, the former Celtic, the former Rick Majerus assistant, the former glass salesman — has had many iterations, but no one saw this one coming: Head coach of a women’s basketball team — at BYU.

The Cougars and Judkins were celebrated for their 28-7 run through the 2013-14 season, which ended with a loss to eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16, but unnoticed were the twists and turns of fate that were required to land Judkins here …

From the men’s game to the women’s game, from the packed houses of the NBA to the largely empty areana of women’s NCAA basketball, from Utah to archrival BYU, from the profane, testosterone-fueled domain of Rick Majerus to the tamer environment at BYU, where practice begins with a prayer.

He had seen only a couple of women’s collegiate games when he came to BYU 14 years ago, but by then he had had enough of Majerus, the temperamental Utes coach who both pulled him back into basketball and then sent him running for refuge at BYU. Judkins only wanted two things for a post-NBA profession: To be a head basketball coach and to remain in Utah. He got both when he agreed to take the women’s job at BYU.

Reasoning that he had no head coaching experience, he figured it would “open some doors” for a job on the men’s side. Then he started working with the women’s game and came to embrace it. There are even aspects of it that he thinks are superior to the men’s game; players don’t overpower the game but rely more on the finesse and teamwork that purists appreciate.

The Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 in Judkins’ first season and the coach was all in. “My dream was to be a head coach,” he says. “It didn’t make a difference if they were women. I had daughters who were athletes. Do you cheer louder for your son or daughter?”

The women, he discovered, needed him and others with his expertise. At every level of the game — youth leagues, club, high school, college, pros — he had received expert coaching, but that wasn’t the case with women, especially in those days.

They hung on every word that came out of his mouth. “Am I happy here?” he says. “Yes. I’ve done something good for a lot of people. My coaching abilities have helped people who weren’t as fortunate as I was. One thing I noticed is they really want to learn. Many of them never had good coaching like the guys do. So they are a sponge. Women’s basketball has improved immensely — the players, the coaching, everything. Let me put it this way: (UConn coach) Geno Auriemma, (former Tennessee coach) Pat Summit and (Oregon coach) Kelly Graves could coach anywhere.”

There were adjustments he had to make for the women’s game. The PC crowd tells you there are no differences between men and women, but that doesn’t cut it when you deal with realities on a daily basis. The women, he discovered, were considerably more sensitive, and Judkins had just spent 10 years coaching under the late Majerus, an intense, loud, in-your-face coach whose language would’ve made Hollywood blush, and now he was not only at straight-laced BYU but he was coaching women.

“The girls were way more sensitive and need way more praise,” he says. “They don’t respond to yelling. They’re more emotional and they’re perfectionists. They would notice if my tie was off. Same in basketball. When I would tell them something, they wanted to know why. Guys don’t do that. They just do it. The girls wanted to know, ‘Why are we eating four hours before a game? Why do we do walk-throughs?’ It’s hard sometimes because you have to explain things more to them.”

Ali Bills, his assistant coach and another former star player at Utah, took him aside and offered a few tips. “She helped me through that,” says Judkins. For one thing, she said, he should call them “ladies,” not “girls,” a habit he still hasn’t broken completely. She told him to be more positive and patient and to talk to them more. This was problematic; as a male coach, he can’t be alone with a player, so one-on-one, heart-to-heart talks were out; instead, he visited with them two at a time or in a group.

The truth is, the transition to coaching female athletes wasn’t difficult for Judkins. Even though he had cut his coaching teeth under the rough-around-the-edges Majerus, he had played the good cop to Majerus’ bad cop for years. He was accustomed to smoothing things over and applying diplomacy and positive strokes to rebuild players’ psyches.

But this was new: Two of his players were forced to sit out a season — because they were pregnant.

Here’s the thing that is largely forgotten about Judkins. Five years after he finished a successful rookie season for the fabled Boston Celtics, he was selling glass. He was done with basketball and, at the age of 32, faced with the challenge of finding a new profession.

It was a sudden end to a promising start. He was the 30th player chosen in the 1978 draft and the second player chosen by the Celtics — their first pick was a guy named Larry Bird, who decided to return to school for his senior season before joining the Celtics a year later.

Judkins averaged nine points per game as the team’s sixth man and became so popular with the media and fans that he was nicknamed “Baby Hondo,” after Celtic legend John “Hondo” Havlicek. The Celtics, who failed to make the playoffs that season, added several future stars to the roster, including Bird, and Judkins’ playing time suffered.

After the season — which ended with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals — Judkins’ contract expired. He told the Celtics he wanted to re-sign with the team, but then came the expansion draft to accommodate the new Dallas Mavericks. Judkins was left unprotected and was chosen by the Mavericks.

Exercising his free agent status, he chose to sign with the Utah Jazz. While the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship without him the following year, Judkins languished with the Jazz. “(Coach) Tom Nissalke was not a fan of mine,” he says. “He didn’t think I could play.” After one season with the Jazz, he played the next season for the Detroit Pistons and the next season for the Portland Trailblazers and quit.

He believes he would have had a longer career if he had remained with the Celtics. “I thought that was a perfect fit for me, the way I played,” he says. “I was a smart player who could shoot, and I fit into that system; I was not a one-on-one player.”

He probably could have signed with another team and extended his career beyond five years, but he was tired of the lifestyle, living out of suitcases and moving his young family around the country.

He applied for an opening as an assistant coach position under his old coach at Utah, Jerry Pimm, but failed. He returned to Utah to finish his degree in physical education and planned to teach, but a friend who owned a glass business offered him a job and he took it. He sold glass for Safellite AutoGlass for six years, making half the money he did as an NBA player.

On the side, he had his own basketball camps and clinics, handling as many as 100 kids a week, which kept him involved in coaching, but he was still on the periphery of the game. He was selling glass to insurance agents, body shops, trucking companies and any other business that needed glass regularly.

“I actually wanted to do something different than basketball,” he says. “I wanted to get away from it. I figured coaching was not in my future.”

In 1989 the Utes hired Majerus. He and Judkins had a mutual friend in Jeff Jonas, who had starred alongside Judkins at Utah. He urged Majerus to call Judkins, someone who knew basketball and the local culture. Majerus, who had coached Judkins in a camp, began the call by saying, “Is this the skinny runt I coached years ago?”

Judkins served as a part-time coach under Majerus for two years while also continuing to sell glass, and then was promoted to full-time assistant. He proved an expert recruiter and was widely credited with bringing many star players to the Utes, including future NBA first-round draft picks Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Andre Miller, and the Utes became a national powerhouse, advancing to the national championship game in 1998.

But Majerus was difficult for everyone who worked with him, including Judkins. When the coach heard that Judkins had pursued the head coaching job at BYU after Roger Reid was fired in 1996, he considered it disloyal and their relationship became strained. They managed to co-exist uneasily but the breaking point came in 2000 when Majerus informed Judkins that he was taking some responsibilities away from him. “I was tired of him and the situation,” Judkins says. “He wanted me out. The guy was crazy, calling me at 2 or 3 in the morning for no reason. He made it miserable for me and (fellow assistant coach) Donnie Daniels.”

Judkins called BYU Coach Steve Cleveland to inquire about a job and was hired as director of basketball operations whose responsibilities included helping the women’s team with logistics and academics. A year later the women’s coach, Trent Shippen, hired him as his assistant, and a year after that he replaced Shippen to start the 2001 season.

By 2012, Judkins had become the winningest women’s coach in BYU history. His career record: 282-133. That includes five consecutive seasons of at least 23 wins, six NCAA tournament invitations and two Sweet 16 appearances, with only one losing season

There was a time when Judkins would play against his players in practice, trying to raise their game by making them play against bigger and better competition. Majerus had frequently asked him to do the same thing against his players at Utah, and even in his 40s Judkins was a better player than many of those younger athletes. Judkins practiced occasionally against the BYU women’s team, but stopped a few years ago. For one thing, the 6-foot-6 Judkins is out of shape and has put on weight, but there were other practical considerations, as well.

“I don’t want to hurt them,” says Judkins. “I’m a lot bigger than they are. Plus, it’s hard to coach and play.”

Instead, he followed the practice of many top programs: He created a practice squad composed of male students to compete against his women. He held tryouts for the “gray squad,” and chose five players from the student body, all of them former high school players. They don’t receive anything for their work except shoes, a uniform and exercise.

“At first, they think they’re going to kill the girls,” says Judkins. “Then they realize it’s not going to happen. They beat the girls, but sometimes the girls beat them. It’s been good. The guys are bigger and more athletic and it raises the girls’ game.”

Finding tough practice opponents was something he learned from Majerus, who held tryouts for his own “gray squad” to find students at the university who could push his team harder in practice. Despite their falling out, Judkins says he learned much about coaching from Majerus, who was a fanatic for detail and a master of preparation. Judkins still refers to Majerus simply as “Coach.”

“I learned a lot from Coach,” he says. “He was a great coach. My time with him helped me a lot.”

Judkins is sitting in his cluttered office in the old Smith Fieldhouse as he says this. Photos and memorabilia are stacked on the floor. After 14 years it appears he still hasn’t moved in. He learned early on that this was formerly the office of LaVell Edwards, the great (retired) football coach. He shows up occasionally and pokes his head in the door to look around for a moment.

“I’m in the legend’s office,” says Judkins. “I think about it all the time.”

There is a photo on the wall of Judkins in a Celtics uniform playing on the famed parquet floor of Boston Garden. There is also a drawing of Christ, as well as family photos (he and his wife Mary Kaye have five children) and a shot of him releasing a jump shot in a Ute uniform.

“I really have enjoyed this,” he says, looking around. “Everything about it. The players, the administration, the facilities, the support.”

Like most coaches, he would listen if he were offered another job. He believes there is a chance he could return to the men’s game someday, but moving from a women’s head coaching job to a men’s head coaching job in Division I might be unprecedented. “I can’t say I’ve seen that,” says Judkins. “I’ve seen them become assistants. I know Geno and Summit have had opportunities.” He holds out some hope that he might be given serious consideration for a head coaching position on the men’s side at any of the instate schools, including BYU.

As the conversation turns in this direction, Judkins warms to the subject. “It’s not always the best coach who gets the job,” he says. “Sometimes what makes sense doesn’t happen. People get hired who are not as qualified as someone else. Look what Utah has gone through. Wouldn’t it have been easier if they had hired me and Donnie?” He pauses. “But I came here and I’ve loved what I’m doing.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com