PROVO — Standing 6-foot-10, Mark Pope is a big guy and an imposing figure.
He’s never backed down from big, imposing challenges and he relishes in relentlessly pursuing big dreams.
Those attributes were readily apparent Wednesday, when BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe introduced Pope as BYU’s next men's basketball head coach, replacing Dave Rose, who retired in late March after serving in that position for 14 years.
Pope, who won a national championship as a player at Kentucky in 1996 and spent the past four years taking Utah Valley University's program to new heights, knows and revels in the advantages and the challenges of coaching basketball at BYU.
This place is like nowhere else. It is a beacon on a hill. – Mark Pope, on BYU
“My deal is, think about what you think we can’t do as a program," said Pope, who served as Rose's assistant at BYU for four years. "Think about it, let me know. And that’s what we’re going to go do and get done.”
Later, Pope added, “I don’t really deal in realistic expectations. I don’t believe in them. Why be realistic? We weren’t realistic when we took the job at UVU. In fact, I had an administrator at UVU that said, ‘Hey, whatever you do, you can never play BYU, ever. It will be the death of the program.’"
In 2016, Pope's Wolverines shocked the Cougars at the Marriott Center, 114-101.
"I don’t think athletes deal in realistic expectations," Pope added. "Let’s go win big or let’s crash and burn. But let’s go do it."
And Pope’s love for BYU was on full display as he addressed the media, administrators and boosters Wednesday.
“This place is like nowhere else. It is a beacon on a hill. It’s such an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to be the head men’s basketball (coach) at Brigham Young University. I couldn’t be more proud or more excited,” Pope said. “There is a standard of excellence here in everything that happens on this campus. Certainly, there’s a standard of excellence that’s set with this basketball program and incredibly high expectations. That is one of the most enticing things to me about taking over this position: those high expectations and the way we’ll be able to embrace them.”
From the outset of BYU’s process of searching for a new coach, Pope was regarded as the top candidate for the job. During the introductory press conference, Pope showed everyone some of the reasons why with his passion and enthusiasm.
“Making it about these young men and their growth and accomplishment and their confidence is paramount in everything we do. We’ll carry on some of the things that I really loved at UVU," he said. "I think we’ll schedule really aggressively. We’ll be fearless in everything we do. We’ll take our lumps, and we’ll jump back off the mat and with confidence go on to the next battle. Our team will be a team that’s not afraid of failure. We’re going to be afraid of not growing.”
Holmoe was impressed with the pool of candidates interviewed for the position, but Pope stood out from the rest.
“When all was said and done, it all pointed to Mark Pope, our next basketball coach,” Holmoe said. “There were super candidates. They had qualities that were superb. He had the most and the best. He stood out as the one that was the right coach for this job.”
A few days ago, as Pope pondered the decisions he was facing — he had several options when it came to his coaching future, including remaining at UVU or exploring other head coaching opportunities — everything became clear.
“A thought crossed my mind that I used as a recruiting pitch at BYU. It was this — of all these places, where do you want to win the most?” he said. “Where can you go win and it will mean the most on every level? There’s no doubt in my mind that it is here. That’s why I’m here. This is a special place to come win and win big. It’s like nowhere else. That’s the challenge before us.”
Pope said the toughest part of his decision was leaving his UVU players and he became emotional talking about his time spent with them.
While addressing a wide range of questions and topics with reporters, he outlined his vision for the program.
“We will be wholehearted in everything we do,” he said. “We will be relentless, every minute, every day, 24-7, chasing excellence on this team. Relentless. And we will be together.”
Pope inherits a BYU team that finished 19-13 and failed to play in the postseason for the first time since 2005. The Cougars' top player, Yoeli Childs, recently declared his intentions to go pro and forgo his final year of eligibility.
Just prior to being introduced as BYU’s head coach, Pope met with the current players.
“My first job is to recruit them and recruit them the way we recruit and see if they want what we are offering. We have a good chance of winning over these guys. I know several of these guys,” Pope said. “I actually recruited some of these guys and we have longstanding relationships. We’ll have great relationships very quickly. There might be some guys that chose that this is not exactly what they want. If that’s the case, we’ll help them find what they need somewhere else.”
At UVU, Pope was known for bringing in talented transfers to bolster the program, which has become a national trend. Knowing that approach wouldn't work at BYU, Pope would like to see continuity and stability on the roster.
“I graduated six guys every single year at UVU. Here, you can maybe lead the trend back,” Pope said. “The reason why we’re going to be really successful is because we’ll put together teams that actually come in as freshmen, they stay together and fight together for four years. You saw it in the NCAA Tournament, you saw old teams that have been together awhile. There’s a chance to buck the trend and try to have great success there.”
As far as recruiting goes, “We’re going to have to cast a really, really big net. One thing about BYU, you have a pretty early filter,” Pope said, referring to players who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We’ll cast our net throughout the entire country and around the world. We have the capability here to do that. We have the resources to be able to go do that. That’s something we’re really excited about. It will take an inordinate amount of work and time to do it … I am incredibly confident that we will be able to put together rosters that will exceed expectations.”
As a member of the West Coast Conference, BYU must deal with the challenge of league behemoth and national power Gonzaga. But Pope said he’s not focused solely on competing with the Zags.
“How can we build the greatest product that we can possibly build at BYU? We spend a lot of time focused internally. When you’re as relentless in developing your players as we are, it takes all your focus,” Pope said. “Everything is focused inward, way more than chasing some group out there. Certainly, we want to go beat the Zags and everybody else in the WCC and everybody else in the country. I’m not sure if that’s realistic, but that’s what we want to do and that’s what we’re chasing. What (Gonzaga) coach (Mark) Few has done is something nobody believed he could do.”
While attending the Final Four the past week, Pope met with Rose, his predecessor in this job.
“I love (Rose) so much. What coach did here is beyond extraordinary, what he accomplished here. It really is,” Pope said. “I had the great honor of working for him. I’m super grateful for him.”
Pope listed several mentors he’s had during his life and basketball career, then said his No. 1 mentor is his wife, Lee Anne, the daughter of former Utah head coach, and BYU assistant, Lynn Archibald.
“She is the smartest person I know, she’s the most beautiful person I know, she’s the funniest person I know,” Pope said. “She is going to be a gift to this university.”
Pope and his wife Lee Anne have four daughters — Ella, Avery, Layla and Shay.
Since 2011, Pope has spent four years as a BYU assistant, followed by four years overseeing the UVU program: two jobs separated by about 4 miles.
Now he’s back at BYU, remaining local. Pope’s love for this area was a factor in keeping him here.
“Where do you want to win the most? Where do you want to win more than anywhere else?" Pope said. "Do you know where you want to go win? You want to win in a community that is your family and friends and loved ones and people that are aspiring to great things and this community that has an incredible entrepreneurial spirit about going to chase big dreams. This is exactly where we’re supposed to be right now.”