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‘We succeed by breaking things': BYU basketball coach Mark Pope talks his approach to leadership (+podcast)

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BYU introduces Mark Pope as their new men's head basketball coach at a press conference at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

BYU introduces Mark Pope as their new men’s head basketball coach at a press conference at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10.

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Coaching a Division I basketball program contains countless lessons for life and business. Building a culture of excellence, overcoming adversity, grittiness and determination, and even a broken chair during an interview provide important perspective and powerful principles. Mark Pope, the new head coach at Brigham Young University's basketball program, joins us on this episode of "Therefore, What?"

"Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is "Therefore, What?"

We are very pleased to be joined today by Mark Pope, the new basketball coach at Brigham Young University. Coach, thanks for joining us today. So you've been on the job for a few days now and the only thing you've broken so far that I know of is a chair.

Mark Pope: Well that's not the only thing but that was the most recent. I'm tearing the place up, man. It's unbelievable. I don't know how long they'll let me stay here. But you know, here's the thing. I don't want to get too philosophical too fast, but one of our mantras here is that when things go well you got to break them and when things go poorly you got to break them, right? So you want to break them and repair them and break them or repair them and break them and regrow them. Once you stop breaking them, I think then that's when you need to get nervous, right? Because that's when you could fall behind, that's when you get stale. And so, it's something that's always present in our minds is doing an autopsy and finding out where we are and then it takes so much energy to keep reinventing and reinventing. But I think that's the key to what we do.

BM: Yeah, you know, I think that's such an important principle. Again, right off the bat. I think that's a critical principle for all of us. I've always said the most dangerous day in the life of an organization is the day they're successful and they stop challenging that status quo. I had the chance to interview Tom Osborne, famous football coach at Nebraska. I once stood with coach Osborne on the middle of the N in an empty Cornhusker Stadium and he graciously spent about an hour and a half with me talking about how do you sustain excellence, they were just coming off those back-to-back years, but I think you just hit the first principle and that is you got to keep breaking stuff.

MP: In a really small sense, you know, we do that with player development. So my assistants, I kid you not, once a week we get in, we take an inordinate amount of time and we go over our guys, and we kind of like tweak the direction we're trying to take them or redefine it or double down on it, right? And so it gets so incredibly repetitive, right? I know my staff is just like, dear heavens are we going to go through this again and say mostly all the same things? But the reason that we stop doing that is because it takes so much energy. But I think it's really important. So that's my justification when they try to bill me for this chair I'll be like, hey, that's how we succeed. We succeed by breaking things.

BM: And I think you're just leading this right into the next principle and that is, especially in trying to build an organization, you do often run out of energy before you run out of opportunity. And I think you've seen that in other places where you've played and coached. How do you see that as you enter this new role as head coach at BYU?

MP: You mean just in terms of maintaining energy? Well, I don't have a great answer for that. I do know that I have a way different feel as a head coach than I did as an assistant. And what I mean by that is one of the things that surprised me a lot about my first six months on the job at Utah Valley, my first time ever being a head coach, was that as an assistant coach, as a doer, as an executor, right, I literally would go days and nights and days without sleeping towards the end of the week. When you're playing a Thursday game and then you have to do the whole scout Friday night. You put the scout in Friday and then you play Saturday, right, and so you go into these continuous weekends where you're kind of losing a couple nights of sleep. And then you're working guys out and you're on the recruiting, you're just doing all the time. And so you're doing it and you know that you're not functioning at your highest capacity when you're kind of sleep-deprived, but you can still execute what you have to do. You can still do your job. And one of the things that surprised me that I had not anticipated becoming a head coach was I have this desperation, literally like this desperate feeling inside me to just carve out some space. Right now I don't get it at all, but I fight for it — to just get an hour or some time or 15 minutes where I can just stare out the window and just think. Just have time to think and time where it's quiet. Whereas I could work emotionally on empty as an assistant, I can't in this leadership role. I have to like be careful and monitor myself because if I go in as an assistant and I'm totally sideways, my head coach can can fix me. If I go in as a head coach a little emotionally sideways, there's no one there to fix me. And so, you know, in terms of kind of maintaining energy, I think that's like just barely dipping your toe into the water of kind of being conscious of maintaining energy, and then the rest of the answer to that I still haven't learned yet. I gotta learn the rest of it. Right now we just go as hard as we can as fast as we can. And hope you stay alive.

BM: That's good. And it is that leadership principle of taking time to regroup, to reenergize, or to just be still. Like you said, stare out the window for a minute. A lot of times as a leader that's where the good things come.

MP: Mark Few I think is one of the great coaches in college basketball. And genuinely he's approaching maybe being in the conversation for one of the great college basketball coaches of all time, right? I mean, he's flirting with that kind of conversation. And, you know, I've heard him talk about it like, he's kind of taken that to the nth degree where you know, on game days he, you know, I've heard him talk about like, he goes for long walks, he tries to find somewhere out in the environment where he can go for a long walk. You know, he's not like most of us where he's in a dark room all night long and all morning long before the game watching the film and scheming plays. I get the impression that he's way more of that like, what fuels him and fixes him is just giving his mind and heart the chance to kind of replenish and think so that he can assume that really stable, genius leadership role that he does assume for their team. I find ideas like that really fascinating.

BM: Yeah, excellent. So I want to go back a little bit in your progression and everything that really led to this extraordinary opportunity and moment you have with BYU basketball. When you were a player, you were part of a national championship team, which is a story in and of itself. You were part of a program — Kentucky, rich with history and culture, really a culture of excellence there. Maybe you could share with us, coach, looking at it from that cultural perspective. What did you learn in your time at Kentucky in terms of how do you build a winning culture that's sustainable?

MP: A couple things. One is I was really blessed as a college basketball player because my first two years I played at the University of Washington. And we were we were not good. I mean, we were a bad program. So bad that my coach actually got fired after my sophomore year. We just couldn't win for him and I took that really personally, really hard. And then I got to go from that, from that bad, losing spectrum of college basketball straight to Kentucky, who had just been to a Final Four and the program had unbelievable momentum kind of every year since the scandal that had given them the death penalty. And they were perched, poised right there for a national championship. And I got to see them. Like one day I was fully invested in one program and the very next day I was fully invested in that winning culture. And the differences were staggering.

I give you one example of a difference — so at Washington, I had some personal success but we couldn't win as a team. And I was always a gym rat. So I would be at practice, you know, 90 minutes early getting up shots and I would stay after practice sometimes for two hours. I just was working hard trying to get better. And I would be in the gym by myself most of the time before and after practice. And I would actually have guys walking by the gym kind of giving me dirty looks, right? Like, we don't do that, you're showing us up, what are you trying to prove. All these kind of things that was exactly the opposite of — if they were the energy suckers I'm the energy bus, right? And there was a loneliness about trying to really pursue excellence on that team. So I go to Kentucky and first of all, every single player at Kentucky was better than me. I was like the scrub all scrubs, right? So I knew that for me to have a chance I was gonna have to just crush it in terms of my work ethic and getting in extra stuff and catching up. I mean everybody there was a McDonald's All-American. And so I get there and you know, I'm like, I got this. I'm just gonna outwork these guys like I did Washington. Well, I'm trying to sneak into the gym at 1 a.m. to get like a third workout in that day, right, thinking I got it. So I go over, I walk into Memorial Coliseum. I hear like three balls bouncing. I got three teammates in a full sweat down, they're already doing individual work. And that was it. I mean, if you ask me one difference, it was that. In one place you had a culture and a program where guys were trying to find their own way to success, which didn't involve the only path to success, right? And then I went to this other place where it was like everybody was obsessed, in the individual and a team way in terms of chasing it with everything they had. And I'm pretty simple-minded. I don't get way more complicated than that, than putting in the work.

The other thing I'll give you is Coach (Rick) Pitino was such an extraordinary example of just being, in terms of energy-wise and approach to the game and chase assists. He was relentless. I mean, he would never let down. He would wear us out. And then you'd be like, man, this dude makes us go one more day, it's going to kill us. And he would come that day and he would go at us harder and more demanding and more relentless and it just kind of kept building to a crescendo. And you think it can't get any more than this and the next day it would be more, and the next day it would be more. He seemed like he was totally indefatigable, right. That was what it was and that had a lot of functions on our team. So I mean, for me, that's it. Now you got to be smart about it. You got to have a vision and all those things are so important. But I do think there's a place in really every field where it legitimately is possible, to at least some relatively high ceiling, just outwork your competition.

BM: Yeah, absolutely. I want to drill down on a couple of things. I want to come back to this relentless thing in a minute, because I know that's going to be a big part of the character and the culture of the team. But I want to ask one other question about Kentucky and that you mentioned that these guys were all McDonald's All-Americans. And so when you have that much talent, most of those guys would have been pampered from the time they were in the fifth or sixth grade. How do you create the culture that takes all of that talent and self-interest and unites it around the common vision for the team?

MP: So this was actually, I think, Coach Pitino's genius. OK. I'm going to say this and just bear with me for a second. So he was so brutal and he was such a tyrant. And it was so harsh. OK. I remember my junior year we lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight to go to the Final Four. And the Final Four that year happened to be in Seattle. So I was going to actually get to go home for the Final Four. And we had been ranked No. 1 in the country. I think almost the entire season. Obviously North Carolina, great program, it was Jerry Stackhouse and that whole crew. And we lost and we didn't play very well. And we were just devastated. I mean, we were destroyed as a team. And so we went back to the hotel and coach met with us as a team. We watched the game twice. And he was crushing us. I mean, it was so personal and it was so brutal and it was an awful experience. I'll never forget it as long as I live. To a point where I guarantee you every single one of us in that moment probably came closest some real hatred for this man, right? And then we go to our rooms, we finally get to our rooms late that night and we shut it down. And then we get calls early in the morning and he's scheduled individual meetings with every single one of us. And I went down there and he personally, individually, in a closed room, me and him, just destroyed me. Right? And it was at that point, it was kind of my breaking point, where I was just like, I just hate this dude. And listen, if ever there was a guy that respected authority and was a pleaser, but he pushed me to my very limit. And then interestingly enough, we come back the next season and for the first time in 41 years, we sweep the SEC season, regular season, and we I think we averaged winning games by 24.5 points a game. And that was a league that had five teams or six teams most other years in the top 25 and had two teams in the Final Four and I think four teams in the Sweet 16. It was a ridiculous league. And the magic of what coach did, and I'm not saying I suggest this, but the magic of what he did was he was so brutal to us because we were all prima donnas. We all thought we were going to the league, we all thought we should get everything, we all felt entitled, right? He was so brutal to us that the only option we had was to turn to each other to try and survive him. Right? And I'm telling you, it wasn't by mistake. It was genius.

And in the process. I believe this. I believe that it was really thought out and I believe it was intentional and the thing is that all of us have so much love for coach, but all of us have complete PTSD. When I see his name pop up on my phone, I kid you not, I break into the sweats. Right now as a 46-year-old man, I break into the sweats. And that is unanimous through my team. But he gave us an incredible gift and that was his method of unifying a group that should have been impossible to unify.

BM: Yeah. Wow. That's fascinating. Well, let's drill down a little bit on this. I know one of the core tenets here, you mentioned it earlier, is this being absolutely relentless. In an age where, you know, half-effort and half-hearted work, you know, whether that's work ethic, in schooling, or a job. We see it a lot even in a lot of the prima donna athletes who, you know, kind of work a little bit on offense, coast on defense, you know, hopefully pad the stats somewhere in between. But you really have this belief in that relentlessness wins in the end.

MP: I do. I just have fallen in love with the word. You know, I harken back to training camps. I was such a bad player and so I could never get a guaranteed contract in the NBA, I had to go to training camp. And you go to training camp and there's anything from 10 to 15 big-time players that they bring in to kind of start training camp, and then they whittle it down to one or none that actually make the team, that actually get to be there on the first, you know, make that 5 p.m. deadline before the first game. And there's a part of that where as I had to go through that year after year after year, and about halfway through my experience there I started to really recognize what was going on and be conscious of it rather than just having my head down and trying to gut it out. And what I found out, and I really believe this — if you took 15 guys, probably within the first two days I could identify maybe 10 or 11 of those guys, all great players, mind you. Final Four MVP, guys that are making millions of dollars overseas, dudes that have been in the league for three years. Right? It's a really good group of players. But I could probably identify somewhere, you know, around 10 or 11 guys I'm like, hey, I don't have to worry about them, because they're going to disqualify themselves. They're either going to, in the course of this month-long, it really worked out to be like a month or six-week long kind of tryout process. You know, even starting before training camp and preseason started, right. And you could quickly identify the guys that were going to get, like they were just going to get mentally fatigued. You could identify the guys that weren't tough enough to come every single day and battle out. You could identify the guys that their communication skills were so poor that they just weren't going to be able to maneuver their way through this deal. So even a couple days in, I'd be like these are the two or three guys that I've got to find a way to outlast in this process. And I think that is like, one of many examples of the seeds of this feeling that I have about. I think a lot of times success goes to those guys that are relentless.

Now, there's also those guys that are just born to do something. Where their talent at the end of the day combined with their good hard work is going to win out. But for the rest of us average human beings, I think this relentless quality is so important. I think it's maybe not as common as it once was, this idea of being relentless. I had this unbelievable example from my season last year. So Richard Harward is a young man that was faced with a choice about maintaining his relentless stance or giving in. So he came to me as a freshman two years ago at UVU and we had a really veteran, old, incredibly skilled, incredibly talented frontline. And he just got the living daylights — kid from Orem, Utah, with a great family — just got the living daylights beat out of him every single day. I don't know what he played, five minutes the whole season? And there was no light at the end of the tunnel because we had some guys sitting out for this season and then got a grad transfer in for this past season. And so, you know, he's going through the summer thinking I gotta go through this again. And then I might have to go through it again as a junior. What am I doing, right? I should go somewhere else. And so he actually had a couple experiences during the summer, which were so beautiful when you hear him tell them, about where he was deciding if he was going to stay in there and be what I would call relentless in his pursuit. Or if he was going to reroute and just take another course. And so he hung in there and sure enough, the first half of the season gets no love, but he's coming every single day with an unbelievable attitude, putting in extra work, even when there's no hope on the horizon, right? And just taking his beating. And the truth is, when you're in that position, the team doesn't really treat you with as much respect as you want. The coaching staff doesn't because you're just a guy at the end of the bench, and it's just the true nature of it. But he just kept fighting and fighting and fighting and hung in there.

All the sudden we have an injury, I throw him in the lineup, he delivers a big-time, double-double his first game midway through the season. And then he's essentially a double-double machine through the rest of the season. And this kid, he's just unbelievable. And that's a great example of relentless to me. It's a great example of what I'd like our program to be. When you're relentless, you're not afraid of failing. You're not afraid of failing when you're relentless because you already know the answer to failing before it happens. And the answer is, if I fail, guess what? I already know. I'm going to get up and keep going. It's not like every time you fail you have to have this like heart-to-heart with yourself and be like, oh I failed, what am I going to do? You don't lose any time. It's just like, I just failed, I just got humiliated in front of the whole world. And you know what my answer is, when I wake up in the morning? I'm getting right back to work because I am relentless. And I think when you're that way, success comes. I think it comes. And I think a lot of times it comes a little bit sooner than you thought it was going to.

BM: That's fantastic. Excellent. Want to talk to you for a minute about recruiting. You know, in business it's always about attract, train and retain top talent. Obviously, in a basketball team, getting some of those talented folks who are relentless and committed to a culture is real tricky. I remember sitting in the greenroom one time with Lou Holtz. Great football coach, and he had just gone to the University of South Carolina, remember after he retired for a period. And I sort of tongue in cheek asked him, I said, so how do you like recruiting at South Carolina? And his response was stunning. He said, I love it. He said, I hated recruiting at Notre Dame because kids would come to Notre Dame for what Notre Dame could do for them. He said, but South Carolina, I can walk into a young man's living room with his parents. And I can say yes, South Carolina hasn't had a winning season in a generation. But we are on a collision course with the national championship and I need you to come be part of that story. And it was classic Lou Holtz, he was just passionate. He stood up, he was walking around the greenroom. So tell me about recruiting at BYU. Obviously, it's a challenging thing. Others have struggled with that. But what is going to be your approach to again, attract, train and retain top talent?

MP: Well, first of all, I love the way you told the story. I can actually hear his voice in my mind saying those exact words, right? I mean, what a great guy. And the other thing I noticed about that is, in the cheapest sense of it, you can see his great salesmanship, right? But in the purest sense of it, if you want to rephrase that, you can see his vision. And it's tomato, tomato, it's what you call it right. But his ability to kind of take whatever South Carolina was and turn that into something that could inspire people. I think that's the magic. And when you really believe it, then you get to double down on that. So I mean, just in telling the story you can see his genius at work. And I think here at BYU it's some fusion of BYU and of my philosophy, right? So of course, everybody in the world is trying to go recruit talent, right? I mean, it's not hard to identify talent that's at the very top of the game, and it is challenging to recruit talent. And we're all looking for the same things. We're looking for athleticism and length and skill set and basketball IQ, and you're looking for all those things. But there's two things that I think we really pride ourselves in doing with recruiting that I think are going to fit really well here at BYU. One of those things is we work really hard to — certainly we have to check those boxes in terms of talent, but there's a lot of young men that are really talented. But the thing for us, that I think really helps us, is we spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out a young man's insides. Their insides is probably more important to me, than exactly where they are skill level. Because the truth is you can give me five guys that are super-talented that start college and where they end in college is going to be so wide-ranging. Five guys that people would evaluate, hey, these guys are all equally talented, by the time they're done with their college career, one is going to be playing in the NBA and one of them or two of them are going to transfer their school and their careers going to peter out. And a couple just have a standard career. And that's 100 percent based on their insides. For example, this relentless nature, this idea that they've suffered through some failure in their life and they've recovered. I mean, this is all the talking points that you read about in a leadership book, but we're actually looking for those. How entitled do they feel to us? What are they attracted to about our program? Do they say I want to come here because that cryotherapy machine is so cool and I've never seen it before? Or do they want to come here, not because of the beautiful paint job or the TVs and all this stuff in our practice facility, but because they can get in here 24-7 and the thought of them being able to walk in the gym at 2 a.m. and get some extra work in just gives them the chills. So identifying their insides is so vitally important to us. How have they been with commitments in their life so far? And that doesn't mean that they have to be someone that's shown commitment for six years to some projects. In fact, sometimes I can take guys that have failed in commitments before, but I want to have an idea that they understand the concept of what commitment is. So the insides is really important. It's really, really important to us and it makes it a big difference.

And the other thing that makes a big difference for us, and it's kind of the test, is this idea of trying to scare kids away. So my assistant coaches, the first time we did this at Utah Valley was with the very first young man we ever got on an official visit at Utah Valley. Our staff had just been put together. My guys are working like crazy to get this young man on campus for an official visit. We finally get him and we're doing all this stuff. We're telling him the vision and the dreams and about how he's going to be such a key to everything we do and all the stuff you do legitimately when you're recruiting. So I'm out on the patio, we're doing kind of our last meal. We had the whole team, everybody's playing in the basement. I pulled this young man and his parents up on to the patio, on my deck. And it's me and my wife. And so I have a conversation with him. And I did everything I could to talk him out of coming. I told him how hard it was going to be, I told him all the things that he would encounter that might make him fail here. I told him the things that wouldn't be acceptable here. It was not a warm and fuzzy conversation. It was a deadly serious conversation. And when we finished we actually left. I finished it up nice and so it kind of neutralized some of the pressure and some of the discomfort. At least that's what I thought. But I walk into the other room and here comes my wife Lee Anne storming into the room and she's like, I cannot believe you just did that. How dare you talk to them that way, and what are you thinking. But it's something that we've taken up and it's our last little test to see if guys really want in. Because the way we coach is incredibly hard. And if guys can't withstand that tough conversation and still feel like, despite that I want to come, this is where I want to be. And a lot of times the guys that I love, that have been really successful for me, are the guys that want to come more because of that conversation.

So fun little story. So I'm driving, I was actually driving from Peach Jam to Peach State in Georgia in the summer recruiting. And I'm out in the middle of nowhere and I'm listening to some sports channel on satellite radio and Dabo Sweeney is doing an interview. And I hear him talk about when guys come on official visit. I can't remember the exact words, but if I was going to use the words I'm saying, he's saying exactly what we're talking about. He tries to filter guys out by kind of convincing them not to come on their official visit and see if they bite on it. And so I think those are two things that we put our hat on, as well as all the other things with recruiting. And I think that there's things that help with all three of those goals in recruiting as you talked about.

BM: All right, coach, we're coming down the homestretch and we're going to continue this conversation. These are just fantastic principles with wide-ranging application. But as we wrap up today, the program is "Therefore, What?" So people have been listening for 25 minutes here. What do you hope people take away from this conversation today? What do you hope they think different? What do you hope they do different?

MP: Well, listen, I'm going to probably keep beating this drum of relentlessness because it's something I believe in. I love sharing that message because relentless does a lot of things, like we talked about. Not only do you already have your answer when things go wrong, you already have your answer of what to do, but I think it's also a confidence-builder. I think this notion of relentless inherent in it believes, hey, if you will stay with this and never stop then the only outcome possible is success. Because you're not stopping until you get there. I think it's a confidence-builder. I think it's a character-builder. And so I hope that my players and my staff and the people that kind of follow our program, I hope that they can kind of see the power that we're trying to place in that word and that we take this journey together. Because I do think there's some power in this notion that we can all utilize in our lives. We can be relentless in our marriage, right? We can be relentless in our spiritual life. We can be relentless in building relationships with our friends, and we can be relentless in ministry, and we can be relentless in all these things. I think there's some real power in that.

BM: Coach Mark Pope, head basketball coach Brigham Young University, thank you so much for joining us today on "Therefore, What?" Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on therefore, what.

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