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Doug Robinson: Mark Pope was the easy choice at BYU, but he faces difficult task

SALT LAKE CITY — A few years ago Mark Pope, the new BYU basketball coach, was boating on Utah Lake with his family when their boat broke down. He called for help, but the 6-foot-10 Pope decided to take matters into his own hands. He jumped into the water and dragged the boat across the lake with a rope, trudging through the sludgy mud of the lake bottom until he reached shore, much to the amusement of park rangers who were waiting there.

“Never seen anyone do that before,” they said.

Let’s use that story as a metaphor for the challenge that Pope faces now that he has taken charge of a BYU basketball program that is broken down and won’t restart. Pope is neck deep in muddy waters and it could be a long, slow process to pull the Cougars out of it.

“I don’t really deal in realistic expectations,” said Pope at his introductory press conference as BYU’s new coach. “I don’t believe in them. Why be realistic?”

Yep, he’s found the right job then.

You’re going to like the new coach, at least until (if) he starts losing. He’s the nice-guy type, personable, passionate, articulate (he has an English degree), smart and self-deprecating (he calls himself the worst NBA player ever). He didn’t play for BYU himself — he chose Washington and, later, Kentucky (try explaining that to four-star recruits) — but he is familiar with the program.

He was an assistant coach at BYU under outgoing head coach Dave Rose from 2011-15 and for the past four years he has coached at BYU’s neighbor, Utah Valley. At UVU, he coached three BYU transfers/castoffs — Cory Calvert, Isaac Nielson and Jake Toolson, who was voted Most Valuable Player in the Western Athletic Conference last season (with Pope gone, Toolson has now applied to transfer again … to BYU?).

About 11 years ago Pope was in his third year of medical school, having put basketball behind him, or so he thought. When he told his mentor and former coach, Rick Pitino, that he was leaving school to try the coaching profession, Pitino responded, “Are you insane?” As detailed in a 2015 Deseret News profile, Pope took a job as a lowly assistant “operations guy” whose duties included the team’s laundry.

He’s still relatively new to the coaching profession, with just 10 years of experience, only four as a head coach, but he began studying the profession during his NBA career. Realizing that any day could be his last in the league, he prepared for coaching and med school simultaneously while playing for three teams. He took pre-med classes and studied on airplane flights for the latter and gleaned the finer points of basketball from coaches and teammates to prepare for the former. They included George Karl, Rick Carlisle, Larry Bird, Pitino, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose and Glenn Robinson.

He will need such determination to succeed at BYU, which has been in a rut for several years. Pope, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the safe, easy choice for BYU to replace Rose. He will bring much-needed new energy to the job, but the question is will he continue the status quo?

Pope did inherit some talent. TJ Haws, who was the team’s best player last season along with Yoeli Childs, returns for his senior season, as does Nick Emery, whose once-promising career has been derailed by personal problems and NCAA violations, which will make Pope’s job even more difficult (the resulting NCAA sanctions include loss of a scholarship and recruiting restrictions, as if they didn’t have enough already). The Cougars also return the athletic 6-foot-9 Gavin Baxter, who made a few star turns during his freshman season. Perhaps Pope can convince Childs to return for his senior season rather than pursue an NBA career, as he intends. That would be wise for both BYU and Childs.

As noted here previously, recruiting at BYU has consisted mostly of signing players from Utah (64 roster spots in the last nine seasons) and especially Utah County (50 during the same period).

As a coach at UVU, Pope, who posted a 77-56 record and claimed two second-place finishes in the Western Athletic Conference, demonstrated a willingness to travel far to recruit players (one trip alone included stops in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Nevada and Texas). He also should use BYU's international reach — one of its few recruiting advantages — to find foreign players, something the program has not been doing.

Pope addressed that very issue in his introductory press conference, vowing to “cast a really big net … throughout the entire country and around the world. We have the capability to do that at BYU.”

Maybe the new coach will be more successful in recruiting the top talent from among its church members and convince marginal NBA talent not to leave school early, as has happened three consecutive years. This is not a school that can simply reload. As he acknowledged in his press conference, Pope has to find a way to keep teams together for four years, bucking the trend in college basketball.

Every basketball program needs a superstar to carry it, but BYU rarely gets such talent. The Cougars have gotten past the second round of the NCAA Tournament only three times in the last 50 years, and each time it was a team with a bona fide superstar — Jimmer Fredette, Danny Ainge and Kresimir Cosic.

Pope, the guy who studied for med school while playing in the NBA, acknowledged he and his staff will have to work hard to succeed at BYU, adding, “That’s what we do best.”