In the absence of a clandestine enclave for an initial secret meeting with BYU officials about taking over its basketball program, Mark Pope found himself in the guts of the giant Marriott Center looking at history and listening to a pair of spirited pitchmen in late March.
There, under the retired jerseys of Hall of Famer Kresimir Cosic and Naismith players of the year Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette, his attention was drawn to the banners of conference championships and names of legendary All-Americans. Pope later described the meeting as a place where he listened to passionate visions for the program from athletic director Tom Holmoe and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago, who spearheaded a search to replace retiring Dave Rose.
Pope told reporters at his press conference last week he came to believe that if he was going to win at a very high level, he wanted to do it there.
I asked Santiago exactly what he and Holmoe told Pope that day.
He replied they shared what has been and what could be.
“We have a great passion for this athletic department and university and it’s hard to be in that Marriott Center and not be able to feel the greatness that’s come through that place,” Santiago said.
It was determined that Pope and all the candidates listen to a scene setter of what should and could transpire with the program in light of the tradition and coaches who had gone before. “We want to keep it going."
“From Day 1 in 1997 when Dave Rose and I were on the staff, we used to talk about getting to the Final Four," Santiago said. "We were a free throw away from making that dream become a reality in a very tough situation with one of our players (the suspension of Brandon Davies). We felt it back then and we feel it now.
“We feel like this is a special place that’s got an incredible history and an incredible future and we wanted coach Pope to feel that from the first moment we started talking about the possibilities of becoming a new coach for BYU.”
Contrary to what some have said, Santiago said neither he nor Holmoe began looking for a Rose replacement until Rose had announced his retirement. “Not a text, not a phone call, no discussions at all,” he said.
Pope was a prime candidate from the beginning and it was important to Santiago that Rose leave BYU with respect, in his own way, and in a classy manner.
Mission accomplished. The transition was seamless.
Aside from Pope, Santiago lined up interviews with candidates and went through the process. There came a point when there were negotiations with Pope on his salary and subsequent required interviews with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Pope’s job won’t be easy after junior Yoeli Childs chose to forgo his senior season. BYU’s path to a West Coast Conference title leads through top five program Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, the established best in the league which Rose never defeated for a league or tournament title since the Cougars joined the conference in 2011.
Expectations are high. A new annex is in place for 24-hour player access, yet, last year, shooting percentages from distance were down and the last game in Las Vegas was simply awful. Recruiting is a challenge at the church-sponsored school. Immediately after his hire, Pope recruited current players to his ideas and then took off to see other prospects.
Santiago calls it unique and important that this hire would be someone who was BYU-ready from the moment his signature hit a contract. Pope fit that need.
“It’s unique that from Day 1 the new coach is 100 percent aligned with and locked into the basketball administrator and athletic director and university administration. Anywhere else in the country, you are immediately launching into a new relationship where you’ve got to establish new ties and you have to feel out who is where," he said.
“But from the first day, he knew all of that 100 percent. We are united in our vision for this program and we don’t have to establish relationships. We are in lockstep already in the box together and going full throttle forward to maintain the greatness of the program. That’s a great answer.”
Santiago believes so.