PROVO — On a warm spring day in mid-May, new BYU basketball coach Mark Pope hosted three local reporters for a question-and-answer session on the back patio of his home away from home, the Marriott Center Annex.
Pope folded his 6-foot-10 frame into a chair and for nearly an hour, he fielded a wide array of questions about the program and how he is approaching this job.
The main takeaway? Pope's enthusiasm, energy and relentlessness know no bounds.
His message to the media, fans, recruits and his players is drenched with optimism, leaving everyone listening with the impression that Pope believes anything is possible.
During that session, Pope evoked names like Malcolm Gladwell, Digger Phelps, Fred Roberts and Rick Pitino.
While the Cougar basketball program is losing its leading scorer and rebounder — Yoeli Childs — from a team that got crushed in the first round of the West Coast Conference Tournament and failed to qualify for either the NCAA Tournament or NIT for the first time since 2004-05, Pope believes his team is primed to win. Now.
“We’re gonna to win. That’s what we do. We’re gonna win, or I get fired,” Pope said. “These seniors deserve to come win. That’s our job, to come win. You always have your heart solely focused on winning the game in front of you. You have your mind placed on growing the program. Those two things are always functioning with each other and at odds with each other. Ultimately, the successful coaches are the ones where their heart wins out. You want to win and find a way to win now. We want to win more than people think we can win. We’re here to win. This is a deadly serious basketball program. We’re here to win. That’s our goal and that’s what our mindset is. These young men deserve the opportunity to chase that in that form and fashion.”
As far as his vision of the future of BYU’s program, Pope said, “I think we can do everything here that you want to do in basketball. I really do. I’m just dumb enough to think that we can accomplish everything that you dream about accomplishing in basketball and that we can do it right here. I’m not naive to how incredibly impossible that task is. I’m not saying that lightly. We have the resources and we have some unique strengths here that are unique to BYU. We have all those ingredients you have to have to legitimately put yourself in position to get everything done. I think we can.”
Pope, who spent the past four seasons as the head coach at Utah Valley University, expressed his gratitude for what he has to work with at BYU.
“One of the things that’s been humbling to me here at BYU is there are so many resources. I’m coming from a great place where we had to scratch and claw for every tiny little scrap that we could get. That was a really fun battle,” he said. “Here, you walk into this extraordinary building and you look at the building 20 feet away from us (the Marriott Center) and you see all the resources here and you’re like, ‘How do we harness the full potential of everything that’s here?' That feels like a responsibility. I don’t leave any stone unturned in terms of utilizing everything we have."
Here are a handful of other issues Pope addressed when he met with local reporters.
During his introductory press conference in April, Pope vowed to cast a wide net in recruiting, including searching internationally for talent. Recently, Pope traveled to West Africa to conduct an in-home visit with the parents of a recruit.
How are his efforts in this international recruiting going so far?
“We’ll see. You know when you know. Ninety-nine point nine percent of recruiting is a waste of time. It’s like offensive rebounding. The great offensive rebounders are great because they go to the offensive glass on every single possession. You’re interested in a guy that goes every single possession,” Pope said. “That’s the same as recruiting. Recruiting is every second of every day relentlessly chasing it, doing what it takes, legally, to do it. Two weeks ago, we traveled 27 hours (to Africa) for a 90-minute home visit and then 27 hours back. That’s not an anomaly. That’s what you do in recruiting. If you recruit long enough and hard enough and relentlessly enough, you’re going to end up with guys that can really help you win.
"I do believe that when you hone in on one specific guy, you’re cooking the books for failure. For us, recruiting is about fit. That one specific guy, even if we had him on the hook, I’d do my best to talk him out of coming before he committed because that’s what we do. We recruit guys really, really hard and then we try to talk them out of coming. Those guys that still want to come, those are the guys that have a chance to have the staying power to do something special in the program. We’ll see how recruiting goes. Ask me in November. I’ll have a better sense. Then next June and I’ll have a good idea of how it’s going.”
Recruiting to BYU
What kind of reception has Pope and his staff received on the recruiting trail?
“There are unbelievable strengths to recruiting to BYU,” Pope said. “It’s been amazing. These kids from all different walks of life, from all different places. We’re inherited something extraordinary. What coach (Dave) Rose did here and Steve Cleveland and Roger Reid and Frank Arnold and Ladell Andersen and Glenn Potter did here was extraordinary.
"We’re not walking into a place where people don’t know who BYU is. … People are like, ‘BYU is legit.’ As a staff, we’re trying to grow connections internationally. There’s a lot more people that are familiar with BYU than other schools worldwide. This place has a rich tradition of great coaches and great players that have made it extraordinary. People know that and I think respect that and appreciate it. This is our chance to step in and take a huge swing at this and see if we can add to the great tradition that is here. In those brave moments say that maybe we’ve gone somewhere we’ve never been able to go before. But it’s not going to be because we did it by ourselves. It’s going to be because we landed at a place that’s been building for so long. We get to cap it off.”
Pope said recruiting prospects to a faith-based institution like BYU isn’t as difficult as it might seem.
“For most kids, having some concept of standards in your life and some concept of the notion of faith, in a spiritual sense or an athletic sense, those are the guys I love to coach. This is a game of faith,” Pope said. “It’s faith in the guys standing next to you, it’s faith in a staff that is in this with you every step of the way. It’s faith in your skill and acumen. I don’t think faith is a foreign concept to athletes. It’s a building block. It’s fundamentally, quintessentially a part of what you do as an athlete. This is an institution of faith and a league of schools that are founded on faith. Maybe faith in a religious sense is a broadening of that concept but it’s not something foreign.
"I don’t think standards (are) something that’s foreign to athletics, either. I don’t think sacrifice for a greater cause is foreign to athletics. It’s the core of what athletics is. It’s the heart of it. When you go into a home and you talk to an athlete that’s chasing dreams and you talk to them about faith, standards and sacrifice, those are things that resonate with athletes. Most athletes are looking for that. The way it manifests itself at BYU might be a little bit different. … When you start talking about those concepts with athletes that I want to coach, they resonate.”
While he was at UVU, Pope didn’t shy away from any challenge. In 2017, he took the Wolverines to play at No. 5 Kentucky and at No. 1 Duke in the same weekend.
What is Pope’s scheduling philosophy for BYU?
“Our scheduling philosophy is pretty much just dumb. We just want to go play. That culminates in coaches getting fired really fast but it makes the game fun. Here at BYU, we might be able to do some two-for-ones with some places,” Pope said. “We’re in some conversations right now about doing some two-for-ones to get teams into the Marriott Center that are going to pique people’s interest. I know that players love to play. I know that fans love to be a part of high-profile games. There’s a hit I’m willing to take to get teams into this building. We’re going to try. It’s not like our schedule this year is not entertaining. We’ve got Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA, Georgia (Virginia Tech) and Dayton at the Maui Classic. We’re at Houston and we get San Diego State in our gym, which is awesome. Nevada’s coming here. How fun is that? You guys know I’m a sucker for blue bloods. I’m excited to see if we can get some blue bloods. I still don’t know how impossible that is. But I’m dumb enough to want to do it.”
Team trip to Italy
The NCAA allows teams travel to a foreign country and play exhibition games. In August, BYU will travel to Italy — a trip that was planned long before Pope was hired. He's looking forward to it.
“I’m so excited. This trip is such a gift and it’s going to be really special for our guys," Pope said. "I’m excited for the basketball opportunities and non-basketball opportunities. I’m trying to find some professor on this campus that a specialist that’s somewhere between ‘Angels and Demons’ and real Italian history. We start practice at the beginning of August. Every third practice I think I’m going to do a dinner with our guys and do a dinner-lecture. I’m excited for these guys to go see it and experience it and take it in a little bit.
"Basketball-wise, I’m excited to put these guys in game situations. Any transfers that we have, they’re allowed to practice with us and go on the trip and compete in these games. It’s going to give us a feel for the direction where we can head in the future. We’ll have a full roster there and I’m excited for us to get to know each other and for these guys to get to know my voice a little bit and know our staff’s voice in a competitive situation. I’m excited for whatever these guys do at 2 in the morning when they’re messing around and kind of getting to know them that way. The greatest thing about this opportunity to coach in college is to witness these guys grow and build relationships with them along the way.
"I can’t wait to go walk in St. Mark’s Square (in Venice) and see if it’s the way I remember in the evening, with four different musical venues right there in the square. I can’t wait. I can’t wait to throw TJ Haws into the waters of Venice. It’s going to be a great trip for us.”
Scheduling Utah Valley University
In 2015, prior to Pope’s first season at UVU, the Cougars and Wolverines agreed to a four-game series. That series ended in 2018.
Will the two crosstown schools continue to play? Will Pope face his former team?
“We’re working on a long-term contract right now. There are some small complications. I’ve got some guys over there that are in a hot sweat about sticking it to me,” Pope said, smiling. “Communication has been pretty much shut down because that’s the rules. But there still are messages that get through like, ‘We’re coming for you, baby! Let’s go!’ I love those young men so much. It’s the most personal that it gets. We’re going to figure it out.”
The Pitino influence
One of Pope’s mentors is Pitino, who won national titles at Kentucky and Louisville. Pope was part of Kentucky's 1996 national championship team under Pitino, who also has been embroiled in controversy during his career.
Asked what drives him as a coach, Pope explained he was heavily influenced by what he went through as a player.
“I had coach Pitino spend a day with us at Utah Valley last year. Coach Pitino has been surrounded by controversy since the day he started coaching. Obviously, at an increased level and in unique ways the last 10 years. I’ll love him forever because my experience with Coach P, he changed my insides, he changed my DNA. In every figurative way, he provided an environment where I changed literally from my core as a human being and got better. For me, that’s enough.
"I think that’s the mission of this university, it’s the mission of the gospel, it’s the mission of this basketball program. Can we take young men and put them in a position where the pressure is so high and the support is so strong that they can leave this place as a different human being than when they walked in? If that’s not what happens, what am I doing with my life? Why am I flying 27 hours for a 90-minute home visit through two translators and 27 hours back? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? In some ways, I think this is the best place to recruit to because those foundational principles of an athlete, you wear them on your sleeve here at BYU.”