In January, members of the 2002 BYU women’s basketball team returned to the Marriott Center to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their history-making NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 run.

As it turned out, that was a glorious reunion during what would turn out to be coach Jeff Judkins’ final season at the helm.

The school announced Thursday that Judkins is retiring after 21 seasons. 

“I’m really happy for him. When we were out there in January, I listened to the way that he talked to his team after the game,” said Lisa Osguthorpe Baxter, a member of that 2002 squad. “You could just tell he loved his team. You could tell he was taking in those moments. I was watching him do that and I was happy for him.”

Judkins guided the Cougars to a 456-204 record (a .691 winning percentage), accumulating the most wins by a head coach in BYU basketball history, men or women. Judkins’ teams made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and advanced to the Sweet 16 twice

Baxter said Judkins’ retirement is somewhat similar to BYU’s legendary football coach LaVell Edwards in terms of the impact both coaches made.  

“This is like LaVell leaving on the BYU women’s basketball side,” Baxter said.

As successful as Judkins was on the court, Baxter said his legacy transcends wins and losses. 

“He leaves a legacy of love and a legacy of winning. He leaves a legacy of doing it the right way. He leaves a legacy of hard work. He leaves a legacy of family,” she said. “He left this huge legacy of players that feel connected to BYU and women’s basketball to whatever current team is playing. That’s a hard feeling to create. We always have felt welcome and that he wants us to be part of things.”

That feeling of unity was palpable among those players who celebrated the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 2002 — in his first season as head coach.

His final team, in 2022, was one of his best. The Cougars finished with a 26-4 record and an outright West Coast Conference championship. It marked a program record for victories in a season and BYU achieved a No. 15 ranking at one point during the season, the highest in program history. 

The Cougars fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Villanova. 

“There’s no question that this was probably the best conference season that I’ve had, going 15-1 and being able to win the conference and be able to beat Gonzaga twice,” Judkins said in March. “That’s pretty hard to do.”

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Despite the disappointing end, Judkins enjoyed the ride while it lasted. 

“You could tell he was enjoying that team and the relationships that he had,” Baxter said. “He was hugging all of us. Watching him, I was really happy for him. When the news came out — I don’t want to say that I’m surprised — he’s been doing it for a long time and he’s been doing it so well. We all knew it was going to happen at some point.

“I’m glad he got to go out when he wanted to go out. I’m just happy for him,” she continued. “Everybody loves him. He’s a lovable guy. You could tell this year that he was enjoying it. I’m grateful to these girls for sending him out like this. He deserved that.”

Kristen Kozlowski, one of Judkins’ former players, has witnessed his career as both a player and a broadcaster for the last two decades. 

“I’ve been with Juddy from the start!” she wrote Thursday on Twitter. “I knew this day would come, but conflicted it’s finally here. He’s a special coach and special person in my life. Grateful for all he’s done for the entire (BYU women’s basketball) family!”

Certainly, Judkins’ road to BYU, and the women’s program, was an improbable one

Judkins starred at Utah from 1974-78 — and was a member of the 1977 United States World Games team that won a gold medal — before being drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. He enjoyed a solid NBA career with the Celtics, Portland Trailblazers, Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz.

For 10 years, Judkins served as an assistant under Rick Majerus for the Utes. He left Utah in 1999 and became director of basketball operations at BYU. Judkins spent one season as an assistant coach for the BYU women’s team in 2000-01 before ascending to the head coaching job in 2001-02.

“You could tell the women’s side was a little different for him. Watching him make that transition was awesome,” Baxter said. “He was really made for it because he loves basketball and he teaches it so well. Women love to listen and to learn and do it right. He was such a great teacher of the game.”

During the 2021-22 season, the Deseret News asked Judkins if he had imagined spending more than 20 years at BYU. 

Jeff Judkins, second from right, was an assistant coach to Rick Majerus at Utah for 10 seasons. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

“I never thought that. I thought I’d go to Utah and when the big fella retired I would get that job and coach there for 10-12 years and retire. I didn’t think I’d be at BYU as long as I have,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be coaching the women as long as I’ve coached it. That first group, the first year I coached, set a big tone for me, too.

“This was a lot of fun. They wanted to win. I really have loved my years at BYU. I’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had great players, great coaches and the administration has been behind me 100%,” he continued. “I couldn’t be happier with what’s happened. I know someday it’s going to come to an end and it’s going to be hard. But I’ve really enjoyed my time as a coach here with these kids.”

In a statement Thursday, Judkins said, “I’ve loved my years here. The program is in a good place and it’s a good time for me. I have so many great memories of BYU. I’ve loved the people, the players, the coaches and everyone here at BYU. We turned this program into a consistent winner that wins conference championships and goes to the tournament on a regular basis.

“We’ve had great players and historic wins but more importantly it has been the people and the relationships that I have loved and will remember the most. I’ve been lucky to be able to do something that I’ve loved so much for as long as I have.”­

During his time at BYU, Judkins coached eight conference players of the year, eight All-Americans, 63 players that earned all-conference honors, and 102 that earned academic awards. As a program, the Cougars won five conference regular-season championships and four conference tournament titles. 

“Jeff Judkins has had an illustrious career in basketball,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in a statement. “From his high school days at Highland High School to starring at the University of Utah to his time in the NBA and finishing off with 21 years as head coach of the BYU women’s basketball team, Juddy has accomplished so much. His record of wins, championships, great players he’s mentored and great teams he’s led will long be remembered. Jeff loved his players and they loved him.”

BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins talks to his team during a timeout as the Cougars play Portland in the 2022 WCC Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Not only did the program produce star players like Erin Thorn, Mallary Gillespie Carling, Ambrosia Anderson, Morgan Bailey, Haley Hall Steed, Lexi Eaton Rydalch, Jennifer Hamson, Kim Parker Beeston, Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher, Mindy Nielson Bonham, Cassie Broadhead Devashrayee, Brenna Chase Drollinger, Paisley Johnson Harding and Shaylee Gonzales, several of his former players became successful high school coaches, like Nancy Seljaas Warner, who led Lone Peak High’s girls team to a state championship this season. 

Baxter is an assistant high school basketball coach in California. 

“Juddy taught me so much about the game of basketball. I have a brain full of stuff that he taught me,” she said. “He helped my love for basketball increase dramatically. … He always helped me remember that relationships are the most important thing. Even 20 years ago, he knew that we weren’t going to remember awesome plays. You were going to remember the relationships you had with your coaches and teammates.

“That will always be a forever truth — that relationships are what really matter. That’s why he was so successful for so long. He knew what was most important. He knew what made women’s teams tick. And that’s what makes women’s teams tick. I think men’s teams are the same way but they don’t want to admit it. He taught me that.”

Baxter added that she is happy that Judkins will be able to spend more time with his family, as well as his horses. 

“I’m grateful he gets to go out on his own terms,” she said.

On the day that Judkins retired, Baxter’s thoughts turned to that weekend last January when her 2002 team reunited in Provo. 

“I’m going to miss seeing him on those sidelines,” she said. “That cute smile with the innocent eyes. I’m so grateful that we were able to get together this year and that we were able to share that with him.”