Why the hiring of Kahil Fennell is a big deal as BYU basketball eyes transition to the Big 12
As a Black man who’s not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Fennell found himself drawn by the mission of the school.
There was a time, in his younger days, when Kahil Fennell didn’t like BYU.
Growing up in Hawaii, his family had UH football tickets so, naturally, he possessed an aversion for the Cougars.
“I started off as very much not a BYU fan.”
Decades later, Fennell will play a key role in the Cougars’ impending jump from the West Coast Conference to the Big 12 in the 2023-24 season.
And, yes, he’s a fan of BYU now.
“Obviously, a tremendous amount of respect for the athletic program here and the community itself. It’s very special, it’s very unique. It’s different,” he said.
“The standard that’s held up here, the tenets of not only the religion but the community and the ability and the want-to to build up people around you, that’s not like other places. That makes this place really unique and special. That’s always spoken to me.”
As a Black man who’s not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Fennell found himself drawn by the mission of the school. “My family and I are all in,” he said, adding that his family’s standards match those of the school.
“We’re all pulling the same direction,” he said. “That’s huge for me, that’s huge for my family. Those are the tenets that we live by. That was a big part of me being attracted to the job.”
Fennell praised the “tremendous” facilities at the school — “right near the top with anybody in the country.”
“It’s cool to come to work every day. It’s cool to have an office that overlooks the court,” he said. “It’s cool to go out on the patio and see the mountains, which I’m not used to.
“You feel like you can get work done and be happy to be here every day.”
Having come from a Power 5 conference program, Louisville, Fennell believes BYU is well-positioned to compete in the Big 12.
“That’s a huge reason why I was excited about this job in the first place,” he said. “The way coach Pope and Nick and Cody have recruited and the way they’re so tenacious about it — their enthusiasm, their energy to recruit at a high level and to dive into recruiting battles with anybody and everybody … They’re going to go to war.
“Getting talent, getting local talent, getting international talent, they put such a huge emphasis on that. We’re going to be a really talented team, not only this year, but moving forward … We’re going to be really well-prepared to win games, whether in the Big 12 or beyond. I’m thrilled about it.”
‘Exhausting and exhaustive’
When assistant Chris Burgess left last month to take a similar job at Utah, Pope began what he called an “exhausting and exhaustive process” to find Burgess’ replacement.
“This is likely our last chance at having a huge change on our staff as we make this transition,” Pope said. “All of us recognize the gravity of this addition to our staff. It had to be the right guy, and Kahil is exactly the right guy … We had a chance to get better and I’m really convinced that we did.
“This is an important decision for us. This is really crucial to the next few years of our program, and he’s the guy.”
Many candidates were considered for the job.
“It might be three figures, in terms of the number of names we went through,” Pope said.
But Fennell rose to the top of the list of candidates.
“I was a long way sold on him before he even got here,” Pope said. “We spent a lot of time together.”
Pope and Fennell seem to be kindred spirits in many ways, though they didn’t really know each other before the hiring process began.
While Pope left medical school to take a low-level assistant coaching job at Georgia to get back into college basketball, Fennell sold medical equipment for years before realizing that coaching was his true calling.
Fennell served as an assistant coach at Alameda High in California before moving on to Division II UT-Permian Basin and then taking an assistant coaching job at Portland State.
“I get it,” Pope said said of Fennell getting back into the sport. Fennell “had the courage to actually do it. From that point on, what he’s accomplished since has been incredible.”
What does Fennell recall about his initial conversations with Pope?
“Coach Pope is a force of nature,” Fennell said. “You’re in a conversation with him but it feels like more than that, bouncing ideas off each other. It’s one of the more unique early relationships I’ve had in this business.
“I have such a tremendous amount of respect for his basketball mind, but almost more for his energy to be great and his competitive nature. That really matches mine. That’s where we really saw eye to eye … We’re incredibly driven. There’s no other option other than to win. That’s it for me. I’m here to win.”
Lessons at Louisville
For the past four years, Fennell has been on the staff at Atlantic Coast Conference power Louisville. He spent the first three years as the director of basketball operations and last year as an assistant.
Those years certainly shaped him — and it was a learning experience. Louisville enjoyed some good seasons but last year was not one of them.
Head coach Chris Mack served a six-game suspension to start the year after being a victim of an extortion attempt by a former assistant, and there was an ongoing NCAA investigation into Louisville related to an FBI investigation into bribery in college basketball.
Mack was fired last January.
Before that, the social justice issues that came into sharp focus during the summer of 2020, Fennell “participated in and organized some marches with our team,” he said, to bring attention to the controversial death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, “which was really important to our players, giving them that voice and that platform.”
As for his time at Louisville, “it certainly had its ups and downs,” Fennell said. “Obviously, the first three years were strong and it was challenging with COVID and some of the social justice stuff was challenging as well, being in Louisville and the heart of the Breonna Taylor situation.
“Then this past season was disappointing for us on the floor with so many distractions going on with the program and the coaching staff and a federal investigation. I learned quite a bit. There’s so much to glean from that experience. For me, it’s continuing to put the players first; put winning first … and have our student-athletes maximize their time on campus … that’s going to be the goal. I never want that to be lost in distractions off the floor. If there’s one thing, I’d say that’s what I’ve taken away from it.”
Fennell said he and his family — wife Sarah, and their two boys, Ezra and Koa — feel comfortable at BYU.
“It’s a unique situation and a unique place but my family couldn’t feel more supported in the time that we’ve been part of this process,” he said.
“It’s been touching in a lot of ways. It’s an environment and a community that’s welcomed us with open arms, and that’s all I can ask for.”
‘Compete for championships’
Fennell said he can’t wait to work with Pope, Fueger and Robinson, saying that he’s “a big believer in those guys. I’m a big believer in this community and this athletic program. It’s a huge thrill for me.
“I hope to compete for championships in the near future. That’s what this place is about. Obviously, it’s unique in its standards and what they demand of their student-athletes and their staff,” he added. “I think that makes it a little bit more special. When you can do those things and combine that, with a goal of competing for championships, it makes it a really unique place and I’m excited to be part of it.”
One of Fennell’s priorities, of course, will be recruiting. He brings recruiting experience “at the ACC level and what that looks like night in and night out,” Fennell said. “It’s a war, especially now with the NIL and everything that goes with that … I’m going to be learning from these guys. It’s a tremendous staff.”
Added Fennell: “I’m going to work really, really hard at (recruiting). I’m going to uncover every rock near and far — here in Utah, locally, there are some terrific players here — obviously, abroad they’ve had tremendous success in this program. I’ll do whatever I can to continue the recruiting success they already built.”
During the lengthy hiring process, typical for BYU, Pope said he was nervous because Fennell was an assistant coaching candidate for “at least two high-majors and a really good mid-major that were chasing him also.”
Pope talked to the coaches that Fennell worked with at both Louisville and Portland State.
“He’s going to be the first guy in the office and the last to leave every single day,” Mack told Pope.
Other traits put Fennell at the top of Pope’s list.
“That’s something we universally heard, the relationship he builds with his players and his recruiting acumen,” he said. “As you dig into his life story, he has a spectacular life story. He’s been in every type of environment, every type of situation that you could imagine.
“The diversity of his experience is a huge deal for us. He’s got a breadth of experience all over the country, just like coach Fueger and coach Robinson do. The other thing we heard was that he’s on the court all day long, working with the guys.”
Fennell said Burgess is a friend of his and he learned that there might be an opening at BYU.
“I thought there might be an opportunity here,” Fennell said.
Fennell also talked to his former boss at Portland State, Barret Peery, a Payson native who is now an assistant coach at Texas Tech of the Big 12, to learn more about BYU.
“He knows the area well and he’s a big fan of this program,” Fennell said of Peery.
One night, Pope and his wife, Lee Anne, went to dinner with Fennell and his wife.
“I was like, ‘Oh, Sarah’s way better than he is,’” Pope said. “That was kind of the lynchpin. His family is really special. He brings a lot.”
Pope called Fennell “a world-class communicator” and a man that “has a real gift at building relationships ... At every place he’s been, he’s been promoted inside the program really fast.”
“He’s really honest and he has some real depth to him. He’s doing this job for the right reasons,” Pope said. “He’s clearly not chasing money because of decisions he’s made in his life. He’s chasing a relationship with these guys and he’s chasing a chance to be a part of something really special.”
When he was younger, Fennell may not have appreciated BYU, but he does now.
“One of the great filters we have at BYU is, this university is unique in some incredibly amazing ways that make it so special,” Pope said. “One of the filters is, not everybody sees that. Kahil saw it from the very beginning. It’s something he’s really embraced.”