‘Time for a normal life’: How well-traveled John Wardenburg ended up, once again, at BYU
The former assistant coach to Dave Rose is back at BYU, this time as an assistant for the BYU women’s program
From 2001-2010, John Wardenburg served as an assistant coach with the BYU men’s basketball program.
During that time, under coaches Steve Cleveland and Dave Rose, he helped recruit players like Lee Cummard and Jimmer Fredette to Provo and the Cougars won Mountain West Conference championships and competed multiple times in the NCAA Tournament.
“You stay in this business long enough and you make great friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at great places. It far exceeded what I thought would happen. It’s been great.” — new BYU women’s assistant coach John Wardenburg on the well wishes he’s received
Wardenburg left in 2010 and coached all over the country at various levels.
Now, he’s returned to BYU.
The school announced last Friday that he’ll join women’s basketball coach Amber Whiting’s staff. In all, Wardenburg has 33 years of coaching experience on his résumé.
“I’ve been around, literally, the United States, coaching,” he said. “I’m so blessed and happy to be back here at BYU.”
During those 13 years since leaving Provo, there have been plenty of changes. BYU has gone from the Mountain West to the West Coast Conference and now to the Big 12. There is a BYU basketball annex adjacent to the Marriott Center that was completed in 2017.
Wardenburg currently has a temporary office at LaVell Edwards Stadium as renovations are taking place in the coaches’ offices at the Annex. He has a great view of the football field and the picturesque mountains.
When asked about the positive reaction he received from fans, former players and others about his return to BYU, Wardenburg became a little emotional.
“The outpouring of support and congratulations have been unbelievable,” he said. “You stay in this business long enough and you make great friends. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at great places. It far exceeded what I thought would happen. It’s been great.”
In this latest tour of duty at BYU, Wardenburg will assist Whiting, who is entering her second season at the helm, as her team makes the jump to the ultra-competitive Big 12.
“Adding John to our coaching staff is going to be a huge help for our program,” said Whiting. “He returns to BYU with a wealth of knowledge and experience in building championship programs at every level of college basketball. I am excited to have his expertise and for him to help our women reach their full potential.”
Coaching all over the country
So what has Wardenburg been up to for the past 13 years?
After BYU, he was an assistant to Ken Wagner at BYU-Hawaii, where the team played for the Division II national championship his first year with the program.
From there, Wardenburg took a job at one of the premier junior colleges in the nation, Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. He was an assistant under Barret Peery, whom Wardenburg had coached in Wardenburg’s first year at his first job at Utah’s Payson High in 1988.
Peery later became the head coach at Portland State and was an assistant at Texas Tech. He’s currently an assistant at UNLV.
Indian Hills played for the NJCAA national title and then Wardenburg became the head coach for one season in 2014-15. In his first season as a college head coach, he guided the Warriors to a 29-5 record and a trip to the national NJCAA quarterfinals.
After that, Wardenburg returned to Utah to be an assistant coach at Westlake High, then he was named the associate head coach under Todd Simon at Southern Utah.
“We built that thing and we won the first Big Sky championship in the history of the school,” Wardenburg said of the program, which had won five games in 2015-16 before capturing the league title in 2020-21.
Earlier this year, Simon took the head coaching job at Bowling Green.
For the past two seasons, Wardenburg was the associate head coach at Southern Virginia University, helping his son, Adam, who is the head coach.
‘We need to change this’
Yes, Wardenburg moved around a lot over those 13 years. During that time, he and his wife, Pam, lived apart for stretches. She stayed in Orem, where she “has a great job,” Wardenburg said.
When he coached at SUU, Wardenburg rented a place in Cedar City. When he was at Southern Virginia, he lived with his son, Adam.
“Pam would come out once a month,” Wardenburg said.
After the season, the couple talked about the toll that being separated due to their job situations was taking.
“We need to change this,” he said. “It’s time for us to have a normal life.”
About three weeks later, a coaching job opened up in the state of Utah. Wardenburg was offered that job.
At around that same time, BYU assistant Aaron Kallhoff became the head coach at Sacramento State. Whiting reached out to Wardenburg because a spot had opened up on her staff.
“That was quite a shock, to be honest,” Wardenburg said.
About a month earlier, he and his son had gone to Las Vegas to watch basketball. One of the teams he watched was the BYU women’s team.
“Not even thinking that I might be coaching them. I was just watching them,” Wardenburg said. “This one job came open and I ended up turning that job down four times. It would have entailed us living apart or her leaving her job. That’s not what we wanted to do. I was really blessed that Amber called and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And here I am. It was an answer to a prayer we had. I’m really blessed.”
Reunited with Cummard
One of the other assistants on Whiting’s staff is Cummard, who helped lead the Cougars to three consecutive Mountain West titles from 2007-09 and earned conference player-of-the-year honors in 2008.
Wardenburg recruited Cummard to BYU and now they’re reunited on the women’s basketball staff.
“I love Lee. From the minute that I saw him play, to getting him here, in my opinion, Lee is an example of what BYU can do for a young man or young woman in terms of change,” Wardenburg said. “I’m more proud of the fact that Lee is a great father and husband and serving in church callings. He has a passion for this game. He’s always had it.
“One thing that always stood out with Lee Cummard is the fact that the dude never wanted to lose a game. He didn’t care about his own personal accolades. He just wanted to win. It’s the same way that he coaches. He just wants us to be great. It’s a trait he has that stands out to me.”
Another member of the staff is former BYU women’s basketball star Morgan Bailey.
“No team will be successful unless their coaching staff is united and connected. Kids feel that,” Wardenburg said. “Whatever Amber asks me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and I’ll support everybody on the staff. That’s what will help us win.”
Wardenburg’s vast experience should help the Cougars as they tackle this new challenge in the Big 12.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach on all three levels of the NCAA and I’ve coached juco and high school. My biggest strength to this staff is the fact that there’s very few things that I haven’t seen or experienced,” he said. “My biggest strength will be helping Amber prepare and be alert to nuances of the game that perhaps she hasn’t experienced before.
“I foresee that what I will bring to this staff is the preparation, the knowledge of what this coach does or that coach does that can make a difference in a basketball game.”
How will BYU fare in the Big 12?
Wardenburg said Whiting, her staff and her players did a “fantastic job” in her first campaign at the helm. The Cougars finished 16-17 and played a game in the WNIT.
“The biggest thing that drew me to this job was the fact that there is such a great base that was developed from the past year,” Wardenburg said.
He was impressed with the performances of several players, including forward Lauren Gustin, who earned WCC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. Gustin led the country in rebounding (16.5) and broke the league’s all-time single-game rebounding record with 27 against USF in the WCC tournament.
Gustin entered the transfer portal earlier this spring but decided to return to BYU.
Wardenburg is also looking forward to working with returning players like Nani Falatea, Emma Calvert, Arielle Mackey-Williams and Kaylee Smiler.
“They have a year under their belt,” he said. “They all bring great things that we can build on.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars are welcoming several highly touted recruits this season, including Whiting’s daughter, Amari; Oregon transfer Jennah Isai; Lone Peak star Kailey Woolston, the 6A Deseret News Player of the Year; and Ali’a Matavao, the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year.
“Amber and her staff have gone out and gotten some really high-level recruits, including her own daughter, Amari. If she hadn’t gotten hurt this year, she would have been playing in the Women’s McDonald’s All-American game,” Wardenburg said. “Any team would be happy to have those types of recruits with those accolades. The talent is there. We’ve got a chance to be deep and really surprise people with how good we’re going to be.”
While a learning curve is expected for BYU going into a new league, Wardenburg is confident that the women’s basketball team will be successful.
“I believe we’ll be competitive. Not only competitive, but win. Like everything, it’s about skill. You have to have girls that can play and we’re getting there. I think we’re pretty close,” he said. “Then it’s putting those kids together with the right culture and playing connected to each other and that’s our job as coaches. I believe that winning will come a lot sooner than perhaps people think. I believe that, truly.”
‘I don’t think that will be different’
While Wardenburg has spent his career coaching men’s teams, he’s been around women’s teams, too.
“We all play with a basketball and we have to pass and dribble and shoot and defend, whatever gender it is,” he said. “There are some nuances and I’m excited to be taught and to learn. One thing to me never changes — these ladies know that I love them and I want them to succeed on and off the floor. Just like I did with whatever player I’ve ever coached. I want them to be better than they thought they could be. I don’t think that will be different.”
In his second stint at BYU, this time as a women’s assistant basketball coach, Wardenburg is where he feels he belongs.
“I love this institution and what it stands for,” he said. “I’ve seen so many changes that have occurred in players that I coached here and in my own life coming to school here. I’m so excited to have a chance to be back here.”