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How to lead: BYU’s Mark Pope on calling the shots

How relentlessness came to define the basketball coach’s life

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope looks at the BYU student section after defeating the Utah State Aggies 68-64 in the Beehive Classic at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope looks at the BYU student section after defeating the Utah State Aggies 68-64 in the Beehive Classic at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Mark Pope loves the word relentless. He recruits “relentlessly.” He scouts relentlessly. And during his six seasons in the NBA, the BYU men’s basketball coach hustled relentlessly as the self-titled “worst NBA player ever.” But his dedication to the concept started as a child, with his parents.

They drilled it into him, and later on, it became central to a career that from the outside might look like an unqualified success, but to Pope, has been just as marked by failure. It’s in those moments, those disappointments and setbacks common to everyone, that Pope turns to the relentlessness he’s cultivated since childhood.

Darin Warren, for Deseret Magazine

His dad, Don, was “relentlessly honest,” Pope said. And his mom, Linda, relentlessly chased big ideas. Like in sixth grade, when Pope needed to design his own country for a school project. He started with simple pencil sketches, but that wasn’t enough for his mom, a perfectionist. She knew he could do better. And so Linda brought in Play-Doh to build a three-dimensional map and paint to color-code the regions, and they planted a handful of miniature flags. He doesn’t remember what he named the country — “I’m sure it was something ridiculous,” he said — but he does remember he had to turn it sideways to fit it through the classroom door and lost a couple of the flags along the way. “Which was, like, 10 times more than what the assignment was supposed to be,” Pope said, with a laugh. “My mom was never satisfied with a status-quo product.” Every assignment, in Linda’s eyes, could be made rewarding by doing more. By doing extra. By making it special. By being relentless in the pursuit of excellence.

Pope applied the same attitude to basketball, and by the time he was a senior at Newport High School in Bellevue, Washington, he was a nationally sought-after recruit. He decided to stay close to home and in 1991 committed to the Washington Huskies and coach Lynn Nance as a 6-foot-10, first-team all-state center — a “huge recruiting ‘get’” for the program, per the Seattle Times. Pope wanted to elevate the Huskies to national prominence, and the stories about how he went about it are legion and legend — well beyond the cliche about starting early and leaving late.

In the summer before Pope’s freshman year, teammate and roommate Scott Didrickson recalls, an assistant coach concocted a conditioning scheme that involved running 3 miles while holding bricks. While most of the team discussed how to hollow out the bricks, Pope showed up with patio pavers, much heavier than standard bricks. Nance once told Pope he needed to improve his leg strength and should spend more time on a bike. Rather than opting for a stationary bike, he bought a road bike and started riding it between his Bellevue home and the University of Washington campus — between 15 and 20 miles per day. “He was, and still is to this day, the hardest-working basketball player I have ever been around,” Didrickson said.

In his first season, Pope started every game and was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year by setting a Washington freshman record with 8.1 rebounds (perhaps the most relentless statistic) per game — a record that still stands. But Washington finished with a disappointing 12-17 record. The next year, after the Huskies underwhelmed yet again with a 13-14 mark, Nance resigned.

Pope blamed himself. He was supposed to carry the team, he thought, and despite practicing harder, hustling harder, lifting harder than anyone could’ve reasonably expected, he couldn’t save the program or his coach. He’d failed before, but this was one of his first “big failures” on his path toward a self-bestowed “Ph.D. in failing.” “What he views as failure most of us wouldn’t,” Didrickson said. But the Washington years still burden Pope even now; he calls it an “epic failure” where he “just wasn’t good enough to save his coach’s job.” But in failure, he found perspective: Setbacks are momentary, he realized. They only define you if you dwell on them.

So in search of a fresh start, he transferred to Rick Pitino’s Kentucky in 1993 and, after sitting out for a year because of NCAA transfer rules, suited up for the 1994-95 season. As an off-the-bench center, he averaged about 20 minutes per game in his two seasons in Lexington as UK’s sixth man, supporting Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Tony Delk and future NBA All-Star Antoine Walker, among others. Named a team captain his senior year, Pope and the Wildcats won a national title in 1996.

Sure, it helped that he was 6-10, but he wasn’t the fastest or the highest jumper. He was, though, the most dedicated. One time, after gobbling up some delicious Memphis barbecue the night before a game, Pope threw up on his shirt at practice and kept playing — without protest from his teammates. “Nobody missed a beat,” former teammate Jeff Sheppard said via text. “It was just another day with Mark Pope.” Another time, Sheppard remembered, Pitino told Pope he needed to put on a few pounds of muscle. Pope pounded protein shakes and ate an absurd amount of food throughout his entire redshirt year. “Coach was killing me!” Pope texted. But in the summer before his redshirt junior season, Pitino reversed course. Pope needed to lose weight, Pitino told him, because he was too slow. Pope was disappointed but not deterred. “His next meal,” Sheppard said, “he was eatin’ a salad.” Another time, he injured his knee during a game and continued hustling up and down the court, forcing Pitino to remove him.

“He played through fatigue and injury and illness better than anyone I’ve ever been around,” Sheppard said.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope yells after referees charged BYU with a blocking foul rather than charge Gonzaga with a charging foul at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

However hard he worked, though, he knew he just didn’t have the natural talent to star at the highest level. He often thought about Pitino during his six seasons in the league. “He just — was never off,” Pope recalls. Pitino always found new ways to test his players’ limits, to the point where on occasion, Pope and his teammates felt something close to hatred for the man he’s affectionately labeled “a tyrant.” When it felt like practices and meetings couldn’t get more difficult, Pitino found a way; he always found a way. Like after Kentucky lost in the 1995 Elite 8. Pitino re-watched the game with the team twice that night, personally crushing players along the way. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Pope recalled in 2019. The next morning, Pitino scheduled individual meetings to crush them some more — a necessary evil, Pope realized in hindsight, to trample any sense of entitlement among the blue-blood high-achievers who end up at UK. “He was so brutal to us that the only option we had was to turn to each other to try and survive him,” Pope said. “And I’m telling you, it wasn’t by mistake. It was genius.”

Pope applied that wisdom to his career. The lesson wasn’t relentless brutality, but relentlessness in general. After he became one of four UK players chosen in the 1996 NBA draft (he was last among them, at 52nd overall), he realized many fringe players like himself didn’t have the mental and physical stamina to last in an NBA training camp. Some might be better pure players, with more athleticism and better jump shots, but they wouldn’t be able to battle every single day for six weeks. Using what he learned from his parents and Pitino, Pope could outlast them, even if he couldn’t outplay them.

“He literally worked harder than anybody else,” Didrickson said.

He lasted just two seasons with all three NBA teams he played for between 1997 and 2005. And after each stop, he moved on quickly in search of new opportunities. Failure and relentlessness became his yin and yang. “Sports is failure,” he said. “If you’re an athlete, you know failure, and you know it really well.”

Knowing his time in the NBA would likely be short, he planned for a backup career. He considered many options, but despite studying English in college, he chose medicine. To catch up to other aspiring doctors, he took science classes at the universities closest to his NBA employers, and he studied on team flights. When his playing career ended in 2005, his efforts paid off with excellent grades and a high MCAT score, and he landed interviews with Columbia, Yale, NYU and Harvard. He spent three years at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons before dropping out to coach basketball.

Pitino, among many others, questioned his judgment. Why, they all wondered, would Pope give up his spot at one of the world’s most prestigious medical schools to pursue something as unpredictable as coaching basketball? The truth was, he’d always had doubts about a career in medicine. School kept him away from his family more than basketball ever did (he and his wife Lee Anne have four daughters), and though he stayed relentless, he couldn’t ignore the brilliance of his classmates and feared he couldn’t compare. So he started working his basketball rolodex and in 2009 found a spot under Mark Fox in his first year at the University of Georgia — not as an assistant coach, but as the director of basketball operations. He spent one season there (2009-10), then one season as an assistant coach at Wake Forest (2010-11) before joining Dave Rose’s staff in Provo.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope yells at his team during the second half of an NCAA basketball game in the Beehive Classic at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. BYU defeated Utah State 68-64 in regulation.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

In 2015, six years after deciding to coach, he took over the Utah Valley program. He inherited a team that’d gone 11-19 the year before and led it to a 12-18 record in year one. In year four, the Wolverines went 25-10, good for second in the Western Athletic Conference regular-season standings, and lost by just four points in the conference tournament’s semifinal; if they had won the tournament, they’d have made the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament. Utah Valley is no basketball powerhouse, though, and that kind of success required relentless creativity. He once, back in 2016, visited four recruits, from Provo to Twin Falls, Idaho, in a Winnebago covered in Wolverines stickers and flags and banners. All in under 24 hours, just before the beginning of a recruiting “dead period.” “He wanted to do something no one else was doing,” assistant coach Chris Burgess remembered. It worked; three of the four signed with UVU. “We were just trying to be as creative and fun and crazy as we could be to leave an impression.”

His success brought him back to BYU in 2019 after Rose retired. He already had the Cougars — and the larger basketball world — buzzing. For the first time since Jimmer Fredette was named the consensus national college player of the year in 2011, BYU was nationally relevant; they’d blown out No. 2 Gonzaga at the sold-out Marriott Center, and multiple pundits had declared them a dark horse Final Four team, led by seniors Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson and TJ Haws. Then COVID-19 happened.

Seated in BYU’s film room on Thursday afternoon, March 12, 2020, Pope told his players their season was over. He had no encouraging words or cliches. Nothing could ease their grief, he knew. So he turned to what he knows best. “The day of or the next day, he was already talking about recruiting and about the next season and about how to get better,” Toolson remembers. “He’s just like, ‘There’s work to be done.’”

Entering the 2020-21 season, Toolson and his standout classmates are gone. But there’s some reason for optimism. Starters Alex Barcello and Kolby Lee are back, and BYU outflanked Kentucky, Arizona, Gonzaga and others for the services of 7-foot-3 Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms; Haarms was one of the top graduate transfers available, and BYU’s recruiting win cemented its position as a team of consequence.

And if it doesn’t work out, if Pope fails to build on last season’s success, history says that within hours — not days or months — of the final buzzer, he’ll be looking toward next season, toward new opportunities, and toward attacking them relentlessly.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.