PROVO — At his introductory press conference on April 10, new BYU basketball coach Mark Pope joked, “Some might say that it’s harder to gain top-secret security clearance to the CIA than to become the BYU basketball coach.”

At least it seemed like he was joking.

BYU is distinct from other universities around the country. It’s ranked best in the nation for its return on investment to graduates and promotes a values-based campus life where students abide by an honor code promoting student responsibility for academic and personal growth. So it should come as little surprise that how BYU conducts searches for head coaches is distinct — peculiar? — too.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago, who is the administrator over men’s basketball, were both heavily involved in the hiring of Pope, who is readying his team for his inaugural season. It’s been nearly four years since Holmoe hired Kalani Sitake to lead the football program.

For any athletic director, there may be no bigger decision than hiring a new head football coach or head basketball coach. The job security and legacy of athletic directors are intertwined with these choices.

But at BYU, the hiring process is different than at other schools.

“The process at BYU is a process that’s pretty consistent from sport to sport,” Holmoe said on the day Pope was hired last spring. “I’m very familiar with it and so is Brian. We pretty much knew the boundaries and pushed them to the limits.”

Head coaches for all sports at BYU must be active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a practice that Holmoe reconfirmed the day Pope was hired. That protocol automatically limits the pool of potential candidates, and that’s one reason why BYU, unlike many schools, doesn’t use a search firm to find a new coach.

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“I know a lot of the guys that run search firms. They call every time and go, ‘Hey, do you want us to help?’” said Holmoe, who has been BYU’s athletic director since 2005. “I’m like, ‘I know the two guys or the five guys or the seven women. I know who they are.’”

During the process of finding former BYU basketball coach Dave Rose’s replacement, Holmoe said, he and Santiago talked to a number of former BYU players, like Danny Ainge — general manager and president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics — and former BYU coaches.

“We felt it would be really important to go talk to them and see what was in their heart and in the mind about BYU and college basketball and recruiting and player development — all the things that are important characteristics that we were looking for in a coach,” Holmoe said. “We had a great experience. There’s a great basketball legacy at BYU. We had some great resources.”

Holmoe said they interviewed several candidates “who wanted this job bad. It’s such a great feeling to be able to still feel the enthusiasm and excitement of BYU basketball. When all was said and done, it all pointed to Mark Pope as our next basketball coach.”

Of course, talking to candidates seeking opinions from bright, battle-tested minds during the search process is similar to anywhere else.

But at BYU, there are other requirements.

“Hiring a coach at BYU is somewhat like it is elsewhere, and yet it’s very unique in its own regard. The unique part about BYU’s hiring process is the interview that has to be conducted with a (church) general authority,” said Val Hale, who served as athletic director from 1999 to 2004 and is currently the executive director of the Utah governor’s office of economic development. “All coaches who are ultimately hired have to be interviewed by a general authority and one of the academic administrators at the university. There are multiple layers that probably don’t take place at other institutions. But then again, other institutions probably have more politics at play with boosters.”

To understand the intricacies of the process better, the Deseret News interviewed Holmoe’s predecessors — Glen Tuckett (1976-1993), Rondo Fehlberg (1995-1999) and Hale.

Tuckett, who oversaw the BYU athletic department during a period highlighted by a football national championship and a Heisman Trophy winner, points out how much things have changed at BYU over the decades. Coaches, including LaVell Edwards, operated on one-year contracts, and coaches didn’t have agents like they do now.

After his tenure at BYU, Tuckett was hired for one year, from 1995 to 1996, as the athletic director at Alabama as the school dealt with NCAA sanctions.

“When I was at BYU, the contract(s) for the coaches were about two-thirds of a page,” he recalled. “When I got to Alabama, it was 17 legal-sized pages.”

In 1997, Fehlberg was tasked with the responsibility of replacing Roger Reid, who was let go during what became the worst season ever for BYU basketball, a 1-25 campaign. That search ended with the hiring of Steve Cleveland, who returned the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament four years later. One of his assistants was Dave Rose, who later replaced Cleveland.

In 2000, Hale had to find someone to follow in the formidable footsteps of legendary football coach LaVell Edwards.

“Trying to hire somebody to replace LaVell Edwards, as you can imagine, was probably the most important thing I did as athletic director and would do as athletic director, no matter how long I would end up serving,” said Hale, who ultimately hired Gary Crowton. “It was a monumental decision that had to be made.”

Sometimes various extenuating factors that the public doesn’t understand play into the hiring of a head coach. One of the candidates to replace Edwards was former Cougar offensive lineman Andy Reid, who reportedly was interested in the BYU job but was in his second year as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“It has to match up with what their goals are. Timing is everything in some of these situations. There are probably great candidates that would love to be a coach at BYU, but for them, the timing doesn’t work,” Hale explained. “It just doesn’t match up with where they are in their life. That’s natural and to be expected. People shouldn’t be upset that they choose to do something else. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it and there’s a little bit of luck involved. Part of that luck is timing.”

Vetting candidates

Identifying a new head coach for a high-profile sport doesn’t begin when the previous coach leaves.

When Fehlberg was hired, he knew that Edwards’ career was nearing its end. He assumed he would be the one hiring Edwards’ replacement. Fehlberg had a list of potential replacements, including Holmoe, who at the time was an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers in the mid-1990s.

As part of his fact-finding mission, Fehlberg spent a weekend with Holmoe and his family, which included attending church with them, going to practice and standing on the sidelines for a Monday Night Football game.

“Tom made it clear to me that his ultimate goal was athletic administration after coaching. We had agreed that if we hired him as our coach, I would give him a five-year contract initially,” Fehlberg said. “At the end of that five-year contract, we’d give him the right to come onto my staff as senior associate athletic director to become an athletic director at a major program. It turned out a little different from that. But he’s right where he had hoped to be.”

Holmoe later became the head coach at Cal from 1997 to 2001 before arriving at BYU in 2002 as associate athletic director. He landed BYU’s athletic director job in 2005.

In 1997, Fehlberg hired Cleveland to take over the basketball program, and his righthand man at that time during the process was Pete Witbeck, who helped conduct the vetting of candidates.

“You have that list of candidates. Tom will know at any given time who our possible candidates are,” Fehlberg said. “There will be a half-dozen names that he’ll have all of the time. I assume it’s Brian or someone on his staff that keep track of that. Anything can happen at any time. When the time comes to replace a coach, it’s not like you suddenly rush around and find out who the candidates are. You already know who they are. You know all of them and their situations. That’s our job to know that.”

“It’s one of the most important things that an athletic director does — hire and fire coaches,” Hale said. “Certainly it’s the most visible. Every athletic director needs to constantly be looking for talent. You never know when your head coach is going to walk out that door for whatever reason. You’d better have at least a short list of people to fill that role.”

Said Holmoe, “We have a succession list for all the sports. Some are more serious than others. When I say serious, I could put down any name and it doesn’t mean anything. There are people that reach out occasionally. One of the best soccer coaches in the world (Anson Dorrance) is at North Carolina and won national championships. (Current BYU women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood) is not going anywhere. She’s been the one and only coach we’ve had. That’s just an example of someone who’s out there that’s a coach.”

BYU administrators knew a lot about Pope because Pope spent four seasons as a Rose assistant from 2011 to 2015. But after Rose retired on March 26, Pope’s first meeting with Holmoe and Santiago took place on the floor of the Marriott Center.

Pope said he spent anywhere from 12 to 14 hours with Santiago discussing the job. “We had a bunch of late-night rendezvous and kind of exploring,” Pope said, in addition to meetings with BYU President Kevin J Worthen and Advancement Vice President Matthew Richardson before meeting with a general authority in Salt Lake City.

During that process, Holmoe and Santiago interviewed a number of other candidates, including then-Los Angeles Lakers assistant Mark Madsen, who ended up being hired as the head coach at Utah Valley University after Pope left for BYU.

Coach as ambassador

While all head coaches at BYU need to be Latter-day Saints, assistant coaches do not have to be members of the church.

In the past, BYU hired nonmembers of the church as coaches for Olympic sports. The only time BYU has had a nonmember lead one of the two biggest sports was from 1956 to 1958, when Hal Kopp was the head coach of the football program, according to Tuckett.

“Having someone who understands the dynamic of the church and why the university provides a certain image, that’s really important,” Hale said. “I’m not sure someone who is not a member of the church would be able to understand all of the nuances of BYU and what it means for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

That said, Hale didn’t consider being limited to Latter-day Saint candidates a restriction.

“I didn’t view it as a hindrance at all. It did narrow the focus. BYU has had coaches who are non-Latter-day Saints in the past. Now, where the university is, it’s pretty obvious that if you’re going to be the head coach of a major sport, you are an ambassador for not only the university and the sports program, but also the church,” he said. “It makes sense that person should be an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the time that we were looking to replace LaVell, there were good candidates with coaching experience, including those on the staff at that time. I didn’t view that as a hindrance at all.”

BYU coaches must manage not just the responsibility of leading a team but also representing the church.

Not long after Bronco Mendenhall was hired as BYU’s football coach prior to the 2005 season, he was criticized for quoting from the faith’s scriptures, the Book of Mormon, in a press conference. Mendenhall later said he didn’t intend a religious connection between a prophet in the book creating an inspiring banner called the “Title of Liberty” and BYU’s uniform style and logos — but many took it that way.

In 2016, after Sitake was hired, running back Jamaal Williams, who is not a Latter-day Saint, was asked about Sitake’s coaching style.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m not here to be your elder or your bishop or none of that. I’m here to be your football coach,’” Williams, now with the Green Bay Packers, said of that first team meeting. “After he said that, I was sold.”

Who makes the decision?

How much autonomy does the BYU athletic director have when it comes to making hires?

In 2015, after Mendenhall left the football program for Virginia, Holmoe was asked who would ultimately make the decision on Mendenhall’s replacement. Holmoe said the buck stopped with him.

But, of course, that decision must be ratified by the school’s Board of Education and Board of Trustees, which includes members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church.

“It is Tom’s decision. When I was there, it was my decision,” Fehlberg said.

Going ‘undercover’

The hiring of a new coach produces a high level of interest and intense scrutiny from those in the media and the public. It’s not easy interviewing and meeting with candidates while trying to keep everything under wraps.

It wasn’t easy 20 years ago, when social media didn’t exist.

“The challenge was to go through the process and keep it out of the spotlight, the public eye,” Hale said.

News of a BYU booster’s private plane picking up Gary Crowton — who was then coaching with the Chicago Bears and ultimately became Edwards’ successor — broke when the booster’s dad casually mentioned what was going to happen in a church meeting.

“It spread like wildfire. We were determined to keep it quiet and we almost succeeded,” Hale said. “When we brought Gary to church headquarters to interview with a general authority, we went into the basement and people would look at me and then look at him and smile. I’m thinking, ‘Don’t say anything to anybody.’ It was kind of humorous trying to go incognito. We should have had fake beards and sunglasses.”

Unsolicited input

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When Fehlberg was searching for a new basketball coach, there was no shortage of unsolicited input from just about everyone, including fans, boosters and former players.

“It’s a little bit of an exaggeration when I say that to a certain extent, just about anybody that cares deeply about BYU athletics and how well our teams do and pays a full tithing feels like they have a voice,” he said. “I’ve not been an athletic director at other universities, so I can’t say ours is completely different. I’m sure at other universities people feel also entitled to input, particularly if they are financial contributors to the university.

“I got advice and opinions from everywhere,” Hale said. “It was very difficult to go out in public because people wanted to talk about it at all times — at church, walking down the street in the neighborhood. That’s what everybody was interested in. Everyone had their opinions and thoughts and ideas. Not just about who to hire as a new coach, but about everything. We used to have a saying among athletic directors, that every American knows how to do two things — boil water and run an athletic department.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com TWITTER: AJeffreyCall

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