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Meet the woman helping BYU build ‘the best locker room in America’

This BYU men’s basketball team, featuring seven married players, and two young children, is a tight-knit group that attends weddings, baby blessings, baptisms, missionary farewells and baby gender reveals together. Their lives are intertwined like the net on a basketball hoop. 

Lee Anne Pope, wife of BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, walks through the annex at BYU in Provo on Feb 26, 2020.
Lee Anne Pope, wife of BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, walks through the annex at BYU in Provo on Feb 26, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — To understand first-year BYU basketball coach Mark Pope when he talks about his quest to forge “the best locker room in America” — characterized by the players’ unity, selflessness and relentlessness — spend a few minutes with his wife, Lee Anne.

Sitting in the Marriott Center Annex one recent afternoon, Lee Anne Pope explained how she and her husband view this job as a “mom-and-pop shop.” As she talks about what’s happening behind the scenes in the program, it becomes clearer why the Cougars are currently ranked No. 15 in the country, riding a nine-game winning streak and standing on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. BYU plays in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals Monday night in Las Vegas.

Turns out, to the Popes, “the best locker room in America” is more than just a mantra. It’s all connected to what happens outside of the locker room.

This team, featuring seven married players and two young children, is a tight-knit group that supports each other and attends weddings, baby blessings, baptisms, missionary farewells and baby gender reveals, among other things, together. Their lives are intertwined like the net on a basketball hoop.

How does Lee Anne Pope describe her role as a coach’s wife?

“There are so many ways to do this and there’s not a right or wrong way. Mark and I look at it as a mom-and-pop shop. My job is to love these guys. It’s really easy,” Lee Anne said, tears filling her eyes. “It was really hard to leave Utah Valley (University). I love those players. It’s still hard for me. But as hard as that was, it’s been so easy to fall in love with these guys. It’s a basketball family.”

When it comes to their own family, Lee Anne and Mark have been blessed with four daughters. The oldest, Ella Pope, is a basketball player at Ohio University and since late January, she has been at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, a couple of full-court passes away from Mark’s office at The Annex. Ella is preparing to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ecuador. The Popes’ other three daughters are named Avery, Layla and Shay. Mark has long been a proud #GirlDad.

On the day he was introduced as the Cougars’ new coach last April, Mark highlighted Lee Anne’s role in the program.

“My No. 1 mentor, without a doubt, and there’s no close second, is Lee Anne Pope, my wife,” he said. “All of us get to walk this journey. She’s the smartest person I know, she’s the most beautiful person I know and she’s the funniest person I know. She’s going to be a gift to this university.”

Guard Jake Toolson transferred from BYU to UVU before returning to BYU for his senior year. He’s been around the Popes for at least five years. While he was redshirting at UVU, he and his wife, Sarah, babysat for the Popes so Lee Anne could travel to away games.

“She’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. She brings out the best in people. She really cares and it’s genuine,” Toolson said. “She’ll ask you questions and she’ll remember things. She’s very thoughtful and sweet.

“Being the wife of the head coach I’m sure is not easy. She’s just as invested in this as we are. For me and my family, she’s played a huge role. She’d do anything for Sarah and (son) Gus. She took Sarah out to dinner before Gus was born — just little thoughtful things like that, making us feel like we’re part of their family. She’s like the mom of the program and this really is a family.”

Former BYU star Travis Hansen calls Lee Anne Pope a “9.9 on the scale of a perfect coach’s wife.”

Lee Anne does a lot of little things that help the program, Mark Pope said.

“She’s so locked in with our guys. In some ways, she can see some things in them before I can see them. She sneaks into practice and watches from a distance,” he explained. “She’s really observant. She’s my best coach at being observant of the bench during a game. I get more feedback from her about our bench than I do from any of my coaches, which is understandable.

“She’s developed relationships with players that are married and their wives and their families. Sometimes that can be complicated, too. There’s an art to all that in managing that. She’s great at that. That makes teams win. In all those things, she plays a huge role. And my daughters do, too. It’s really important.”

Lee Anne Archibald Pope has an uncommon perspective on being a coach’s wife because she grew up a coach’s daughter. She draws upon those experiences.

“It is unique. It is different being the child of a coach than being the wife of a coach,” she said. “But my girls, in so many special ways, are living this unique life that I got to live.”

‘My dad made me a part of it’

Lee Anne Pope and her brothers, Damon and Beau, are the children of Anne and the late Lynn Archibald, who was the head coach at Idaho State (1977-82) and Utah (1983-1989) and an assistant at several schools, including his final job at BYU during the mid-1990s.

In December 1996, Lynn Archibald left the coaching staff with the Cougars to take a position as the school’s director of basketball operations. He was involved in the coaching search that resulted in the hiring of Steve Cleveland. That was two months before Lynn died at his Provo home of prostate cancer in May 1997. He was 51.

Being the child of a coach isn’t easy, with fans and media critiquing every move, but Lee Anne Pope embraced that peripatetic, unpredictable life.

“I don’t know any other life. We were so immersed in it. It was such a great way to grow up,” Lee Anne remembered. “I learned so much. We moved like crazy. Being the new kid over and over again, you learn things. You are sensitive to the new kids for the rest of your life. There are a lot of skills you learn when you’re uncomfortable all the time.

“I remember people yelling at my dad. It makes you tough. My dad got hired and fired and hired and fired again. It made us close. It was a great life. I think there are so many things that are special and fun and unique.”

Former Utah coach Lynn Archibald, center, talks with his players during a timeout.
Courtesy University of Utah

One of Lee Anne’s fondest memories is turning 16 and attending the NCAA Final Four with her dad. He would also take her on one recruiting trip a year, usually to Las Vegas. She’d sit by her dad’s side and she learned a lot by watching him evaluate talent. Lee Anne loved listening to conversations between coaches.

“There’s nothing more fun than sitting at a table with a bunch of coaches,” she said. “I learned very quick that if I didn’t say a word, I could hang for way too long.”

Lynn Archibald was an assistant under legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian at both Long Beach State and UNLV in the 1970s. The Archibalds would stay at Tarkanian’s home and Tarkanian’s daughter would take Lee Anne shopping. Lee Anne enjoyed being around the game — and being with her dad.

“I loved it. My dad made me a part of it. There are a lot of ways you could handle it and maybe not all daughters are as interested in it as I was,” she said. “It was a way to spend time together. We had quality time, maybe not quantity. Those daddy-daughter trips, I can just float through them.”

After winning the state high school volleyball championship as a senior, Lee Anne and her dad attended the Maui Invitational together when Lynn Archibald was an assistant at Arizona State.

“Just the two of us,” she said. “That’s where we had Thanksgiving. With him being gone, that’s where my mind goes when I think of my dad. Those were super special.”

Her brothers both played college basketball and followed their father’s footsteps and were college coaches, too. For the past decade, Lee Anne Pope has been immersed in the coaching world again.

Dunking on cancer

While Lynn Archibald died of cancer, Lee Anne Pope’s aunt passed away from the disease as well at the age of 60. Lee Anne calls her connection with cancer “super deep. Basketball, family and cancer. Cancer sucks.”

The Popes sit on the National Board of Coaches’ Wives vs. Cancer. In April, Lee Anne Pope will be speaking at the Final Four Coaches’ vs. Cancer Wives and Friends Brunch in Atlanta during this year’s Final Four. Former BYU coach Dave Rose’s wife, Cheryl, was instrumental in providing an opportunity for Lee Anne to speak. Dave Rose survived pancreatic cancer in 2009.

Lee Anne will share her dad’s story and how cancer has affected her family.

“I think coaches’ wives are really tough, resourceful and smart,” Lee Anne said. “If those ladies take this fight on, special things can happen.”

When Mark Pope was a Rose assistant from 2011-15, the Popes found themselves involved in the BYU basketball program’s long-standing fight against cancer, dating back to Cleveland’s tenure as the Cougars’ coach.

After Mark was hired as Rose’s successor, the Popes met with the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research.

The Popes jumped on board to help raise money for the center, which sends BYU students on fellowships to places like Harvard and the Mayo Clinic. “This is BYU’s swing at cancer,” Lee Anne said.

Before BYU’s upset of No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center on Feb. 22, Lee Anne and donors presented a check of more than $300,000 to the Simmons Center through a program called “Dunk on Cancer.” Donations were made for every slam dunk the Cougars had during the season.

Lee Anne Pope and donors present a check to BYU’s Simmons Center for Cancer Research before the BYU-Gonzaga game on Feb. 22.
Courtesy Pope family

“It ended up being about $15,000 a dunk. All the money goes to the students,” said Lee Anne, who noted that Yoeli Childs’ resounding dunk in the waning moments against the Zags not only sealed the victory and thrilled the sellout crowd, but “it was also $15,000 to fight cancer. It was awesome.”

While watching a loved one die of cancer is a painful experience, peaceful memories can be created along the way. When Lynn Archibald was dying, his players, like former Ute star Mitch Smith, visited him often.

“Mitch came every week and lay in the bed next to my dad to just talk,” Lee Anne said. “Players would fly in at different times to see my dad. (Former Ute star) Manny Hendrix still checks on my mom. Your dad’s players kind of feel like your big brothers and you love them so much. The relationship with the players is special. They used to come watch me play volleyball when I was in high school. All those connections are the best.”

BYU’s ‘secret weapon’

When Lee Anne talks to friends from all over the country about her experiences as a coach’s wife, they’ll point out how unusual it is for a college team to have so many married players. “You have seven players that are married?” they’ll ask. “Seven wives?”

“It’s our freakin’ secret weapon,” Lee Anne responds. She loves and appreciates those seven women.

TJ Haws’ wife, Lauren, a graphic designer, was nine months pregnant on Feb. 1, sitting at the Marriott Center hours before giving birth to the couple’s first child. Haws buried the game-winning 3-pointer that night. Dalton Nixon’s wife, Taylen, is a BYU volleyball player, and Childs’ wife, Megan, played volleyball at UVU. Jake and Sarah Toolson have their son, Gus. Zac and Katie Seljaas are expecting their first child. There’s also Jade (Jesse) Wade and Kaylee (Taylor) Maughan.

“I really love these girls and I’ll miss them. But thank goodness that they’re stuck with me forever,” Lee Anne said. “They’re all educated. They have their degrees. They are an extension of this team. The most important person in that arena to Yoeli is Megan. Sarah Toolson is Jake’s rock. These girls are calming and they are an anchor. I don’t know that Jake and Yoeli are here (at BYU) without Sarah and Megan. They are the next layer outside that locker room.”

In November, Lee Anne invited the players’ wives to her house to watch BYU’s dramatic win at Houston, where Haws hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer.

“When that shot went in, we were jumping around and screaming,” Lee Anne recalled.

Last month before the team’s San Francisco-Pacific road trip, one of Lee Anne’s best friends, Heather Petersen, died unexpectedly. A grieving Lee Anne received a steady stream of text messages from the players’ wives asking how they could help out — and then they did, including spending time with her daughters.

“It’s been such a joy to be a part of it. They’ve been so generous with me about wanting to create opportunities to be together,” Lee Anne said. “These wives are as exceptional as their husbands. And I think these players are exceptional in large part because of their wives.”

Just days ago, a future wife was added to the mix as sophomore guard Connor Harding got engaged to BYU women’s basketball player Paisley Johnson.

Lee Anne recalled that about a week after the Haws’ baby was born, TJ attended Zac and Katie Seljaas’ gender reveal party.

“When it was over, he grabbed a cookie for Lauren and headed back home. That is awesome. These wives are the core of the locker room,” she said. “You take each of those boys. The one person that matters to them more than anything is their wives. They are supported and they are so important in this process. You can’t ignore that. The next layer is their parents. It is an exceptional experience here.”

When Lee Anne’s friends learn about the wives of those seven players, they say, “You’re really lucky.”

‘The male version of you’

As a BYU student, Lee Anne served an internship at ESPN. Later, she graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. Petersen worked for the “Late Show with David Letterman” in New York City and helped Lee Anne get an interview. Lee Anne was hired and worked as Letterman’s personal assistant for four years.

“One of the best things about working at Letterman, which was so awesome, I was totally removed from sports for the first time in my life,” she said. “I was so busy. I realized there are a lot of people who don’t care about every basket.”

Lee Anne’s brother, Damon Archibald, became acquainted with Mark Pope at a basketball camp and helped Mark and Lee Anne connect. For weeks, the two only communicated by phone and e-mail before they actually met in person in Indiana, where Mark, who helped Kentucky win the 1996 national championship as a player, was playing for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.

“When my brother met Mark, he was like, ‘I just met the male version of you,’” Lee Anne said, laughing. “He’s you, but he’s a dude. And he’s going to call you for ‘Letterman’ tickets.’”

The Popes were married in August 1999, nearly 21 years ago. Mark finished his playing career in 2005 and then attended the University of Columbia School of Physicians for three years before opting to get back into basketball in 2009. He started out as an assistant of basketball operations at Georgia under coach Mark Fox.

Who quits medical school to take a job like that?

“At that point, he wasn’t even a coach. We made that decision together. My dad got hired and fired. I’ve seen all of the ugly parts of this. I’m fully aware. There’s nothing fun about that,” Lee Anne said. “I still have the list of pros and cons on my phone. We’ve made those decisions together and we’ve made it work together. I chose this, too. Probably with eyes more wide open than Mark.”

When they met, Lee Anne didn’t necessarily see an aspiring coach in Mark Pope.

“He wasn’t that interested in coaching. I didn’t see him as a coach or not as a coach. But when you think about the qualities, 100% I could see it. He’s a leader,” she said. “He would have been a great doctor. He didn’t know that he wanted to do that for the next 25 years. He was always 10 steps ahead. The fact that there hasn’t been a moment since we got back into basketball, not even a milli-second of would of, could of, should of with medicine. He would have been great. But coaching is what he was meant to do.”

The coaching profession has been gratifying for both Mark and Lee Anne, in large part because of their attitude about it.

“It’s always been about the boys. If it’s always about them, it’s meaningful and there’s depth to it. Otherwise, it could not be,” she said. “If it’s about other things, it’s fleeting. If it’s about the boys, it will always be meaningful. I believe that with my whole heart. And we’re going to have fun.”

Lee Anne credits the many mentors she’s had to help her navigate being a coach’s wife, including Cheryl Rose, Cindy Fox, Lois Tarkanian and Nina Bzdelik. And Patti Edwards, the widow of legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards. After the Cougars’ huge win over Gonzaga, Patti Edwards sent a text to Lee Anne that read, “Enjoy the now.”

Mark Pope leans heavily on Lee Anne for advice and support.

“First and foremost, she’s my No. 1 counselor. She doesn’t get into a lot of schematics, although she does get mad at me after games, like every fan does. ‘Why did you do that? What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you play him more? Why did you sit in a zone?’ She’s tough.

“I’ve been really blessed in this game and I’ve been really fortunate as a coach. A lot of that has to do with that Lee Anne knows this game and the business and she loves these players deeply. She understands the ridiculous sacrifices that we make. My teams and the success my players have had so far and the progress we’ve made so far, it just doesn’t happen without her. She’s such a key player in this deal.”

For Lee Anne, it’s all about enjoying this ride with her husband and daughters.

“There are so many ups and downs that we really do celebrate the highs and do our best not to have this change who we are. I adore Mark. I’d follow that man to the moon,” she said. “We balance each other out. It just works. My girls would never know if we won or lost after a game. He comes home and he’s dad. We’re like any other couple. Sometimes there are quiet car drives home — and that’s OK.”

Back at BYU

Mark Pope is in his first season as BYU’s head coach but he and Lee Anne already had close bonds with most of the roster, which features a bunch of returned missionaries, that he inherited last spring because he had spent four years as an assistant here.

She remembers being on the BYU recruiting visits with Haws, Toolson, Nixon and Seljaas when those players were in high school. On top of that, Lee Anne’s dad tried to recruit Marty Haws, TJ’s dad, to Utah. Lynn Archibald coached against Nixon’s dad, Kevin. Dalton Nixon’s mom, Stephanie, coached Ella Pope.

Everything converged on Senior Night, when BYU knocked off Gonzaga. Before the game, the seniors and their wives and their parents were honored on the court in an emotional ceremony. Mark and Lee Anne Pope hugged them all.

The toughest part about that night’s epic win for the Popes was that Ella couldn’t be with them to celebrate the moment because she’s at the MTC.

“That night was the first time we’ve had a really special event and she wasn’t there. Mark was like, ‘Should we go break her out?’” Lee Anne said, laughing. “I had thought about it 10 times. And to hear Ella say, ‘There’s no place I’d rather be than the MTC — except at the game Saturday night for two hours.’”

Lee Anne smiles talking about all of the BYU fans that attended that win over the Zags, went home, watched the replay of the game and then went to church the next morning, which is what the Popes did, too.

“You think about all those connections. BYU is so much bigger than any coach or player. It’s a special place. It means so much to so many people,” she said. “We get a chance for however long to take a swing at this. They will get our whole heart and soul as long as we’re here. We don’t know any other way to do that. It’s pretty awesome and humbling.”

On top of his BYU basketball job, Mark Pope is serving in a Latter-day Saint ward bishopric, which includes making late-night visits to ward members to extend callings.

“We feel really blessed to serve this ward,” Lee Anne said.

The Popes loved working with the Roses when Mark was a BYU assistant and they loved their experience at UVU, too.

When the opportunity presented itself to return to BYU, the decision to return wasn’t automatic, contrary to what many might believe. The same day that Dave Rose announced his retirement, on March 26, Mark was interviewing at another school and was offered the job.

BYU President Kevin J Worthen talks with new men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope and his wife Lee Anne after a press conference at the BYU Broadcast building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
BYU President Kevin J Worthen talks with new men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope and his wife Lee Anne after a press conference at the BYU Broadcast building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“When that retirement was happening, as surprised as I was, I thought our ship had already sailed,” Lee Anne said. “As things evolved, we ended up not taking that job. We were really happy at Utah Valley. We weren’t leaving there. This was going to be the year at Utah Valley. We worked so hard. They got our whole heart and soul, too. We weren’t going to willingly leave. Someone had to come get us.

“We’re really lucky. I know that better than anyone. My dad coached for 30 years and he was never ranked as high (as BYU is ranked now). We had great moments at Utah. Not everyone gets to do this. We’re super fortunate and very aware. I think the reason why it all fell the way it did was because it was supposed to be. We’re really glad that this has happened.”

When it comes to being a coach’s wife at BYU, Lee Anne understands that it’s not just about the games. It’s about the relationships. Husbands and wives. Coaches’ wives. Coaches and players. Players and their wives. Coach’s wife and players’ wives. Fathers and daughters. Players and daughters. Wives and daughters. It never ends.

“How lucky am I that my girls get to have these boys as a big brother-esque feel and then they get these wives?” Lee Anne Pope said.

While Mark Pope is working to build “the best locker room in America,” Lee Anne is doing what she can outside the locker room of their “mom-and-pop shop” to help that come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of special occasions we’ve been through together. She and coach Pope came to my wedding. They were there when my son was born,” Toolson said. “We were there when Shay got baptized and for Ella’s farewell. All these milestones in life that we’re going through, we’ve been able to do them together. We support them and they support us. It really is like a family.”