PROVO — Ask BYU basketball coach Mark Pope about his assessment of his first season at the helm and he doesn’t mention his team’s record, national ranking, heartbreaking losses or memorable wins.
All he talks about is his players.
“It always starts with them and their individual journeys. I guess that’s the way I think about the season — tracing each of these individual’s lives through the course of it,” Pope said. “That’s the beauty of watching these young men perform. They took all of us on this incredible ride and we all got to bear witness to it and we all got to enjoy it and celebrate it with these guys.
“They sucked us in because you could see them sacrificing for each other and then the magic that ensued,” he continued. “Cougar Nation was so invested in what was going on and it grew throughout the season. It will always be a hallmark of that team last year, and it was super fun for all of us to experience, how this community rallies when they appreciate the effort and the passion on the floor. It was cool to see.”
That focus on his players explains how Pope — who led the Cougars to a 24-8 record, a No. 18 ranking in the final Associated Press poll and a No. 13 final rating by Kenpom.com in a season that saw a coveted berth in the NCAA Tournament wiped out by the global pandemic — achieved success in his first season. It’s not surprising, because he is known for the close relationships he establishes with his players and his ability to communicate with them.
“He’s charismatic. When he talks to the guys, he motivates everyone. As soon as he’s done speaking, everyone wants to get shots up for five hours,” said center Richard Harward, who redshirted last season after transferring from Utah Valley University. “He has a vision and he’s really good at conveying that vision to the team and getting everyone to buy in. That’s his biggest attribute. That’s part of the reason why he’s done so well in recruiting. He’s able to show guys his vision and how it’s possible. That’s my favorite thing about him.”
Sure, Pope had seven seniors to work with last season. But put that into context. From his predecessor, Dave Rose, he inherited five seniors, including a pair of walk-ons, but Pope managed to re-recruit Yoeli Childs back to the program after he had declared for the NBA draft. And he signed Jake Toolson, who played for him at Utah Valley and had transferred to UVU from BYU in 2016. He also added Arizona transfer Alex Barcello.
“He does a really good job of finding guys that have something to prove, guys that have a chip on their shoulders. He can help motivate and also convince guys that playing as a team is what helps you win,” Harward said. “I remember he always says, ‘You can score 40 points a night but your team loses every game, nobody cares. If you only score 10-15 points a game but your team wins, people will care. You’ll be noticed and you’ll be able to play professionally if you want to.’ What matters is winning.”
The experience and unselfishness of Childs, Toolson, TJ Haws, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon, Barcello and others, amid a season filled with adversity — “It was not short on drama. As crazy as it might sound, I think it’s a good thing,” Pope said — produced better-than-expected results, like a second-place finish in the West Coast Conference standings and a late-season 91-78 victory over No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center. The Cougars also led the nation in 3-point shooting.
“It was an unbelievable experience for us in our first year to do the best we could to help these players grow and accomplish what they wanted to accomplish,” Pope said. “Also I think we’ve really grown in our sense of what BYU is and what hopefully we can strive to help it become. It’s been awesome. It’s been an unbelievable learning experience for us, for sure.”
A man named Pope has been the right man to lead BYU hoops.
In the spring, Pope shocked the nation by signing Purdue’s 7-foot-3 grad transfer, Matt Haarms — beating out his alma mater, Kentucky, among others.
“The No. 1 impact player in terms of the fifth-year transfer is gonna be the big guy,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said on Twitter in May. “The seven-three guy at BYU. He broke the hearts of people in Big Blue Nation (Kentucky fans) when he decided to go play at BYU. Now, BYU with him, I really believe is gonna be a threat for national ratings and watch out Gonzaga, even though the Zags are my No. 1 preseason pick, watch out for Matt Haarms and BYU.”
Yes, a lot of people around the country are noticing what Pope is building in Provo.
“No one can say they had a better first season with their school than BYU’s Pope. He tops the list,” CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander has said. “Have you seen what Mark Pope’s already been able to accomplish as a head coach? Let’s quickly look back at his four seasons at Utah Valley. He went from 12 wins to 17 to 23 to 25. UVU has been Division I since 2004 and Pope is responsible for its two best seasons in that timespan.
“At BYU last season — his inaugural one — he went 24-8 and was probably going to get the Cougars to a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, their best landing in the NCAA Tournament since Jimmer Fredette’s senior season. … Given how good Pope’s performed in his first five seasons as a coach, it would not shock me if the next five seasons don’t just include a tenure with BYU. Perhaps the Pac-12 will wind up luring him in before long.”
Speaking of Jimmer, Pope’s impact has captured the minds and hearts of Cougar Nation. The student newspaper, The Daily Universe, recently declared Pope as “the best thing to happen to BYU basketball since Jimmer Fredette.”
While the Pope Hype Train is moving full steam ahead, he’s never won an NCAA Tournament game as a head coach. He hasn’t even been a head coach for an NCAA Tournament game.
Still, Pope’s plan isn’t to just get to the tournament or just win one game — but to advance deep into the tournament. For all of BYU’s success for decades, the program holds a dubious distinction — the record for most NCAA Tournament appearances (29) without reaching the Final Four. The Cougars haven’t played in the Big Dance since 2015.
“My deal is, think about what you think we can’t do as a program. Think about it, let me know. And that’s what we’re going to go do and get done,” said Pope at his introductory press conference in April, 2019. “I don’t really deal in realistic expectations. I don’t believe in them. Why be realistic?”
Forward Wyatt Lowell, who also played for Pope at UVU, said his coach helps instill a relentless attitude and the idea that anything is possible in his players. Pope won a national championship as a player at Kentucky and went on to an eight-year professional career, including stints with Indiana, Milwaukee, New York and Denver of the NBA.
“He’s done what he’s asking us to do and what he’s expecting because he had a very successful college career and he played in the NBA for multiple years. He’s done it so he knows what to ask of us,” he said. “The other thing is, if you want to be that successful, you have to be a little crazy and want it that bad. That’s something I’ve learned from him. He has that competitive drive to want to be the best and to want to be a winner. He’s done it, and he still wants it and he understands how we have to get it.”
Childs credits Pope for helping him improve as a senior and prepare for the NBA.
“I’ve always been super competitive, but coach Pope really showed me what it means to be a pro. He made like seven different teams out of training camp. I don’t know if anyone has ever done that,” he said. “He’s taught me the mentality it takes, what you have to bring to practice every single day, what you have to bring to training camp every single day and how hard you have to work.
“He also showed me different ways of leadership and how to communicate with different personality types. The mental edge that I’ve gained in this last year has been unbelievable. You can’t really measure it.”
Pope’s energy, optimism, passion, sense of humor and self-deprecating persona endeared himself to fans. He’s an entertainer and a communicator. He’s injected a jolt of electricity into a program that had turned somewhat stale.
Last October, at the end of Midnight Madness, he whipped the 2,000-plus students at the Marriott Center into a late-night frenzy, inviting them to storm the court in an exercise he referred to as a practice for “winning a championship.”
After BYU squandered a big lead in a frustrating loss at archrival Utah in December, Pope was asked about the officiating. The Cougars went to the free-throw line 17 times compared to 31 times for the Utes.
“I thought the officials were amazing. That’s probably the best crew that’s ever stepped foot on the planet,” Pope said, his words dripping with sarcasm. “And, I’ll tell you this — a really brave and courageous crew. That crew, I would take them every single game. They’re amazing.”
During his coach’s show on BYUtv, he playfully chided one of his daughters sitting in the studio audience because he said she was sleeping. At practices, while the players are stretching, he likes to play catch with them — tossing around a Nerf football.
After that epic upset of Gonzaga, Pope invited BYU’s student section, the ROC, to a local dining establishment to celebrate. He ended up paying a bill that totaled nearly $2,000.
More than anything, Pope is all about building what he calls “the best locker room in America.” That means helping his players put personal agendas aside, embrace unity and play together.
“As cheesy and age-old as it sounds, it’s really a recipe for success. The teams that are going to win are the teams that make plays for each other,” Baxter said. “It’s not a one-man show. Everybody has to be involved and on the same page. I think we’ve got the basis for that to happen.
“It’s really his determination and his energy. He’s able to motivate guys and really get the most out of guys. He’s a fantastic coach that way. He’s able to get guys to buy in and play for each other. That’s what a coach needs to be able to do — to play together — and he does a great job of that.”
Before the NCAA Tournament was canceled, some pundits predicted a deep tournament run for BYU.
Playing in the Big Dance was something the Cougars pointed to all season. While they earned a bid, ultimately they didn’t have the opportunity to play in it. ESPN’s tournament simulation had the Cougars reaching the championship game.
“We’ve spent a lot of time being grateful for the insanely great moments that we got to experience together,” Pope said. “The cancellation of the tournament for us in our slice of the world was so devastating. There was certainly some grieving there.”
But Pope, who turns 48 next month, and his staff quickly transitioned to next season.
“We looked at what the next step was for guys that are graduating and for the guys that are returning,” he said. “Then it was all-out, all-hands-on-deck 24/7 recruiting, which we knew was vitally important.”
Despite the loss of some of the top players in school history from last year’s team due to graduation, BYU welcomes back a wealth of talent as well as key transfers.
“We’re hard at work. We have a massive job ahead of us, right? We finally have a finished roster,” Pope said. “For the first time, we’ve transitioned from full-time recruiting to really trying to dig into this roster and making the best guesses we can about how we can play and what we can do and where we’ll be solid. We have so much work to do right now, we don’t have time to be sad about what we were sad about (the tournament being canceled) when it happened.”
As Pope enters his second season as head coach, the Cougars are counting on more happy days, and magical moments, ahead.