It was late on a Tuesday night in 1990, and Richard Belcher, then head coach at Newport High in Bellevue, Washington, was heading to the parking lot, ready to return home after a game. 

Before starting his car, Belcher noticed lights in one of the school gyms shining. Thinking someone had left the lights on, he headed back to the gym to turn them off. 

When Belcher walked into the gym, he saw one of his star players, Mark Pope, practicing his free throw shooting — at 11 p.m.

“We had school the next morning,” Belcher recalled. “Mark was taking AP courses — he had quite a schedule. Academics was No. 1 for Mark.”

Pope had made 3 of 5 free throws in the game and Belcher had discussed his free throw shooting afterward. 

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“He would take the ball almost down to his waist and bring it all the way up,” Belcher said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to correct this in the summer.’ Too much wasted motion.”

But Pope didn’t wait until summer. He started right there, right then, in an otherwise empty gym. 

“Most kids at that stage would be eager to go home, wake up and read about themselves in the papers,” Belcher said. “Mark went into the gym immediately to correct the free throw situation. By Friday night, it was corrected. That’s incredible. Mark was extremely dedicated, as he is as a coach.”

Today, more than 30 years later, Pope is in his second season at the helm of the BYU basketball program. Belcher offers plenty of insights about Pope’s background that sheds light on his work ethic, relentless passion for the game, and his ability to squeeze the most out of his teams. 

“He is a person who truly cares about his players as much off the court as he does on,” Belcher says. “I think that’s very important. Some coaches talk a good game. But he’s very sincere about it.”

‘Truly a team player’

Belcher first met Pope when he was a sixth grader. In ninth grade, the hatrack-thin Pope ran cross-country.

“At the time he was 6-foot-7 and probably weighed 90 pounds,” Belcher recalls. “Mark was being recruited by the top universities — Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina — he’d be running the track getting ready for cross-country and coaches, like Rick Majerus from Utah and Rick Pitino from Kentucky, would come out to watch him run.” 

Pope was a catalyst in helping Newport High transform from a struggling program with a losing record every year to one of the best teams in the state. Newport won just one game the year before Pope arrived at the school.

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“By my junior year, we were the top-ranked team in the state,” says Pope, who set a number of school records at Newport. “We had a home game against one of the perennial powers in the state. We had been growing some juice in our gym. We walked onto the court and it was sold-out, with fire marshal issues, where you couldn’t step out of bounds.

“That was a special moment and the next year and a half was special. Getting to be part of that transformation, that growth, was so inspiring. I’ll never forget that day.”

As Pope helped lead Newport to the state playoffs, he was a star but didn’t act like one. 

“It was incredible how he would play and yet never take the credit,” Belcher recalls. “It was always about his teammates. I mean that sincerely. Mark was truly a team player, even though he was one of the best players in the state. He did not like any attention his way.”

‘Oh, Mr. Slug’

Even back in high school, Pope wasn’t afraid to demonstrate his goofy side. 

Belcher’s son, who was 4 at the time, just learned a short song called “Oh, Mr. Slug.” 

“It took maybe 20 seconds to sing it,” Belcher says. “Mark would sing it right with him.”

When team traveled to Honolulu for a tournament during Pope’s senior year, he had everyone on the team bus roll down the windows and they loudly sang “Oh, Mr. Slug” on the way to a game against a team from Georgia. 

BYU basketball coach Mark Pope, left, poses for a photo with his high school coach, Richard Belcher. | Richard Belcher

“He led the entire team in singing,” Belcher remembers. “I always made a deal with the players — if you qualify for state, you can do anything publicly to embarrass me. One year they shaved my head. One year they put a stud earring in my lobe. The deal was, if they made the state playoffs, they would go on stage in the spring during the school talent show and sing ‘Oh, Mr. Slug’ in front of the school. This was all led by Mark.”

Loyalty and frugality

While Pope was heavily recruited during his high school days, he chose to stay home and attend the University of Washington and play for coach Lynn Nance. 

“Talk about Mark’s character — he was recruited by all the big schools around the country,” Belcher says. “But he wanted to turn the University of Washington program around. He wanted to be a part of that. He went to Washington with a few other Seattle-area players.”

“Washington was struggling at the time and we thought we could resurrect it,” Pope recalls.

Pope was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 1992. But overall, the Huskies struggled and the school ended up firing Nance. 

“That hurt Mark so much that the loyalty from the university wasn’t there,” Belcher says. “The university was disloyal to someone to whom he was loyal to. He said, ‘I’m out of here.’”

Pope transferred to Kentucky, where, as a senior, he won a national championship. 

Kentucky center Mark Pope (41) goes to the basket over North Carolina’s Rasheed Wallace (30) during the NCAA Southeast Regional championship on Saturday, March 25, 1995, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham, Ala. | Dave Martin, Associated Press

Not long after capturing that 1996 title, Pope and other seniors on that team, like Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, toured the commonwealth of Kentucky to celebrate and connect with Big Blue Nation.

“They’re in a mall, giving autographs,” Belcher says. “A sporting goods store had his uniform hanging in the window. He talked to the manager, who tells him, ‘Yours is the only uniform that hasn’t sold yet.’ He just laughed about it.”

Pope was drafted in the second round in the 1996 NBA draft and he put together a seven-year career in the league, playing for coaches like George Karl and Larry Bird. 

“You think about George Karl and Larry Bird and the people who had influences on him, he has no enemies,” Belcher says. “He’s learned from each coach and each situation.”

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Belcher says Pope was extremely frugal as an NBA player. 

“He had cardboard boxes in his apartment to put his lamps on. And he was making more money than you and I will ever make,” Belcher recalls. “He would take the food on the buffet at the end of the game and he would pack it up and save his meal money to spend it elsewhere.”

‘He could coach someday’

It took a while for Pope to see himself as a coach — he attended medical school and was poised to become a doctor after his playing career — but Belcher caught glimpses of Pope’s potential as a coach when Pope was in high school. 

“I saw it during his senior year,” Belcher says. “Watching him emerge as a senior leader, I thought, ‘He could coach someday.’” 

When Pope was an assistant under Dave Rose at BYU, Pope and Belcher would talk about the coaching profession and coaching philosophies and what it takes to be a head coach.

“Mark came to Bellevue on a recruiting trip and we went out to  breakfast,” Belcher said. “I told him he had the personality and mental makeup to prepare a team on and off the court. But there’s a big difference in 12 inches. He looked at me like, ‘Huh?’ I said, from where an assistant sits on the bench and where the head coach sits, there’s a big difference in those 12 inches.’ Seventy percent of what you do is off the court. I told him that’s the part you have to be prepared for.”

BYU’s new men’s basketball coach Mark Pope looks at his family before taking a seat at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Not long after that conversation, Pope was hired as the head coach at Utah Valley University, where he spent four seasons. 

“I told him, ‘You’re not coach Rose. You’re not coach Belcher. You have to be Mark Pope. It’s fine to learn from other people, but you have to do it your way,’” Belcher said. “I knew he was capable of doing that. It’s such a pleasure for me to see Mark be Mark, not somebody else.”

Last year, in Pope’s first season as BYU’s head coach, Pope invited Belcher as his special guest when the Cougars played at the University of Portland. 

“I felt like I was Doc Rivers. I was treated so well. He asked me to speak to the team. His kids played really well,” Belcher said. “After the game, he does his radio interview. He puts the headphones on me and he was asking me questions.” 

During the game, Belcher paid keen attention to Pope’s demeanor and style as a coach. 

“Watching Mark, seeing his product, I felt that they were peaking at the right time last year,” Belcher said. “He had them playing as well as they had all year at the right time. When you get shooters like that, more times than not, they’re selfish. But to watch these kids pass the ball was incredible.

“That’s because of Mark. He sets that stage for them. To watch him coach is such a pleasure. Some coaches yell at their players and are mad all the time. During the course of a game, he supports his players, pats them on the back. That’s not for show. That’s who he is. That’s why they love playing for him.”

Belcher recalled legendary coach Bobby Knight doing a clinic that Belcher attended years ago. Someone asked Knight if, as a coach, he’d rather be liked or respected. Knight responded that he doesn’t care if they like him. He wanted respect.

“I disagree with that. There’s enough enemies out there with the opposing fans and the referees. I don’t want the kids to look at me and think I’m their enemy, too,” Belcher said. “I want them to think, ‘That’s my buddy.’ That’s exactly how Mark does this. In practice, you need to get on somebody. But I’ve never seen Mark put doubt in a shooter.

“He gets the idea of being their friend and their coach. There aren’t many guys that can say that. I’m extremely proud of Mark because of the way he does things. It’s been a pleasure for me to know that I had a little bit of an influence on that.”

Belcher has witnessed Pope’s development as a player and a coach spanning decades. In his mind, Belcher knows Pope is where he’s supposed to be, doing what he’s supposed to be doing. 

“BYU,” Belcher said, “is very fortunate to have him.”