LAS VEGAS — NBA champion and hot NCAA coaching commodity Mark Madsen slept at home in Provo, Utah, on Monday night, 400 miles away from his Utah Valley University team on the eve of the school’s historic first trip to the NIT Final Four in Las Vegas.

Madsen’s wife, Hannah, is pregnant. The child, like their first three, is overdue. Every Madsen baby has arrived during the night, so they have a deal.

“After her due date, I’m not going to be gone nights, to the best that I can,” Madsen said two hours before UVU played the biggest game in school history against the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Swirling over everything was a report Sunday in the San Francisco Chronicle that Cal had offered Madsen its head coaching job — a Power 5 conference position that would pay about five times what UVU can offer.

“Mark has been a wanted man ever since he stepped foot on our campus, and even before,” UVU athletic director Jared Sumsion said.

So Madsen woke up a couple of hours before dawn Tuesday preparing to play for a spot in the 85th NIT championship game, welcome a new child and make a major decision about his coaching career.

At the end of the night, one of those dramas resolved. After a landmark season with a school-record 28 wins, UVU’s NIT dream ended in a thrilling 88-86 overtime loss.

“We made one more play than they did,” UAB coach Andy Kennedy said.

Now the basketball-mad members of the 43,000 students at Utah’s largest school will hold their collective breath to see if Madsen is headed to Berkeley, California.

Utah Valley center Aziz Bandaogo blocks a shot by UAB’s Javian Davis during an NIT semifinal game at on March 28, 2023.
Utah Valley center Aziz Bandaogo, one of the nation’s top shot blockers on the best shot-blocking team in NCAA Division I basketball, swats away a shot by UAB’s Javian Davis during an NIT semifinal game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on March 28, 2023. | August Miller, UVU

A man who as a player helped lead Stanford to the NCAA Final Four and won two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and has maintained his devotion to his wife, family and Latter-day Saint faith, offered no clues about what he would do.

“The entire focus is on one thing, the NIT with Utah Valley,” he said outside the locker room before the game. “That’s the entire focus of this week. That’s what I’ve told the players. That’s what I told the coaching staff.”

He offered nothing more after the game, but one thing was certain. He has been everything UVU ever wanted.

“We got a great deal hiring Mark Madsen,” said university president Astrid Tuminez, who was an NIT viral sensation herself last week for the way she cheered for the team with green and silver pompoms from stands.

The story of how Madsen left the Los Angeles Lakers for UVU goes back farther than most people know. You have to go even farther back to grasp the story of how far he has lifted a proud basketball program in four short years.

The backstory

Tuminez said the departure of the school’s previous coach, Mark Pope, for BYU cast a “pall of gloom” over the 2019 student-athlete dinner.

“As a mid-major basketball program, the greatest form of flattery is when people come after your coach,” said Val Peterson, vice president of administration and strategic relations.

The good news was that the process that led to Pope in 2015 also identified Madsen, a Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach, as his potential successor. During that 2015 round of hiring, a UVU team flew to Los Angeles and, with the Lakers’ permission, interviewed Madsen.

“At the end of the interview Mark said, ‘I’m your coach, unless you’re going to hire Mark Pope,” Peterson said.

So when Pope left for UVU’s next-door neighbor, UVU interim athletic director Jared Sumsion’s first phone call was to Madsen’s father to get his son’s phone number.

“Then I called Mark and the first thing he said was he definitely had interest in the job but needed me to get permission from the Lakers to talk to him,” Sumsion said.

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The Lakers wanted to keep him but cleared the way for Madsen to visit UVU the next day.

Sumsion checked Madsen’s references, calling NBA executives and his former teammates at Stanford and the Lakers.

“I couldn’t find anybody to say anything negative about him,” Sumsion said.

“It was an easy call to hire Mark Madsen,” he said. “He’s proved us right. He’s done everything we’ve wanted him to do.”

“I think it was a terrific hire,” Tuminez said. “I’m proud of that hire.”

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Lifting UVU to a national spotlight

Exactly 20 years ago, UVU was playing its final season as a junior college program.

A few years earlier, Peterson was a voice in the room when UVU administrators decided to pursue Division I status.

“This game is the culmination of that vision,” he said. “When (then-UVU president) Kerry Romesburg and the cabinet all sat down and talked about whether we should go Division I or Division II, this is what we were thinking about, the day that you’re playing in the Final Four of the NIT, the day when people around the nation are watching and learning about UVU athletics.”

The school has a proud basketball tradition. The two coaches before Pope are responsible for conference championship banners. But playing on national television on ESPN and ESPN2 is a new, arresting sensation.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have Mark continue to build on a strong foundation, but he’s gotten us to the next level,” Sumsion said.

Peterson became emotional talking about it.

Players from Utah Valley University and UAB scramble for a loose ball during an NIT semifinal game on March 28, 2023.
Players from Utah Valley University and UAB scramble for a loose ball during an NIT semifinal game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 28, 2023. | August Miller, UVU

“We’ll do everything we can to keep him, because we love Mark Madsen and he’s been awesome as a coach, but he’s going to have to make that decision,” Peterson said during a “tailgate” dinner for hundreds of UVU boosters and fans in Orleans Arena before the game.

“No matter what he does,” Peterson added, his voice breaking, “we just want to tell him, ‘Thank you,’ for what he’s done.”

One associate athletic director called the NIT run a landmark for the program. A senior administrator spoke to boosters before the game about the power of sports as a front porch to the university.

UVU has been punching beyond its weight, hosting conferences of international importance. Last June, it hosted a China Challenge Summit that attracted international media, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, former ambassador to China and Russia Jon Huntsman Jr., and a host of other China experts. 

Monday, in the midst of the NIT euphoria, it was site of a diplomatic conference titled, “Ukraine: One year later …” But the national TV exposure was due to the basketball success.

“Utah Valley’s on the map on the national scene,” Sumsion said. “It doesn’t surprise me that everyone else wants to hire Mark Madsen,” he said.

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Will he stay or will he go?

Madsen makes a base salary between $225,000 and $250,000 that with bonuses can approach $300,000, according to a source with knowledge of the contract. Cal’s last coach made $1.6 million a year.

It’s not an easy decision. The Cal program is in tatters. Cal teams have won more than nine games just twice in the past five seasons, for a total record of 54-134. And the outgoing coach, Mark Fox, who was fired with years remaining on his contract in part because the team finished 3-29 this year, also was a success in the Western Athletic Conference.

Fox won six WAC titles, four more than Madsen, but couldn’t replicate it in the Pac-12.

Mid-major UVU drew more fans this year than Cal, too, which managed just 2,155 per game, and Cal is one of only a few major conference programs without a dedicated practice facility.

But Madsen’s own college coach, Mike Montgomery, who led Stanford to the NCAA Final Four with Madsen as a player, took Cal to the NCAA tournament four times from 2009-13.

Madsen said he deals with the stresses of fatherhood, coaching and making major decisions through exercise and faith.

“Faith plays an absolutely huge role, because you realize what’s truly important in life,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, it is hugely important to do your best in every scenario of life, whether that’s athletics or whether it’s a test. But there are many things much, much more important than basketball.”

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He studies scripture with Hannah every day, even if it’s only a few verses.

Tuesday UAB punched UVU in the mouth early, taking leads of 8-0 and 20-10. But UVU doggedly fought back over and over again and finally tied the game for the first time at 70 with three minutes left. The Wolverines took their first lead in the opening seconds of overtime, but again fell behind.

One last comeback fell just short.

Madsen regularly credits his players with any successes, Tuminez said. “Players make programs,” he has said on Twitter multiple times.

After the game, he did it again.

“This team has great players, players that work, and they just completed the best basketball season in UVU school history,” Madsen said. “I want to celebrate these players and the job that they’ve done. We fell a little bit short tonight, but the fight, the energy and the enthusiasm out there was incredible.”