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SALT LAKE CITY — Two relative unknowns, each without the experience thought necessary to indicate any future success, joined forces 22 years ago to resurrect a once-proud basketball program.
And now both of them are gone, but not before leaving a lasting imprint on the lives of dozens of college basketball players and thousands of supporters. For the first time since 1997, neither Steve Cleveland nor Dave Rose will coach BYU men’s basketball.
In somewhat peculiar timing, Rose is quitting only 24 wins away from becoming BYU’s all-time winningest coach. Stan Watts, who coached at BYU from 1949-72, is first with 371 wins.
Surely, with two years left on his contract, Rose would have eclipsed Watts’ win total. It’s also worth noting he received a contract extension last year.
“They’re just numbers on a page,” Rose said of the win totals.
Considered together, the two coaches led the Cougars to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, six regular-season conference championships and one conference tournament championship. Not bad for two former junior college coaches who were hired at BYU despite never having coached at the Division I level.
After BYU plunged to the depths of despair by going 1-25 during the 1996-97 season, the administration went with the stunning decision to pluck Cleveland out of the junior college ranks from his hometown of Fresno, California. Instead of hiring an experienced Division I coach to help him, Cleveland brought in Rose from the then two-year Dixie College in St. George.
Even more stunning, they made it work. Within three years of enduring one of the worst seasons in college basketball history, the combination of Cleveland and Rose got the Cougars back in the NCAA Tournament.
When Cleveland left BYU to take over at Fresno State in 2005, it was only natural that Rose would slide over a few feet to his left. And now with a tinge of sadness, it all ended this week when Rose announced his retirement from BYU at age 61.
“We had a lot of fun,” said Rose, reflecting on his 14 years as the head coach.
While the heavy lifting occurred during Cleveland’s regime, Rose elevated the program to a higher level. He led BYU to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, five NIT bids, four conference titles and reached at least 20 wins in 13 seasons. He leaves as the program’s all-time leader in winning percentage at 72 percent.
During the preseason media day last fall, Rose spoke of his desire to continue coaching. He reiterated the sentiment as recently as last month.
But all that is now history.
The fact is, the program has slumped in recent seasons, culminating in an embarrassing defeat to San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament this month and not making either the NCAA or NIT tournaments for the first time in the Rose era. BYU has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2015.
A growing dissatisfaction among the fan base, reflected in sagging attendance for games at the Marriott Center, likely played a factor in Rose’s decision. This isn’t to suggest Rose was fired or pushed out, but rather it was in his best interest to leave now before a departure turned messy.
Without question, Rose leaves BYU as a coaching legend. But the new coach will inherit a program that has been badly damaged by the decision to leave the Mountain West for the WCC to facilitate the football program’s move to independence.
For those interested in replacement candidates, the guess here is the job will go to either Utah Valley head coach Mark Pope or Philadelphia 76ers assistant Kevin Young. Pope, who was an assistant at BYU under Rose and played in the NBA, is drawing interest from multiple programs.
Assuming Pope stays interested in the job, the decision could come down to a battle of influential boosters. Pope and Young both have big names surrounding the program championing their causes to replace Rose.
“I'm probably biased, Mark is my guy,” former BYU star Travis Hansen said during an interview with The Zone Sports Network. “I think it would be really smart for BYU to lock him in.”