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SALT LAKE CITY — During interviews shortly after becoming the new BYU basketball coach, Mark Pope emphasized the need to develop strong relationships to facilitate success in recruiting.
“The way we recruit is 100 percent personal,” he said. “It is relentlessly approaching anyone we can.”
With BYU, which hasn’t won a conference championship in eight years and doesn’t regularly put players in the NBA, recruiting success usually involves selling a vision that prospects must be willing to buy. Pope’s seemingly never-ending supply of exuberance and great interpersonal skills could pay huge dividends on the recruiting trail.
But in this situation, given the coach’s history, it will become more of a “do as I say” rather than “as I did.” Coming out of high school in the Seattle area, Pope chose to stay home to play college basketball at Washington and then two years later transferred to Kentucky, where he played on the 1996 national championship team for coach Rick Pitino.
The task now is to have success in getting players primarily from a Latter-day Saint recruiting pool to do what the coach bypassed almost 30 years ago. Pope’s coaching staff likely will include at least two Latter-day Saint assistants who also played college basketball elsewhere.
“The real deal is, can you make a personal connection with these young men where they’re willing to jump in and trust you,” Pope said during an interview with The Zone Sports Network, “and they want to embrace the approaches you have as a staff and a program?”
Pope’s college choices don’t suggest he’s doomed to struggle at BYU. His history, including playing in the NBA and multiple jobs as a college assistant before spending the last four years as the Utah Valley head coach, proves BYU was right to hire Pope.
Multiple basketball coaches, including Pope’s two predecessors Steve Cleveland and Dave Rose, led BYU to conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances without having played at the school. The legendary LaVell Edwards played at Utah State before later building a national football brand as the BYU coach.
More important than having played at BYU, Pope and his family have lived in the community for several years. Before taking over at UVU, he spent four years as an assistant to Rose at BYU.
His wife, the daughter of former Utah head coach and BYU assistant Lynn Archibald, attended BYU. It all adds up to Pope fully comprehending the lifestyle required of BYU students.
“This place is like nowhere else,” he said. “It’s such an honor and privilege to be the head basketball coach at BYU. There’s a standard of excellence on this campus and with this program.”
As most new coaches often do, Pope impressed the audience during his introductory press conference. He pledged his commitment to BYU, saying there was no place he’d rather win, and promised to exceed expectations in recruiting.
“People don’t even know half of his enthusiasm,” said former BYU defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, who played basketball for BYU when Pope was an assistant there. “He’s such an amazing person. The talent he’s going to bring to BYU is going to be incredible.”
Aside from the Honor Code and academic requirements, Pope will find recruiting at BYU different from UVU. In building the program over the last four years, he relied heavily on transfers, which was typical of the better teams in the Western Athletic Conference. BYU rosters are mostly comprised of four-year players who interrupt their college careers by serving church missions.
While the cupboard is not barren, Pope does face a moderate rebuilding job. BYU has not qualified for the NCAA tournament in four years, the longest streak since Cleveland inherited a 1-25 program in 1997 and failed to play in any postseason for the first time since 2005.
“I am incredibly confident that we will be able to put together rosters that will exceed expectations,” Pope said.