In just six short months, Mark Pope has gone from preparing his Utah Valley team to play BYU’s Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws to coaching those same players in the Marriott Center Annex.
“What’s most often the case is the guys you hate the most playing against, those are the guys you’ll love the most,” Pope said. “That’s pretty much been consistent for me.”
Pope took over the Cougar program just short of two months ago and his duties have ranged from hiring a new staff to recruiting and making speaking assignments. Probably the most important item on his to-do list, though, was getting to know his new players and sharing his vision with them.
“It started when we had our first series of individual meetings,” Pope said. “They were 30 minutes to an hour long, just meeting one-on-one. It’s talking to these guys and getting to know them, what they care about and how they think. And then just watching them on the court, what they can do right now, what is kind of at their fingertips that they can’t really do but is within their grasp. You get to know how they see themselves and how I see them. Sometimes those things are in harmony and there’s a lot of growth there.”
Winning the trust of experienced players such as Childs — who opted to come back for his senior year after exploring his professional options — Haws and Nick Emery has been on Pope’s mind from the start. The coaches only get a few hours a week to work individually with the players during the summer but those few hours are critical to building relationships.
“We have good energy,” Pope said. “I’m not approaching this team as a whole at all right now. Everything we do is individual work. With this trip to Italy we’re taking this summer, we can practice as a team at the very beginning of August. That makes for a long season so right now I’m just excited to have my hands on these guys and be on the court with them to work on individual skills, to help them understand individual skills we think are incredibly important that they may not have considered to be important.”
Meanwhile, Pope has been recruiting and recently attended a West Coast Conference coaches meeting.
“They were so happy because they were saying, ‘we know this dude can’t coach,’” Pope joked. “They’re going to get two easy wins. But honestly, I know these guys and they’ve been really generous to me over the years when I’ve been out recruiting. I think this is a big-time coach’s league. It’s one of the things that makes this league really unique. The WCC was the eighth-ranked league in a America last year. That’s incredible with the size of these schools and the budgets of these schools.”
Pope said while his roster is “probably pretty close” to being set, he also described it as “dynamic.”
“We’re still recruiting even for 2019 in different ways,” he said. “What’s interesting is these dynamic rosters, it’s an area that’s growing every summer. This roster will stay pretty dynamic through August, in all honesty. But I think the heart of the team is where it’s going to be.”
A strong group of seniors — Childs, Haws, Emery, UVU transfer Jake Toolson, Dalton Nixon and Zac Seljaas — has Pope and his staff optimistic for the 2019-20 season.
“Seniors have some extra things inside them,” Pope said. “They’re founded on the struggles that you go through over a four-year career, the ups and downs, the sideways and the all arounds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen seniors rise up and do spectacular things in really big moments.”