Mark Pope eased his 6-foot-10-inch frame into a chair on the patio of the Marriott Center Annex, faced reporters and answered questions for about 50 minutes on Thursday.
It was probably the most Pope has sat still in the five weeks since he was introduced as the new BYU men’s basketball coach.
Pope was as candid as he could be in the session but still somewhat reserved, a by-product of moving four miles south from Utah Valley University to BYU. He’s still trying to be sensitive to the feeling of current and former players, coaches and administrators on both sides of University Parkway.
“Every day I feel really blessed to be here,” Pope said. “We have the sense of this monumental task in front of us in so many different ways. At times it’s so fantastically exhilarating, and really humbling, too.”
Pope discussed a variety of topics with reporters from Yoeli Childs to recruiting in Africa to scheduling to filling out his roster to this summer’s team trip to Italy.
Childs, BYU’s leading scorer from the 2018-19 season, declared in March he was leaving school, hiring an agent and making himself available for the NBA Draft. Obviously, Pope has communicated with Childs about the possibility, however slim, that he would return to BYU for his senior year.
“Yoeli is a really special player,” Pope said. “He’s really excited about seeing what he’s going to do in the future. He’s got until May 29 to make up his mind. He’s been really straightforward with me since the first day I took this job that he’s committed to pursuing this and figuring it out. He really wants to have a professional career that’s meaningful. I’m excited for him to go through this process and see where it takes him.”
In other words, Yoeli Childs is gone.
“This is really hard,” Pope said. “It’s a huge gift for these young people to be able to play out their college and professional aspirations in front of the whole world. There’s this interesting part where you’re really trying to make important decisions for your life and it matters to a lot of people.”
Pope and his staff have worked hard to recruit in a short amount of time, including a trip to West Africa to meet the family of 6-10 Wasatch Academy standout Mady Sissoko.
“Two weeks ago we traveled 27 hours for a 90-minute home visit and 27 hours back,” Pope said, adding that they also needed two translators for the trip. “With recruiting, you just kind of know when you know. 99.5 percent – no, wrong, 99.9 percent — of recruiting is a waste of time.
“With offensive rebounding, you’re interested in the guy that goes to the glass on every single possession. Recruiting is like that. It’s every second of every day, relentlessly chasing it down and doing whatever it takes – legally. If you recruit long enough and relentlessly enough you’re going to end up with guys that will help you win.”
Pope said assistant coach Cody Fueger would head up scheduling efforts, though much of BYU’s 2019-20 schedule was completed by the previous staff. The Cougars will participate in the Maui Invitational, which includes Kansas, UCLA, Georgia, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Chaminade and Dayton. BYU travels to play Houston and will host San Diego State and Nevada next season.
Pope said he would be willing to facilitate some “two for one” contracts with Power 5 teams in order to get good programs into the Marriott Center.
“You know I’m a sucker for bluebloods,” Pope said. “I’ll try and get there here. I’m not sure how impossible that is, but I’m dumb enough to try it.”
UVU and BYU are working on a long-term contract with Pope humorously adding that “some guys over there are in a hot sweat about wanting to stick it to me. Communication is kind of shut down right now because that’s the rules and it’s appropriate, but there are messages coming through that they are coming for me.”
Pope and his staff have been busy trying to get the roster together but he said between the transfer portal and NBA Draft rules, things could be pretty dynamic most of the summer. BYU currently has 12 of its 13 scholarships accounted for by five seniors (T.J. Haws, Nick Emery, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon and grad transfer Jake Toolson), four sophomores (Gavin Baxter, Connor Harding, Kolby Lee and Gonzaga transfer Jesse Wade), returned missionary Trevin Knell and two UVU transfers in Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell, who will sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA rules.
“We’ve had a lot of success with broadening our roster beyond the 13 and not talking about who’s on scholarship and who isn’t,” Pope said. “It’s been a good sell for us. I’ll let you guys figure out the numbers.”
Every four years a college basketball program is allowed to travel and play games overseas. This summer’s trip to Italy is perfectly timed for Pope, his staff and his players to build relationships and team chemistry.
“I’m so excited for the basketball opportunities and the non-basketball opportunities,” Pope said. “We’re trying to figure out if there’s a professor on campus that’s somewhere between “Angels and Demons” (the movie) and real Italian history. We start practice on August 1 and I think every third practice we’re going to have a dinner lecture. Any transfers we have are allowed to practice, go with us and compete in those games. We’re excited for the players to get to know my voice and my staff’s voices in competitive situations. It’s going to be a great trip for us.”
Since taking over the job, Pope said he and his current players get to work together about every other week.
“We’re not going to have this whole team together all summer until we get to the August practices,” Pope said. “Right now they’re doing individual skill work in small groups. We’ve introduced some of the foundational bedrock things we believe in but we want to make them feel like they’re working on their own games for now.”
Long term, Pope has big goals for the program.
“I think we can do everything here you want to do in basketball, I really do,” he said. “I’m just dumb enough to think we can accomplish everything you dream about accomplishing in basketball. I’m not naïve about how impossible that is, but I just feel like we have the resources and we have some strengths that are unique to BYU. We have the care and we have all those ingredients to legitimately put us in the position to get everything done I think we can.
“We’re going to win. That’s what we do. We’re going to win or I get fired. These seniors deserve to win. That’s our job, to come in here and win.”
Pope joked that BYU Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe and Deputy Athletic Director Brian Santiago gave him three months to win a national championship.
“You always have your heart solely focused on winning the games in front of you and you always have your mind placed on growing your program,” Pope said. “Those two things are always functioning together and at odds with each other. Successful coaches are the ones where their hearts win out. You want to find a way to win and win now, and more than people think you can win. This is a deadly serious basketball program and we are here to win. That’s our goal and that’s what’s on our minds.”